Election mania spreads rapidly in the country with Parliamentary polls being scheduled for August 17th 2015 and the Tamil inhabited areas of the Northern and Eastern provinces are also afflicted. Currently the premier political configuration of the Sri Lankan Tamils is the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) consisting of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front(EPRLF), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization(TELO)and Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam(PLOTE). The TNA contests elections under the House symbol of its chief constituent ITAK. At the 2010 Parliamentary elections the TNA contesting as ITAK won 13 seats in both provinces and was entitled to a national list seat also.The TNA hopes to increase its parliamentary tally in the 2015 poll.
Veteran politician and TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan has publicly called upon the Tamil voters of the North and East to cast their votes in large numbers for the house symbol so that the TNA could win at least 20 MP seats at the August 17 hustings.
Sampanthan hailing from Trincomalee district predicts that the new Parliament would be a hung parliament and that no single party or front would acquire a majority sufficient to form a Govt on its own. If the alliance has a bloc of around 20 seats it would increase the TNA’s political clout and bargaining power when a stable govt is formed is the essence of Sampanthan’s appeal. These sentiments have been echoed ad nauseam by almost all the TNA candidates. Some have even boasted of being “kingmakers” after the elections.
ITAK Leaders M.A. Sumanthiran and R. Sampanthan at TNA Manifesto launch event-July 25-in Maruthanarmadam, Jaffna
The current TNA campaign theme of seeking 20 seats to increase bargaining power and play a kingmaker role in forming a new govt invokes a sense of Déjà vu. There was a time in the Island’s politics when the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi(ITAK) then known as the Federal party(FP) in English held the balance of power and played a significant “kingmaker” role. The political strategy “Agitate cum Negotiate”was adopted in those days by the ITAK/FP under the leadership of former Kankesanthurai MP S.J. V. Chelvanayakam. Agitations were in the form of non – violent protests and demonstrations including the conducting of “Satyagraha”campaigns and observance of “Hartals”. Negotiations were held with the governments of the day on crucial issues and agreement reached at times.
The ITAK/FP canvassed for votes on the need to play kingmaker after polls and appealed to Tamils that they should ensure the election of a bloc of MP’s from the party in order to play an important role in making and unmaking governments. The party wanted enough seats so that its bargaining power would be enhanced. Elections being held under the first past the post winner system in those days helped the party to return MP’s in double digits in almost all elections. The sixties of the previous century proved a fertile decade for this brand of politics by the ITAK/FP. The lack of viable majorities by the victorious larger parties in the 1960 and 1965 elections provided the space for the ITAK/FP to engage in this type of bargaining or broker politics.
“Only God Can Save Tamil People Now”
This practice suffered a tremendous blow in 1970 when the United Front led by Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike swept the polls with 116 seats(SLFP-91;LSSP-19;CP -06) in a Parliament of 157 MP’s. With the Govt having a two-thirds majority there was absolutely no need for “broker politics” with the ITAK/FP. The Tamil leader SJV Chelvanayakam was so shocked and dejected by this turn of events that he made the famous statement” Thamil Makkalai Inimael Kadavul than Kaappaatra Vaendum”(Only God can save the Tamil people now). The Federal Party and All – Ceylon Tamil Congress(ACTC) joined forces in 1976 as the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF) and contested the 1977 elections on a separatist platform. The TULF got 18 seats but the UNP won handsomely with 141 out of 168 seats in Parliament.
Thereafter the political landscape transformed. The executive presidential system came into force.Proportionate representation was introduced. The ethnic crisis escalated and an armed struggle for a separate state continued for decades. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) organization became the determining factor in Tamil politics.The situation began to change after the LTTE was militarily vanquished in May 2009. The 2010 elections saw the TNA contesting as the ITAK and assuming the mantle of Tamil political leadership again. Now with the advent of another general election the ITAK/TNA is once again reviving the political cry articulated by the ITAK/FP five decades ago.
