THE POWER OF HERE: TAMIL POLITICS ON THE MORNING AFTER
Whatever the political configuration in the North and East on the morning after, Tamil politics will remain in the dead-end that it has inhabited for 70 years. This is not because such a sad outcome is inevitable, but simply because it is highly probable given the repeated patterns of Tamil politics.
On the morning after, mainstream Tamil politics will find that it has a much weaker partner than it did when starting out in 2015. That partner will be unable and even unwilling to risk moving on the fulfilment of promises made. Mainstream Tamil politicians will then find themselves outflanked by less moderate ones. The conclusion will be fourfold and boringly predictable: the Tamil moderates were too moderate, the Sinhala allies were too pusillanimous, the Sinhala populace too majoritarian, the Tamils can count only upon the politics of agitation and the external factor (India, the West).
The problem will be that all four assumptions are wrong and worse still are old and have been proven wrong over and over again. Indeed it is these assumptions that got Tamil politics into the dead-end and have kept it there for decades.
The Southern allies of the Tamil mainstream is not intrinsically weak but has been weakened both by their own follies in policy and by the pressures exerted by the Tamil politicians. In other words, there is no point in denouncing the Southern politicians for being too weak to stand up to the Sinhala populists, when it is the Tamil politicians who are partly responsible for that weakening by forcing their Southern allies in government to commit to reforms that were oversized and over hasty, and therefore bound to be counterproductive. To put it heretically but accurately, it is not because the Tamil moderates were too moderate that they have failed their Southern partners, but precisely because they were not moderate enough.
Furthermore, it is not because the Southern politicians in government were not moderate enough on ethnic policy that they are floundering but because they were perceived as too moderate in the face of Tamil immoderation (especially the behavior of Chief Minister Wigneswaran).
The next delusion is that moderation and alliance must be abandoned by the Tamils who must now shift to a policy of agitation and external pressure, culminating in intervention. The problem is that we’ve been down that road before—that of agitation, wars and intervention. None of its worked.
There could be a new twist: India-USA; manipulating the Indo-US rivalry with China, the BJP backing the hawkish RAW line, the BJP-USA-Israel triangle etc. But whatever the new variables, it is basically the same old formula. It never comes right in the final reel because of two reasons: (a) democracy in the Sinhala areas always yields a leader (even in the face of serial assassination) who gets it at least half-right and (b) geopolitical and geo-strategic realities on the island, in Asia and the world. In short, the realities on the ground.
Former Yugoslavia was in Europe and in the unipolar 1990s. That’s another era. Just look at how intractable Maldives has become. As India learned in the 1980s, Sri Lanka is the most intractable of quagmires. It’s the inherent nature of this island. You need to appreciate Garcia Gabriel Marquez’ “magical realism” to grasp my point fully.
The crux of the Tamil problem is the gap, indeed the contradiction between self-image and situation i.e. between the collective Tamil self–image and the Tamil situation. The Tamil self-image is global while the Tamil situation is both global and nationally specific. The global Tamil self-image is a collage in which all the status of every national group in every country in which Tamils live and some in which they don’t, is depicted in a crazy-quilt pattern: emergent sovereign states, liberal federal arrangements, referenda on separation “etc. etc., blah, blah, yadda, yadda” (as Slavoj Zizek mockingly says). Tamil politics then tries to redraw existing national reality to fit the delusional self-image.
The basic line of Tamil politics is that “we Tamils are a nation who have an inherent right of self-determination and are entitled to a sovereign state but owing to the goodness of our hearts we are willing to entertain the notion of federalism, and if you don’t give it to us we’ll exit this state.” To which the collective Sinhala response has veered between “Oh no, not again… So what else is new?” and “go ahead, make our day…we can keep doing this forever”.
Now it may or may not be the case that the Tamil people the world over deserve a state of their own, and it is not my place to judge, but Sri Lanka is quite the last place in the world to strive for it or an approximation because the game here is zero-sum due to the uniqueness of the Sinhala situation: here, Tamil globalism meets Sinhala exceptionalism. The ones who are a majority, with their back to the sea and nowhere else to go, usually prevail. Eckhart Tolle, whose work my wife Sanja quite likes and has told me about, wrote a bestseller entitled ‘The Power of Now’. If I may adapt it slightly, what the Tamils must learn to recognize is ‘The Power of Here’.
Fuelled by the frustration of their global self-delusion, the Tamil Diaspora and Tamil Nadu are willing to fight the last Sinhalese down to the last Sri Lankan Tamil. It is the misfortune of the Sri Lankan Tamils that they reject any Tamil political leader or formation who rejects this delusion.
India tried its best to square the circle, by pushing through in Sri Lanka in 1987, the closest approximation of what the Tamils of Tamil Nadu have. It was rejected by the Tamil nationalist mainstream, then and now. Most Tamil people here and overseas backed the LTTE right to the bitter end and remain loyal to them still. This makes the Sinhalese even more suspicious of Tamil political demands. This is not Sinhala paranoia. Urmila Phadnis, the late doyenne of Lankanology in Indian scholarship, noted in her last book, that the Tamils of Sri Lanka were different from the minority nationalities of South Asia in that they have an “autonomist-secessionist continuum”. It is this continuum that makes the Sinhala majority suspect that autonomist demands are a mere stepping stone to separation.
Either we can play this game for the next 70 years as we have for the past 70 if not more, or we can get real. The Tamil politicians have to work with a Sinhala leader who can deliver the majority of the Sinhala majority, and that certainly doesn’t seem to be the ones in government. The Tamil voters can no longer decide who will win the Presidential election. That scam was pulled once and it is all unraveling now, mainly because Tamil politics pushed way beyond the possible (as usual) by lobbying for a brand new Constitution instead of a prudent re-set which could have garnered an all-parties consensus.
As the outcome of the Brigadier Priyanka Fernando episode proved, helping win an election in 2015 does not enable you to compensate for losing a Thirty Years War in 2009, or having backed/been fellow-travelers of those who did. Sri Lanka is not merely postwar, it is post victory—which places parameters on how far and in which direction the Tamils and the west can shape the postwar, peacetime Sri Lankan State and its behavior. Furthermore, Sri Lankan politics is beginning to normalize and be determined in the last analysis by Sinhala populism.
The Tamil politicians must now talk to those who can carry the Sinhalese with them– and arrive at a settlement that can be sold to their constituency. It is the only game in town. The alternative is for Tamil politics to stay out in the cold, in its ethnic ghetto, gazing out at the Diaspora, the West and Delhi, for another 70 years.