By Uditha Devapriya
A Budget vote usually shows which parties support the government and which do not. Barring the Dullas Alahapperuma faction, the SLPP voted en masse for the second reading of the recent Budget. Except for MPs like Duminda Dissanayake, the SLFP voted against it. Despite some ambivalent, vague remarks from its MPs, the SJB also voted against it, with Sajith Premadasa outlining alternative policies that this government has not bothered to consider, let alone debate and discuss. For a while, it seemed as though the minority parties, especially the Tamil ones, would follow. Yet they have refused to do so.
The rationale of the mainstream Tamil parties is interesting. In recent weeks, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has signalled his intention to resolve the National Question. Some of his more recent moves, including the establishment of a Northern Province Coordination Sub-Office of the Presidential Secretariat, suggest that he is utilising the National Question to win favour and support from these parties. The fact that he located the Sub-Office, not in the fertile Jaffna District, but in the poorer Vavuniya District, shows that he is conscious about the cosmetics of what he is doing.
Indeed, at the opening ceremony he observed that the government is seeking a solution in the North “that is acceptable to all.”
The minority parties have reacted accordingly. Having originally criticised the Budget and resolved to vote against it, the Tamil National Alliance soon reversed course. The TNA’s M. A. Sumanthiran declared that they would not oppose the Budget, stating that the President had repeatedly said that he wants to resolve the National Question and that he had invited Tamil parties to discussions. Sumanthiran did admit that they had “publicly expressed our scepticism”, but added that “nevertheless, when there is a hand that is stretched out from the President himself, we thought we must reciprocate in some way.” The TNA later elected not to take part in the voting process for the second reading.
Sumanthiran justified his party’s stance on the basis that it was a “signal of our bona fide on this matter.” Tamil parties have consistently flagged reforms relating to devolution and regional development. It is only understandable that they should revise their earlier position when the country’s President signals his desire to resolve these matters.
President Wickremesinghe’s record on minority rights is by no means clear-cut. Yet for the TNA, he appears to be a better bet, and a better deal, than the Rajapaksas. The issue here, which the TNA may be aware of, is that Mr Wickremesinghe is heading a government that is dominated by a party belonging to a family which most minorities view with disfavour. The flip side to this argument is that President Wickremesinghe calls the shots, and as such he is in a position to enlist the support of the party, and that family, for reforms relating to ethnic grievances and minority rights. So long as they think that the President will implement these reforms, Tamil nationalist parties will support him, however cautiously.
The Tamil National Alliance has had a long and tenuous history with Ranil Wickremesinghe. On two occasions, in 2010 and 2014, it supported a candidate fronted by Wickremesinghe’s party, the UNP. On both occasions, Wickremesinghe declined to contest and supported a common opposition candidate against the incumbent. In 2010 the TNA supported the army commander who led the war against the LTTE. The party did not mind this, given that they viewed the Rajapaksas as the bigger evil. In 2015 the TNA supported one of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s former Ministers, despite that Minister claiming in international media that should he become president, he would not immediately phase out the army or remove army camps from the north and east. There too, the party followed a strategy of siding with its enemy’s enemy.
The TNA has very few objectives which it shares with other parties. It wants devolution of power, regional development, and radical constitutional and structural reforms. Among these reforms is one objective that tallies with the aims of liberal and left-liberal parties, the abolition of the Executive Presidency and its replacement by a parliamentary system. This, too, the TNA views as crucial to its objective of greater devolution: once the Presidency is abolished in toto, so the reasoning goes, it will become easier to devolve more powers to the periphery. It helps that the UNP’s willingness to capitulate to these demands over the last quarter-century, since 1999, has turned the TNA into a cautious partner.
This is despite the UNP’s less than stellar record on ethnic relations. Certainly, as the recent election of a second-generation Indian immigrant as British Prime Minister shows that ethnic politics, however progressive it may be, can often camouflage class issues. That is what we are seeing here today. Other Tamil political formations have demarcated the TNA, and like-minded parties, as regressive and reactionary.
The excuse that the TNA have trotted out for their past choices – such as their support for Sarath Fonseka – that they prefer the lesser evil, pales away when you consider that, when it comes to the political establishment in Sri Lanka and its record on minorities, there has never been a lesser evil.
I think the Tamil Left, and more so the Indian Marxist Left, were more prescient in these matters than bourgeois Tamil parties. Even Left parties like the LSSP got most of it right in their analysis of the upsurge of Tamil nationalist sentiment in the 1970s: their argument basically was that if they were not anchored in class politics, such sentiments would soon evolve into fascistic movements. This is what the LTTE eventually became: as The Economist put it, they were for all intents and purposes “classically fascist.”
That these parties today prefer right-wing, neoliberal outfits to centre-left and social democratic alternatives shows that they are yet to escape their past. In that sense, their recent moves vis-à-vis the Budget, and President Wickremesinghe, reveals that they have a long way to go.
The buck doesn’t stop there, however. For decades, the TNA, together with sections of civil society, the liberal and left-liberal intelligentsia, and sections of the New Left, have dabbled in tinkering with the Constitution. The reforms they have proposed, such as the abolition of the Executive Presidency, have provoked predictable nationalist opprobrium, but also more thoughtful and constructive responses elsewhere.
My criticism of these proposals generally tallies with those latter responses: I understand where calls for these reforms come from, but firmly believe they are not only impractical given the geopolitical situation we are in, but also not an urgent imperative for the country’s democratisation.
Indeed, if the recent electoral Pink tides in Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Brazil should tell us anything, it’s that reforms should first address economic grievances before engaging in broader political and constitutional changes. At the end of the day, the National Question in Sri Lanka is an eminently economic one. If we are to consider it, address it, and resolve it constructively, we need to assess its material dimensions better. And yet, barring relentless talk of devolution and the abolition of the presidency, there has been very little discussion about, say, spurring industrialisation and manufacturing, or achieving growth with equity (the Premadasa paradigm) in the north and east.
It’s not the Tamil parties only, of course. The New Left’s actions, especially its isolationist tactics, are problematic too. But while the JVP and the FSP have declared that they want to walk it out alone, the TNA has, over the years, built a reputation for band-wagoning with right-wing parties which have failed to deliver any benefits for the country or its minorities. As Dr Dayan Jayatilleka has note in a recent essay, Marxist Tamil politicians, from Comrade Sanmugathasan to Pathmanabha, warned against allying with reactionary and pro-Western parties. But this is precisely what the TNA has been doing for the last quarter-century, going as far as to oppose the People’s Alliance government, despite the many ambitious reforms it proposed, like the merger of the North and East, in deference to the UNP.
To be fair by the TNA, its MPs have unequivocally stated that they will not support the government if it does not deliver on its promises. Yes, it seems something of a stretch to think that the present political setup is conducive to the reforms that minority parties want. Nevertheless, even if we grant that the SLPP and the UNP are sincere in their desire to address and engage with minority grievances, the TNA should know that the resolution of those grievances, relevant as they are to the resolution of Sri Lanka’s National Question, is by itself not enough.
Whatever constitutional reform package the government has, even if it appeases minority parties, needs to be buttressed by cohesive, inclusive, and progressive economic policies. Whether the government has such policies in place remains to be seen. Its actions over the last few months suggest that it does not.