Despite the entreaty of Sampanthan and his political colleagues it is unclear at present as to whether the TNA would gain an opportunity to accomplish its envisaged objective. The TNA may desire 20 seats but it is doubtful whether that goal is attainable. Since the elections are being held under the proportionate representation scheme it would be virtually impossible for the TNA to monopolise all the available seats. Realistically the TNA would do well to obtain 15 to 16 seats but chances are that it may be about 12 to 14.
Even if the TNA was to get 20 seats it remains to be seen as to how the alliance will fare in its avowed goal of bargaining. If the results defy predictions and one major party or front gets an absolute majority then the space for TNA to bargain would diminish. There is also the question of whether any winning side would opt to accommodate the TNA. The TNA manifesto and its perceived links with the LTTE has come in for criticism by both UNF and UPFA stalwarts. Even if one side is willing to accept the TNA as part of a national govt the other side is bound to severely criticise such a move. Besides the TNA’s ill – advised stance on the UN Human Rights Council report will make it difficult for any Sinhala dominated party to engage in a union with the Tamil alliance if and when the “pappadam” begins to crumble.
There is also another potential problem. Assuming that an opening is available for the TNA to participate in Govt formation would the alliance be able to utilise the opportunity diligently? The TNA comprises an odd assortment of politicians with deep differences.In a bid to appease the more extremist Tamil Diaspora elements many of the TNA leaders have articulated hard line positions. The TNA is also being challenged by Tamil groups who are strongly backed by LTTE and pro-LTTE elements abroad. In such a situation it remains uncertain as to whether the TNA would be bold enough to play a constructive pro-active role in government formation or good governance as expected.
In that context it may be worthwhile to briefly re-visit the past when the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi(ITAK) known as the Federal Party (FP) engaged itself in the making and unmaking of governments decades ago. It would be most relevant in providing an insight into the current political situation because the same TNA cry for more MP seats was raised then on the same basis of increasing bargaining power. As stated earlier the ITAK/FP was called upon to play a signinificant “kingmaker” role in 1960 and in 1965. I have written about this earlier and shall be relying upon such writings in focusing on the dramatic events of 1960 for this column. The political events of 1965 will be delved into in another article.
Parliamentary Elections of 1956 was a Watershed
The Parliamentary elections of 1956 was a watershed in the political history of this Island nation. The United National Party (UNP) that was in power since independence was defeated .The Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by SWRD Bandaranaike swept the polls as part of a coalition known as the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP). Bandaranaike became the Prime Minister of Ceylon.
The assassination of SWRD Bandaranaike in September 1959 saw the maverick W. Dahanayake becoming Prime minister. His tenure however was short lived and fresh elections were conducted in March 1960. For the first time polling in all parts of the country from Paruthithurai to Devinuwara were held on a single day.The number of seats in Parliament increased from 101 to 157. Six of these were appointed MP’s while 151 were elected from 145 electorates. The constituencies of Colombo South, Akurana, Batticaloa and Mutur had two Members each while Colombo Central had three.
Dudley Senanayake who had gone into voluntary retirement in 1953 had re-entered politics in 1957. He led the United National Party (UNP) in the March 1960 Polls. The SLFP was led by CP de Silva.SWRD’s widow Sirima did not take the centre stage when the election campaign got underway but got involved in canvassing at a later stage. Other Prime ministerial aspirants were Philip Gunewardene of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP)Dr. NM Perera of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and of course the outgoing caretaker PM Wijayananda Dahanayake of the Lanka Prajathanthrawadi Peramuna (LPP).
When results were announced it was a hung Parliament. The UNP had 50 and the SLFP 46. The LSSP and MEP had 10 each. The third largest party was the ITAK/FP with 15 seats. It appeared that the FP held the balance of power in the new Parliament.The party had won the seats of Kankesanthurai(KKS), Nallur, Vaddukkoddai, Chavakachcheri, Point Pedro,Uduvil, Kayts,Kopay, Kilinochchi and Mannar in the Northern Province and the electorates of Batticaloa, Paddiruppu, Kalkudah, Trincomalee and Mutur in the Eastern Province.
