The much-awaited Northern Provincial Council (NPC) polls have come and gone. Much was said, over-said and unsaid when the Province was on campaign-mode. It is thus time that the Government at the Centre and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) revived the relative congeniality and mutual comfort that had marked their forgotten post-war negotiations. The latter’s relevance has increased, not decreased, since.
Power-devolution and political solution have assumed more relevance. On ground, the TNA would feel the benefits of what is present and the pinch of what is absent. The Thirteenth Amendment may not be the best from the present perspective of both stake-holders. Yet, they have made it the reference point, nonetheless. In co-habitation, both will know as constitutional institutions, political parties and people(s) what hurts, where, why and how. That should be the beginning, not the end.
The beginning is now and here. Pre-poll and afterward the TNA had demanded the replacement of G A Chandrasiri, the ‘military’ Governor of Northern Province. The TNA had backed Sarath Fonseka, war-time Commander of Sri Lanka Army (SLA) for the presidency with the theoretical possibility of his winning the elections and running the nation for six years, if not more. Chandrasiri, in comparison, was a second-line officer. Like Fonseka then, Chandrasiri is now retired.
Independent of its demand, the TNA will have to work with the incumbent Governor, after all. The Constitution having conferred on the President the powers to appoint Governors to the Provinces, the party does not have a choice. If it wanted the current scheme too changed, again it would involve political negotiations leading to a constitutional amendment.
The TNA has to acknowledge that its PC members do not have politico-administrative experience. Their political guiding-stars at the national-level too have none. In actuality, it is training time for them all. Otherwise, it is probation time. They will have to satisfy their ultimate masters – their voters.
In the process, the TNA leaders and PC members should eschew the common practice of blaming the processes, policies and, in this case, the politics of ethnic issue and power-devolution for their failures. Turning policies into politics is easy. Making policies out of politics is a tougher task.
In this case, add the programmes part that should follow such policies, including implementation, the TNA would know it is on the learning-curve, still. They should learn from their mistakes. Better still, they should be prepared to learn from the same. The TNA had missed the occasion and opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others, fellow-Tamils before them and others, too.
Working with an incumbent Governor and an incumbent administrative system is a part of the transition process that the TNA is now in. Governor Chandrasiri may not have the kind of administrative experience that the TNA could do with in a Governor. They should not miss the larger picture.
The TNA should not convert their political discomfort with a ‘military’ Governor into practicable mistrust of the administrative machinery in the North. The steel-frame is there for support and sustenance. It is a permanent fixture, they can lean on, learn from, and benefit the people that they are sworn to benefit.
The TNA should acknowledge that through the war years, there existed next-to-nothing of a civilian administration in the North in particular. Where the LTTE was not ‘reigning’, the armed forces ‘ruled’. The army shot when asked to shoot. They built roads when asked to. They filled the gaps in the civilian administration after the war.
After these elections, the armed forces will have to hand over charge to the elected political leadership and their civil service subordinates. The army commanders and the ‘military’ Governor are a part of this transition process. Without their presence and contribution, there would not have been polls to conduct.
The transition will take time. It should be given that time. That could include the transition from a ‘military’ Governor to a civilian Governor. In between, the TNA can ask itself if a retired officer of the uniformed Services should not be named Governor only in a Tamil Province or in any Province at all. Or only retired politicians should become Governors.
Over the past four years, the Government has been coming out with periodic information on the number of soldiers withdrawn from the North. The TNA has seldom contested those figures. It is possible they do not have access to such information. If it however wanted, the party has had access to higher number of soldiers, whenever that’s the case. The TNA has a case that the armed forces should not interfere in the daily lives of the civilian population or local politics. The party is however reluctant to acknowledge – if not appreciate – whatever has been achieved.
The world over, democracies in which insurgencies have been replaced by elected regional/provincial agreement, militants are disarmed forthwith. Militaries had been retained for a longer time. In Sri Lanka, however, Government leaders have begun talking about the possible revival of Tamil militancy. They have done nothing to order the surrender of illegal weapons across the country. Periodic raids are good publicity, not good activity.
The TNA’s election manifesto and the campaign speeches of party leaders have triggered the anxieties of the Sri Lankan State – much as it has provided a political talking-point for self-styled ‘Sinhala nationalists’ and their brethren in the power-structure. The Northern Provincial Council polls have provided the TNA with the opportunity to learn and distinguish between constitutional responsibilities and political ideology.
In a ‘united Sri Lanka’ that the TNA has reiterated, political ideology, or competing ideologies, cannot substitute collective constitutional responsibilities. TNA leaders’ poll-time talk indicating a possible return to war may have been aimed only at their electoral constituency. But political constituencies in the country, including theirs, have interpretations to make, and inferences to reach.
The TNA’s current transition from a responsive political forum of the Tamil community, including the distant Diaspora, to a responsible politico-administrative entity would be watched with as much interest as concern. It could – and should – make the difference between an early transition from a relatively high military presence and a ‘military’ Governor to a lesser presence and a civilian Governor. If the concern alone were to remain, then the intended transition could have other meanings and consequences.
On the ground, the army can take credit for removing lethal land-mines from the war days. It cannot now implant in their place – not just allow such implants – political land-mines that could explode on face of the nation all over again.
The post-poll scenario in the North in particular has now provided with forums, occasions and opportunities for interactive consultative processes. It should facilitate reconciliation that goes beyond a political solution. The rest of them can wait – or, should wait, maybe.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation)