If anyone in Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s camp in the ruling UNP thought that they could sway away his deputy and presidential aspirant Sajith Premadasa to give up when asked to meet up with the party’s UNF allies, they may be mistaken, after all!. The way Premadasa Jr, has been pushing his campaign over the past weeks should mean that he too was only going through the motions, to try and ensure that the UNP cadres would not (have to) blame him, if he was ‘forced to the wall’ and take his own route.
There is abundant truth in PM Wickremesinghe’s telling party second-line leaders that the UNP did not have enough votes to win the presidential poll, and that it would require allies like the TNA, SLMC and Upcountry Tamil stake-holders in his Government, to make it to the highest office in the land. If Wickremesinghe has admitted to the same, even in private, it could well be a realistic assessment of the ground situation. On the ground, the rival Rajapaksas-led SLPP-JO, have a substantial edge, say, 45-30 per cent, going by the nation-wide local government polls of February 2017.
If push comes to shove, the Premadasa camp might take their case to the cadres, blaming the long and unbroken Wickremesinghe legacy for the party’s continued state of poor affairs. Reports that Wickremesinghe had told ‘the presidential aspirant’ (reference to Premadasa?) that it would not be enough to have support within the party, but would also require the allies, could well mean that he has already conceded that the UNP was not with him anymore.
First round to SP?
It also took no guessing to conclude that Premadasa’s subsequent meeting with UNF partners would not be an end in itself, but only a series of meetings, possibly starting with the TNA, followed by separate meetings with most, if not all, other allies. The TNA is at least the one to keep Premadasa and Sri Lanka observers guessing for too long. The two have met separately once afterwards, and are expected to meet again.
Premadasa’s meetings with UNF allies, since followed up with separate meetings with whoever and on whatever, could mean only one thing for the Wickremesinghe camp. No one in the latter camp is any more talking about the need for a new alliance, a new constitution for that alliance, and the date and venue for signing that constitution, by all partners, real and intended.
Thus, the first round(s) of the UNP intra-feud over the presidential candidacy has gone Sajith Premadasa’s way. Or, so it seems, whatever be the final round(s) may hold for him and for the party, even more. Wikcremesinghe, possibly out of his comfort zone and traditional depth, may have over-estimated his own continued hold over the party, or that of Premadasa, in the reverse, in seeking an alliance-accord before the UNP chose its presidential nominee.
If anything, there were talks of a non-UNP presidential candidate, for a third time in a row, after Elections-2010 and 2015. Even names of those like JHU boss, Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, were doing the rounds. All of it ended suddenly, when the Premadasa camp stuck deep and to its one-point-at-a-time approach, and also being pro-active at that.
In his current feud with Premadasa, Wickremesinghe has been reduced to reacting to the initiatives of the other, though he had handled similar situations with elan, in the past. His game could well be up if even half the number of UNP allies stay ‘neutral’ to the party’s internal battle for supremacy. Or, at least that is what the current tussle for the presidential nomination has come to be seen as – as much by the allies as UNP cadres and the rest.
It is in this context the TNA’s role in shaping the future of the UNP, starting with the presidential nomination, assumes relevance. When Wickremesinghe talks about taking the party’s allies on board, his basic reference is obviously to the TNA, and to the SLMC, the latter to a greater or lesser extent.
At the end of the day, the SLMC and other Muslim parties in the UNP camp now, are not unused to working with whoever is the President. That is not the case with the TNA. This time round, as with Elections-2010 and 2015, they are against the Rajapaksas. In doing so, they are only reflecting the broader Tamil constituency mood in the North and the East.
According to news reports, this is also what TNA’s R Sampanthan and M A Sumanthiran have told Sajith Premadasa in their first round of separate talks after the formal or not-so-formal meeting with all of UNP’s existing allies. There is no denying the Tamil voter-reservations to a Premadasa, even if only next to those against the Rajapaksas.
It is even more so, considering that as President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Sajith’s slain father, had at best a love-hate relationship with the LTTE, which TNA leaders did accept as the ‘sole representative’ of the Tamil community. At the end of it all, the LTTE chose is necessary to assassinate President Premadasa, using a bicycle-borne suicide-bomber, that too in a public rally for the annual May Day.
If his father’s past is still haunting Sajith P’s present, his future may be stuck with those of not only the Tamils but also his own majority Sinhala-Buddhist community. If it’s the anti-LTTE initiatives of Premadasa, Sr, after they had conspired to have the IPKF out, haunts Sajith’s inherited political legacy, the death of tens of thousands of Sinhala youth forming the core of the JVP’s ‘second insurgency’ should also play spoil-sport for his candidacy, if he were to contest either for the UNP-UNF or otherwise.