Governor – General Sir Oliver Goonetillleke regarded as partisan towards the UNP called upon Dudley Senanayake to form a new government as the party had the most number of seats in Parliament.It was however doubtful whether Dudley could cobble together the majority required to form a stable government.Even with the aid of the six appointed MP’s nominated by the new Premier and the support of a few Independent MP’s and crossers over from the LPP , Dudley had only 60-61 out of 157. But if he could get the 15 seat support from the FP the UNP leader was optimistic of garnering further support from more Independent MP’s and by weaning away some breakaways from smaller parties.
Thus the support of Chelvanayakam was crucial for Senanayake to form a viable government. Likewise the Support of the FP was equally important for the SLFP if it was requested to form an alternative govt.So when the victorious FP leader Chelvanayakam flew from Palaly to Ratmalana he was a much desired person politically.Eminent persons such as ex –Prime minister Sir John Kotelawela, former state councillor Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva, retd chief justice Sir Edward Jayatilleka and former Justice minister and Senate leader Sir Lalitha Rajapaksa wooed Chelvanayakam ardently on behalf of the UNP and set up meetings with Dudley Senanayake.
FP Leader Placed Four Broad Demands Orally
At discussions between Dudley Senanayake and S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, the FP leader placed four broad demands orally. One was that Regional Councils as envisaged by the BC pact be set up with powers over land alienation and development.The second was parity of status for Tamil as a language of administration and courts.The third was for amendments to the Ceylon citizenship act no 18 of 1948 enabling speedier, enhanced registration of de- citizenised and disenfranchised Up Country Tamils.The fourth demand was that four of the six Appointed MP slots be given to Up Country Tamil representatives.
Chelvanayakam informed Senanayake that the FP was prepared to compromise slightly on the demands if necessary. The party would support the UNP if Senanayake would make a genuine effort in alleviating the travails experienced by Tamils.The meeting ended without Senanayake inquiring about the demands , Chelvanayakam was willing to whittle down. The next meeting was scheduled for March 26th.
Meanwhile the SLFP moved fast and outsmarted Dudley.The party had an ace up its sleeve which the UNP could not compete against.That was the agreement signed by SWRD Bandaranaike and SJV Chelvanayakam in June 1957 known as the Banda – Chelva or B-C pact.This pact agreed to set up one regional council for the North and two for the east with provision to amalgamate. It also agreed for positive measures on the use of Tamil in administration and in courts and set out guidelines on colonisation.Opposition to the BC pact by the UNP and sections of the Buddhist clergy had compelled Bandaranaike to abrogate the pact unilaterally.
Chelvanayakam had a young visitor on March 23rd 1960. This was Felix R Dias Bandaranaike – the nephew of SWRD Bandaranaike -elected from Dompe.The brilliant young lawyer was the rising star in the SLFP. Felix’s father the Supreme court Judge was a close friend of Chelvanayakam. Felix assured Chelvanayakam that the SLFP would follow the measures agreed between SWRD Bandaranaike and SJV Chelvanayakam in 1957. The B-C pact would be implemented in full and regional councils set up. Felix also told Chelva that the SLFP would make a policy declaration on this in presenting the throne speech.
When Senanayake met Chelvanayakam on March 26th, the UNP leader outlined his difficulties in acceding to ITAK/FP demands. He requested Chelvanayakam to tone down the demands if possible.SJV then told Dudley that the FP would drop its demand for parity of status between the Sinhala and Tamil languages. The FP would be satisfied with provisions for use of Tamil as an official language in the North and East and for reasonable usage in the administrative and legal spheres.The FP was also ready to accept one Plantation Tamil representative to be appointed MP instead of four as demanded.The party however was not ready to compromise on the other two demands pertaining to the regional councils and citizenship act. Senanayake then asked the ITAK/FP to submit the final demands in writing. This was done on the same day.
Senanayake met with Chelvanayakam again on March 27th evening.On that occasion Senanayake candidly informed Chelvanayakam that he could not help set up regional councils as envisaged by the B- C pact as the UNP had opposed it vehemently saying it was a stepping stone for separation.Instead he asked the FP to trust him and promised that he would not act detrimentally towards Tamils. He also offered ministerial portfolios to the FP.Chelvanayakam declined the portfolios and withdrew from discussions. It was apparent that the talks had collapsed.
