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Time is Running Out for the Tamil National Alliance and Its “Rajaguru” Rajavarothayam Sampanthan!


N. Sathiya Moorthy

For starters, the TNA cannot ask the majority Sinhala-Buddhist polity to unite in the Tamils’ cause for political equality and equity as the case may be, and not unite all Tamil polity and society from within. Reports that Karuna was to join the truncated TULF under Anandasangaree should not be a concern for the TNA leadership to waste even a reaction in terms of ‘competitive Tamil politics’ just now. Or, in carrying the rest of the Sri Lankan Tamil political leadership outside of the TNA, for which the party made an unsure and equally unconvincing attempt not long after the war ended.

Symbolism of every kind makes a mark in politics and elections, and this one is no different.Now that no major elections are round the corner and ‘la affaire UNHRC’ too is on slow mode, it’s time the Tamil socio-political leadership sat down and assessed their role, relevance and responsibilities in the years and decades to come. The phase of national and regional/Tamil politics within the country at the inevitable end of the voter’s honeymoon with the current Government leadership of President Maithri Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the coming weeks and months would indicate a similar end in the case of the moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA) with their people, too and the latter especially cannot afford to relax now and repent later, as they had done in the past, pre-war and post-war, too.

There are the likes of Karuna who have been named even in the Report of the Government-appointed LLRC. The relationship too has gone too far, for the TNA to retrace its steps, without losing its relevance and credibility. At least the risk is not worth it. More importantly, it could land the party in a greater mess at leadership level and the second-rung, too, than already. But all is not honky dory in the party, and their reservations to accommodating one-time ‘traitors’ smacks of a past that the TNA leadership wants to live with and live in.

Therein is the inherent TNA irony. Who are the ones that are opposed to ‘traitors’ being admitted into the fold? They are mostly the ones who had taken up arms alongside and against the LTTE in their time, and made peace with the LTTE. Better or worse still, they had killed Tamils, innocent and others, until the LTTE’s superior fire-power silenced them into falling in line. That the others allegedly continued to do so for a longer period is what allows them to take a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. They do not want to be outsmarted in their tested department by those that could live with and against the LTTE for a longer period. This time, it is from within, both wearing the political attire that is still an ill-fit of different shapes and sizes in different people. They are small and divided as groups, yet they are also the Tamil headline-grabbers than those doing more serious and sincere work.

But the larger message is for the moderate sections within the TNA. As and when the question of ‘greater unity’ of the Tamil polity arises again, they would end up being seen as giving into hard-liners from within the party one hand and outside the country. The former would confuse the majority Sinhala community the latter could constrict the Sinhala-majority Government and the Sri Lankan State apparatus, as during the war years.

Nowhere else is this contradiction visible better or, worse today than the TNA politics of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC). Maybe because of the inherent inability imposed from the LTTE days, the multi-party leadership has not been able to provide a greater and faster mechanism for two-way communication that is seen as serious and credible by various interlocutors. In political and diplomatic terms, this means that the interlocutors would be satisfied with a certain consistency in the mass-identification of a popular leadership particularly one that has proved its electoral superiority in non-war situations. But internal credibility and continuity goes beyond it all. It also means that a political leadership cannot afford to create, feed and fuel dissidence, old and/or new. Instead, it should keep the inevitable periphery to the minimum and not allow the tail to wag the dog.

In TNA’s R Sampanthan, the Tamils have one and possibly, the only unifying force, both within the party and outside, too. An ‘eastern’ Tamil leader wholly acceptable to the Jaffna-dominated ‘northern’ Tamil politics, he has also led the transition of the party from the LTTE’s days to the post-war period, and now onto the post-polls Sri Lanka, where the Tamils believe to have greater freedom to breathe easy. In the post-war period, he has taken time and effort to put together a top-level team of youth and experience, knowledge and skills. Where the Tamil voter discarded some, whether from within or outside, he could not be blamed for it. Rather, his predictive methods have pre-empted the party’s predilection for prescriptive politics of the previous kind. Over the past years, he has mostly been proved right, and from grassroots-level upwards.

As someone who became the ‘king-maker’ rather than the ‘king’ when the opportunity presented itself for an elected Tamil Chief Minister in the North, the octogenarian Sampanthan also did not lose much time in handing over the reins of TNA’s ‘majority’ ITAK constituent to the one favoured by the grassroots.