Yes, the unresolved mystery should remain as to how the TNA is convinced that the UNP as a party, which was behind the unforgettable anti-Tamil ‘Pogrom-83’ could be better than the SLFP, SLPP or any other. It is even more so, how Wickremesinghe could be relatively more acceptable despite his Government not having acted on the promises from the 2015 presidential and parliamentary polls.
If ‘Pogrom-83’ is in the distant past, there again questions remain, as to how the TNA could have marketed war-time Army chief Sarath Fonseka in Election-2010 against war-time President Mahinda Rajapaksa? And if they could bury Pogrom-83 in the distant past, with that should have also been buried ‘Premadasa’s treachery’, if that’s what it was.
Coming thus to Premadasa’s lack of understanding of the ‘national problem’ during his private talks with the TNA duo, as reported in a section of the local media, the question would arise if they had been convinced by Candidate Fonseka’s responses to their queries in the immediacy of the conclusion of ‘Eelam War-IV’? Maybe, knowledge-sharing and education of the Tamil masses on what transpired at those meetings, or as to those with Candidate Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 could well be a yard-stick, for them to see that the party is after all on the right track.
Just at present, the TNA is as much confused as is faced with contradictions of its own kind. If they are convinced that the Wickremesinghe’s promises on resolving the ‘national problem’ and addressing the ‘Tamil political concerns’ from the pre-poll era in 201 could not be carried out only because of the inherent nature of the coalition government, what do they now expect the next Parliament to be? Do they think that a different coalition even with Wickremesinghe as President would be able to deliver on the promises made in the past, and now at present, if ever there has been any.
The way the TNA leadership is wanting to hear only Premadasa now, and not any other possible presidential candidate even from the UNP means that they seem convinced about the legitimacy and credibility of the ‘other(s)’ and have problems only about perceptions of Premadasa in matters of the nation’s ‘ethnic politics’. If that were so, and if Wickremesinghe as UNP boss, has reportedly asked Premadasa to meet with allies for the presidential polls, the TNA bosses should have no problem sharing those queries and commitments with the latter, to be able to see where he stood on each one of them.
The fact is that whether for right reasons or wrong, the TNA has given the impression that they are batting, if not battling for Wickremesinghe from day one, whether within the UNP-UNF, and/or viz the Rajapaksas and others from other parties. The ‘Premadasa round’ is only a league match for them, so to say, and the presidential polls alone will be the finals, just as it is for the nation as a whole.
That is where the TNA mystery deepens. If for instance, a candidate, be it from the UNP or otherwise were to become President without the Tamil voter-backing (as dictated by the Alliance), and he also ends up having a Parliament on his side, would it not mean a return to the ‘Premadasa era’, or even Rajapaksa-I, circa 2005, when they had won the presidency without the ‘Tamil support’?
Even if the Tamils have a President of their choice, what is the guarantee that like the CBK I&II and the incumbent presidency of Sirisena, they would still get a favourable political settlement on all issues, now starting with ‘war crimes probe’, which has had the knack of pushing constitutional amendments, and/or a new Constitution to the background?
Anyway, post-parliamentary polls, which could well be as early as in April next, and cannot be later than August, the present Constitution Assembly would have died a natural death, in the absence of some of its present members, who are there by virtue of they being members of the current Parliament.
In such a scenario, independent of what may happen to the TNA in the parliamentary polls, even if the Tamils vote for the candidate of the party’s choice in the presidential elections earlier, they have the standard, well-rehearsed one-liner to repeat all over again: “Meendum pizhai vittom!” (“We have committed the ‘mistake’, of backing the ‘wrong horse’, or the ‘Sinhala presidential nominee’, all over again…”).
For, if the winners are of TNA’s choice, they would blame it on the rest, the absence of a two-thirds majority and also the uncertainty about clearing a ‘public referendum’. If their candidate lost the presidential poll, then the TNA would be embarrassed even more to approach him, and would instead knock at the doors of the international community, earlier at India’s, now at that of the US, and who knows, whoever in the future!
The Tamils’ woes, real and/or imaginary, would remain, to be taken to yet another round of presidential and parliamentary polls. The question then would be if the TNA would still be relevant to Tamil politics in the country, leave aside it being relevant to national politics. Better or worse still, in the absence of a relatively cohesive TNA, which it is anyway at present, will the Tamil parties and politics be at all remain relevant to the larger scheme of national politics and ‘national problem’?
To this extent, the presidential polls and the subsequent parliamentary polls this time are more crucial for the Tamil community than any time in the past, including the LTTE and pre-LTTE eras since Independence. Unfortunately, it would seem, the TNA leadership in particular and the Tamil community, otherwise, seems not to be aware and/or alive to the possibilities of the kind! They are living in own paradises, which they admit are not the ones they want. They are still the ones that they feel comfortable with!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: email@example.com)