“Gentleman in Politics” – Dudley Senanayake
Nevertheless there was constant pressure by prominent Colombo Tamils on the FP in general and Chelvanayakam in particular that Dudley Senanayake being a “gentleman in politics” should be unconditionally supported.The FP remained firm in resisting these pressures.An important reason for the FP stance was because the party had already arrived at an “understanding” with the SLFP on matters concerned.
Apart from the preliminary “talks” between Chelva and Felix an official SLFP delegation comprising CP de Silva, Maithripala Senanayake, AP Jayasuriya and Felix Dias Bandaranaike also met with a FP team led by Chelvanayakam. Chelvanayakam placed the same four demands submitted to the UNP to the SLFP also. The SLFP at the outset declared that the party would not enter into a formal agreement with the ITAK/FP.Given the history of Sinhala opposition to the B-C pact it was not practical to forge another official pact again. But the SLFP proposed to make an explicit policy statement on issues raised by the ITAK/FP when it presented its own throne speech if and when asked to form a government after the anticipated fall of the UNP govt.
On the four demands raised the SLFP delegation led by CP de Silva deviated slightly from the position articulated by Felix Bandaranaike.The SLFP was transparently frank in saying that it too was opposed to the setting up of regional councils for the North and East. Notwithstanding SWRD’s readiness to set up regional councils, subsequent events had eroded that concept.The SLFP said it was not possible to make special arrangements for the Tamil majority North and East alone. That would lead to a Sinhala backlash.
What the SLFP proposed instead was the setting up of District Councils for each administrative or revenue district. There were 22 then. Each district council would in essence have the powers and functions as envisaged for the Regional council.The Jaffna,Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa councils would have Tamil dominated administrations. The SLFP re-iterated that the basic powers of the Regional council would be available under the District council also.
On the question of Language the SLFP was not prepared for parity of status. It was however ready to introduce and implement measures enabling Tamil to be used for administrative purposes and in courts in the North and East. Provision for reasonable use of Tamil outside the north and east would also be made.The Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act presented by SWRD Bandaranaike and approved by Parliament in August 1958 would set out the guidelines in this.
The SLFP however rejected any amendment to the citizenship act. It was inflexible on that count but agreed to nominate two Plantation Tamils as appointed MP/s. The SLFP also said that the CWC’s Thondaman would be nominated as appointed MP and that issues concerning Up Country Tamils would be ironed out with him.The SLFP stated that all assurances and pledges on these issues would be given concrete form as a statement of policy in the throne speech. There would however be no pact or agreement in written form.
Despite the SLFP position being non – conciliatory on certain aspects, the FP decided then to extend support towards it and vote against the UNP.The proposed implementation of the essential aspects of the agreement reached with SWRD Bandaranaike proved irresistible. Parliament ceremonially opened on April 19th. The Throne speech debate commenced on April 20th. On the third and final day Chelvanayakam addressed the house and attacked the UNP harshly.When the vote was taken on April 22nd the Federal Party voted along with the opposition against the UNP govt. The Throne speech was defeated by 25 votes. The Govt had 61 and opposition 86 with 08 abstentions.
Governor – General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke
After an emergency meeting of cabinet Dudley Senanayake recommended to the then Governor –General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke that Parliament be dissolved and fresh polls held.Sir Oliver however summoned the heads of all opposition political parties and told them that he was exploring prospects of forming an alternative government instead of holding elections. It was now the turn of the SLFP with 46 seats to have a go at govt formation.
The SLFP leader CP de Silva then called upon the Governor –General and urged that he be given an opportunity to form a government. He said he had the required numbers and was confident of securing ITAK/FP support.Thereafter Sir Oliver asked SJV Chelvanayakam to call over at Queens House (nowadays “Janadhipathy Mandiraya”) to ascertain whether the FP was indeed extending support to the SLFP.