With abundant self-confidence, which is an extremely rare commodity in the nation’s politics and that of the Tamil community, too, Sampanthan could persuade the respected Justice C V Wigneswaran out of semi-retirement and religious work into active politics and public administration, as Northern Province Chief Minister. By handing over ITAK leadership to Maavai Senathiraja, he shut down criticism that one-time militants were not welcome in TNA’s decision-making apparatus in the post-war era.

In 51-year-old parliamentarian, M A Sumanthiran, the TNA now has a young leader identified and promoted in the post-war period, to ensure that it’s only for war veterans with particular motives and methods, and not for those that respected catholicity of values and processes. As TNA’s international spokesperson and interlocutor, he can speak without getting stuck in the past, or without having to go on the defensive, eternally.

Yet, clearly there is a lack of coordination within the TNA leadership, and even within the ITAK leader of the TNA. Despite the presence of legal brains and luminaries, there are fewer constitutional resources that the TNA could draw upon, when push comes to shove and they are forced to consider and reconsider, view and review the party’s position on particular issues and political negotiations.

There are too many responsibilities and too few heads to shoulder them at the highest level. The party has thus far failed to broad-base the inherited apparatus, to be able to breathe a larger whiff of fresh air and across the board, so that future and futuristic negotiations are conducted through an institutional mechanism with equal integrity and greater credibility.

For, aspects of the political negotiations that may involve long drawn-out processes would require any future-generation leadership, the like of which the TNA now possesses ensuring continuity with inevitable change. A fair deal for the Tamils on electoral reforms should not only involve a change of the current PR scheme, as is being argued, but also a freeze on the number of electoral constituencies for over the medium term.

The Tamils have already lost what they have had in August. They could lose more if the issue is not addressed with a futuristic mindset. Then, there is the question of Upcountry Tamil representation, but that in turn also involves a Sri Lankan Tamil constituency that the TNA represents in the North, the East and the greater Colombo capital region, so to say.

Yet, there are departments where the TNA seems having to do more, where it seemingly needs to do more. Constitutional expertise and political negotiations would require not only in-depth knowledge and wider participation from within and outside, it would also require men and methodologies to take the message across, either way.

Suffice is to point out that after the aborted, 18-round talks with the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the TNA could not but go back to the Tamil society, and promise that no political decision on power-devolution would be taken without broader consultations. But political negotiations of such seriousness and sensitivity be in relation to the LTTE in the Sri Lankan ethnic context, or other ex-militant or moderate groups elsewhere could not be held in public just as they could not be concluded in a vacuum.

A balance would have to be struck. The civil society has to be made to understand that they too have to respect the faith that the larger Tamil population has reposed in the TNA and its leadership, both in terms of motives, goals and methods.

The fact that the TNA had competition in each one of these departments from within – the non-government Tamil polity from the war years, that is and every issue, options and methods were debated widely and in public and through the externally-linked social media would only imply that the Tamil voters prefer the TNA to be their collective negotiator.

In turn, the TNA too is an amalgam of Tamil political opinions and leaderships, and thus reflective of a majority mood in the larger Tamil society. If from within every party and leader had discussed and debated issues and allowed courses and decisions to be announced in public, either in clear-cut or not-so-clear-cut terms, then it is a common decision to which all of them remain wedded to, and thus adhere to, as well.

The Tamil polity in the weeks and even months prior to the August 17, parliamentary polls exposed what could evolve possibly into future fissures if left unattended to. Those fissures were reflective of a continuing combination of individualism and ideology that has marred and mired the Tamil politics since the days Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, became independent. Broadly put, there were clear-cut difference of opinion between the TNA’s parliamentary group on the one hand and the Provincial Council and political administration on the other.

The TNA is in a unique position just now. At the national-level, it’s the officially-recognised ‘Opposition Party’ in Parliament. At the provincial-level, the party has a massive majority in the NPC, with successive polls proving that the 2013 provincial council vote was neither an aberration, nor manufactured. It is the time that the party has to pull along together and in the same direction, and sharing the burden of the yoke, not drifting apart.

Such a course could only prove disastrous, not just for the community but for the nation as a whole. The Nation, including the Sinhalas and Muslims, not to leave out the Upcountry Tamils and Burghers, too would not forgive them, now and forever, if the TNA failed itself and failed them, as well, when there is only one way the nation can go, and that’s ‘forward’. Sampanthan, now as the Leader of the Opposition and the TNA’s raja-guru, or court-preceptor and more, has his job cut-out. Time is running out on him, too as the success or failure of any implementation of the UNHRC resolution on the one hand and of any political negotiations in the future would relate to how fast they commence and how much push his leadership is able to give the Maithri-Ranil leadership of the Government!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi)