Angajan Ramanathan’s victory in the August 5 parliamentary polls is historic, firstly because he secured the most preferential votes in the Jaffna electoral district, pushing Tamil nationalist candidates behind, and secondly, for being the only first-time MP in the country elected with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the one-time grand old party now in decline.
“I think people in the north have accepted me as a moderate politician, recognising the work I have done in the recent past and my future plans to develop the region,” Mr. Ramanathan said.
“They didn’t give importance to the national party they were voting for [the SLFP] but to the individual.”
He stressed that he had received a clear mandate for his progressive politics and for development of the region, which has seen little infrastructure boom in the post-war period.
Mr. Ramanathan’s victory was no doubt buoyed through a heavy wallet for political advertising on social media, a potent aid to building a public profile given the strict limitations on public rallies imposed this year. He was one of the 10 biggest-spending candidates on Facebook, topping $10,000 in his blitz.
His campaign rode on a private media network owned by his family, consisting of a radio and local cable television channel based in the north.
A qualified computer engineer by profession, Mr. Ramanathan returned to Jaffna from Australia in 2010, soon after the war was brought to an end, to assist his father’s business ventures. Later, he was appointed SLFP organiser for Jaffna by the then president, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
In 2013, he became the first person to be elected to the Northern Provincial Council on an SLFP ticket. He resigned as councillor to contest the parliamentary polls in 2015, only to lose by some 2,000 votes.
He was then placed on the national list of the United People’s Freedom Front (UPFA) alliance, which includes the SLFP, by the former president, Maithripala Sirisena.
Mr. Ramanathan said the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had failed to resolve the north’s immediate problems caused by the separatist war, rather focusing on amendments to the Constitution to win favour with consituents.
The new MP said he wanted to fulfill immediate needs first while ensuring the political rights of Tamils were recognised and respected.
“I would like to fill that development gap in the region caused over the years by nationalistic politics rather than securing a document in writing. These two processes can go simultaneously,” he said.
Mr. Ramanathan said people in the north felt they had been left behind in the post-war development boom. Housing, jobs, livelihood, economic development and education were critical issues. Urgent government assistance was needed to fix shortfalls and promote a sense of inclusiveness as one nation.
“As a Tamil from Jaffna I’ve also got Tamil nationalist sentiments in me but I know what is possible and what is not,” Mr. Ramanathan said.
“We have to work with national parties in order to fulfill the aspirations of the people. You can’t work as a regional party, engaged in oppositional politics, keeping people’s lives in difficulty.” He charged this had been a factor in Tamil politics for the past 70 years, since Independence.
The longstanding ethnic question in the country, Mr. Ramanathan said, should be resolved through constitutional amendments but along with other relief for the north. “Filling the development gap in the region would be a solution in the short term,” he said.
“I don’t mind which solutions come first. Whichever solutions come first, I’ll take them and give them to people. I’m ready for that.
“What the Tamil nationalist parties are talking about is, they want solutions in writing first, and until then, let the people suffer. I don’t think that is going to work because people have suffered enough already.”
Mr. Ramanathan’s win marks the first victory for the SLFP at a national election in the Jaffna electorate. Mr. Ramanathan emerged with the highest number of votes in the Uduppiddy electorate, where caste-based politics plays a major role. That was the only electorate he won outright, relying on preferential votes for his overall victory. He denies that caste-based votes played a major role in his win.
Tamil nationalist parties have been severely criticised for taking advantage of social issues for electoral gain, fielding an individual from the Tamil community simply to hold votes.
In the 1977 general elections, the then Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) candidate, T. Rasalingam, won the Udupiddy seat but left parliament in 1983, as the TULF boycotted parliamentary sessions as a mark of opposition to the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited calling for a separate state within the country.
Mr. Ramanathan accused the TNA of cleverly manipulating the Tamil community for electoral gain. “The TNA never genuinely wanted to field candidates for the benefit of electorates: it has been fielding people representing the community for the sole purpose of securing those votes as a whole to the party,” he said.
In the Uduppiddy electorate, the SLFP won the highest number of votes (6,214) while the TNA received only 3,868 votes. Other Tamil nationalist parties such as the Tamil Makkal Thesia Kootani (TMTK), led by the former chief minister of the North Province, C.V. Wigneswaran, obtained 4,457 votes while the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress (AITC) led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam attracted 3,392 votes.
TNA politicians in the north accuse Mr. Ramanathan of manipulating local youth, promising state jobs and other government perks in exchange for their votes rather being genuinely committed to developing the region.
The Election Commission launched a probe over alleged misuse of COVID-19 state relief being used for political purposes by Mr. Ramanathan’s office during the campaign.
Mr. Ramanathan has rejected these allegations outright.
“I have to give them jobs. Who is going to give jobs for the unemployed youth in my district? As an elected representative, I have to do that while ensuring to create more job opportunities through new development, entrepreneurship programmes and private sector investments,” he said. “This is where TNA has gone wrong, by failing to address these issues in the past.”