On his way to Fort from his Alfred House Gardens residence in Kollupitiya, Chelvanayakam dropped in at Felix’s house in Mahanuge Gardens. Waiting there were CP de Silva and AP Jayasuriya.Once again Chelvanayakam queried whether the assurances given by the SLFP were valid still. The answer was in the affirmative. Then Chelva asked whether the essence of the B-C pact would be implemented as promised. Again the answer was positive.
At this stage Chelvanayakam looked at fellow old Thomian and potential premier CP de Silva and asked him point blank “what guarantee is there that you would honour these assurances”? To which CP de Silva gave a characteristic response. “I drive a hard bargain and when I’ve made it,I keep it”, CP replied. A satisfied Chelva left for Queen’s House while CP de Silva awaited his tryst with destiny. Alas! Fate decreed otherwise!
Sir Oliver Goonetilleke received Chelvanayakam and told him that he was trying to ascertain whether CP de Silva could form an alternative government. If the SLFP did not have the required numbers he was going to dissolve Parliament. Stating that the support of the FP was crucial in this respect the Governor – General asked the FP leader categorically whether the FP would provide “unqualified” support to the SLFP led alternative government for a minimum period of two years.Sir Oliver had stressed on “unqualified” support because he felt that the FP could be forced to withdraw support quickly if the SLFP reneged on its pledges to the party. Therefore he wanted to satisfy himself of it’s stability by eliciting a firm guarantee from Chelvanayakam.
Chelvanayakam being an eminent lawyer hesitated over the prospect of pledging “unqualified” support as requested by the G-G.Being an honourable politician ,Chelvanayakam realised that he and the FP would be firmly bound for two years if he stated so to Sir Oliver. At the same time he could not take the political risk of extending unqualified support for 24 months if the SLFP dishonoured its assurances.
Categorical Assurance Extending “Unqualified Support”.
In a bid to extricate himself from this tricky situation, Chelvanayakam gave what could be termed a “smart” answer.Chelvanayakam replied that the FP had arrived at an understanding with the SLFP and that his party would support the SLFP led govt not merely for two years but for its full term. By this answer Chelvanayakam had avoided giving a categorical assurance about extending “unqualified support”.
This however proved counterproductive. The politically sagacious Sir Oliver cited this perceived reluctance on the part of the FP leader to explicitly guarantee unqualified support as proof of the proposed government’s “fragility”. Stating that he was dissatisfied by Chelvanayakam’s answer , the Governor – General went ahead and dissolved Parliament.
It is widely believed that Sir Oliver’s bias towards the UNP was the cause for this and that the Governor – General had made Chelvanayakam the “scapegoat” for this.But there is also a less charitable explanation for Sir Oliver’s conduct. According to Chelvanayakam’s son in law and political scientist AJ Wilson the real reason was “caste”. CP de Silva belonged to the “Salagama” caste. Wilson quotes Dr.N.M Perera as having been told by Sir Oliver “How can I appoint a Salagama man”?
Although the concept of caste is frowned upon in polite Sri Lankan society and is tabooed as being politically incorrect, a harsh reality of politics and arranged marriages is the role of the caste factor in both spheres.It is an incontrovertible fact of contemporary history that all the Governor – Generals, Prime Ministers and Presidents of Sri Lanka have been from the Govigama caste with the singular exception/aberration of Ranasinghe Premadasa.
Whatever the reason governing the Governor – General’s action the immediate consequence was dissolution and the staging of fresh elections. All the opposition parties including the FP protested against Sir Oliver’s action and wrote a letter criticising the move.Nevertheless new elections were held in July 1960.As the election campaign began it soon became clear that a re-furbished SLFP would do better than it did at the March elections.The main reason for this was the campaigning by Sirima Bandaranaike. Dubbed as the “weeping widow” by sections of the media , Mrs. Bandaranaike drew unprecedented crowds at meetings.
Given the fractured verdict of March 1960 it was assumed that July 1960 too would result in a hung Parliament with the SLFP having the most amount of seats. The support of the ITAK/FP was seen as crucial for govt formation.The FP expected the SLFP to implement the promises made earlier after victory at the July elections.
Chelvanayakam met Mrs. Bandaranaike in a brief, unpublicised meeting along with Felix Bandaranaike where she assured the FP leader that she would abide by the assurances given to the FP by the delegation led by CP de Silva.Strengthened by that assurance the FP hitched its wagon to the SLFP star.While Chelvanayakam elicited an assurance from the SLFP over implementation the party failed to obtain guarantees in a vital respect.
Federal Party Was Politically Naïve
Professor Wilson the biographer of Chelvanayakam points out that the FP did not obtain assurances from the SLFP as to whether the pledges would be binding on the party even if it won the polls with a comfortable majority and did not have to depend on FP support. Apparently Chelvanayakam interpreted the assurances as being of a binding nature on the SLFP even if it had an absolute majority and did not need FP support. But this was only Chelvanayakam’s interpretation says his son in law.No explicit guarantee on this had been sought or obtained. This lapse by the FP indicated that the Federal Party was politically naive to say the least.
Despite the absence of such a concrete guarantee the FP took a leap of faith and backed the SLFP. It appealed to Tamil voters in electorates not contested by the party to vote for the SLFP.The FP also told crowds at political meetings that the party had arrived at an understanding with the SLFP and that the BC pact would be implemented.This in turn resulted in the UNP launching a vicious campaign against the SLFP – FP alignment. The UNP accused the SLFP of conspiring with the FP to divide the country.
The UNP allegation that a secret deal had been worked out between the SLFP and FP put the former on the defensive. Felix Dias Bandaranaike urged the FP to deny publicly that there was a SLFP- FP agreement.Chelvanayakam obliged reluctantly by issuing a statement where he said the FP had supported the SLFP without obtaining any agreement. He re-iterated this position in media interviews.
This in turn had the FP’s chief rival the All Ceylon Tamil Congress led by GG Ponnambalam criticising the party for missing a golden opportunity in not supporting the UNP and instead supporting the SLFP without any guarantees.
It was in this atmosphere that the SLFP and FP faced the hustings in July 1960. Despite the alignment of convenience the SLFP could not admit to it publicly due to fear of alienating the Sinhala constituency.The FP was in an unenviable position of being unable to acknowledge the unwritten understanding in deference to SLFP wishes.
In spite of these difficulties the FP once again romped home the winner in Tamil majority electorates. It retained all 15 electorates won by the party in March. In addition the FP also won the Muslim majority electorate of Kalmunai where MC Ahamed was returned on the House symbol.The FP had 16 seats in a Parliament of 157 and was once again the third largest political party. The UNP came second with 30 seats. The SLFP was first with 75 seats.
Together with the six appointed MP’s and support from a few Independents the party now had a slender yet stable majority. More importantly it was not dependent on FP support.History was made when Mrs. Bandaranaike became the world’s first woman Prime minister.But the FP was in for a shock. Its naive expectation that the unwritten understanding with the SLFP was binding even in a situation where the government did not require FP support was rudely shattered.
The SLFP went ahead with government formation without resorting to any dialogue with the FP. The party did not regard the arrangements made before elections as binding on it. Efforts made by FP leaders to communicate with SLFP leaders failed.When the Throne speech of the new government was presented on August 12th 1960, the FP was initially pleased. For the first time the throne speech was presented in Tamil also. This initial happiness evaporated rapidly as the content was revealed.
Laughing Stock Among Tamil Detractors
There were no references to the pre-poll promises made to the FP about district councils or Tamil language provisions.Instead the govt announced full implementation of Sinhala as the sole official language from January 1st 1961. The govt also said Sinhala would be the sole language of courts.A thoroughly disillusioned FP was now the laughing stock among its Tamil detractors.The party was seen as being deceived and let down by the SLFP for the second time. The FP was accused of having blundered badly in not supporting Dudley Senanayake.
This then was the bitter experience of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) when it sought to use its parliamentary clout to unmake and make Governments in 1960. The Tamil National Alliance contesting as the ITAK would do well to take note of the 1960 events when it seeks political bargaining power in 2015.
This article written for the “DBS Jeyaraj Column” appears in the “Daily Mirror” of Aug 1, 2015, it can be reached via this link:
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com