It may read uncharitable to blame the Tamil social and TNA political leaderships for the community’s current dilemma on whom to vote at the November 16 presidential polls. If they are serious about a candidate from among the longest list of 35 to honour the recent five-party ‘Tamil consensus’ on their collective demand for conferring ‘separate sovereign’ status’ if elected, they cannot but back fellow-Tamil candidate, M K Shivajilingam. But then they began by sacking Shivaji, a Tamil political maverick and a kin of slain LTTE supremo Vellupilla Prabhakaran.
Instead, they want to choose between the two main contenders — Housing Minister and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP’s Sajith Premadasa. and war-time Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is also the brother of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. There is of course the JVP’s Aruna Kumara Dissanayake, AKD, whose party, the TNA without second thoughts had opted to be a post-poll ally of sorts in Parliament as long as they themselves had R Sampanthan as the Leader of the Opposition.
It is anybody’s guess why the TNA and the JVP did not seek to work together and further, both inside and Parliament. Or, why the TNA did not seek to bring together all ‘minority parties’ on the same side. With the JVP’s minimal five percent vote-share, and the Sinhala-Christians current estrangement with Establishment Sri Lanka, they could well have over 40 per cent vote-share with them… It could well not be difficult for them to even consider fielding a presidential candidate on the ‘minority plank’, whether he was an ethnic or Upcountry Tamil, Tamil-speaking Muslim, or a Sinhala of the JVP, ex-JVP kind or a Sinhala-Catholic, which community (otherwise) has a substantial base among the northern Tamils, especially.
Tucking to UNP coat-tails
Instead, the TNA chose to tug on to the coat-tails of the UNP, especially-Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. When the UNP did not play into Wickremesinghe’s card of the party requiring the ‘minority votes’ (read: TNA/SLT votes) if it had to aspire to win, and implied that the latter would accept him alone as his party’s presidential candidate, the Tamil leadership did not know how to react. By delaying the presidential candidate choice, though not wilfully, the UNP did not give enough time to the TNA to recover from the shock of supporting a Sinhala candidate who is not Wickremesinhe or did not have his forceful support as for Sarath Fonseka in 2010 and Maithripala Sirisena (2015).
Worse still, the run-up to the UNP’s presidential choice also witnessed Muslim and Upcountry allies of the party coming out openly for the candiacy of Premadasa, Jr. With the result, the TNA, as much as the Wickremesinghe camp, was left with little or no choice on the candidate of an anti-Rajapaksa ticket. Today, the Tamils are sure whom most of them do not want: a Rajapaksa, whether Gota or Basil, Chamal or Namal. They are not sure if they want another Premadasa after the LTTE-slian senior, President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
As if this was not enough, the TNA continued to play along with domineering Jaffna-centric SLT sentiments, to continue treating the Upcountry Tamil allies of the UNP-UNF as ‘untouchables’, like their predecessors since before and after Independence. They have since added a new dimension by alienating the Tamil-speaking Muslims of the Eastern Province, and by extension, capital Colombo, by targeting their homes and establishments after the ‘Estter Sunday’ blasts, like the Sinhala-Buddhist zealots and other hard-liners.
Coming as it did at a time when the traditional political pow-vow between the TNA and SLMC leaderships had stopped occurring as ahead of other elections earlier (whatever the final outcome), there was no seemingly this time. Worse still, on the controversial ‘Kalmunai Pradesiya Sabha division issue’ post-blasts, some Tamil leaders, including TNA leader, M A Sumanthiran, took public positions that read and sounded adversarial to the Muslim posturing on the subject.
In this background, the TNA leadership has been left with little or no choice but to hobnob with parties and leaders who had left the Alliance. Under other circumstances, the TNA would have a cause to celebrate that they were now rid of the controversial leadership of the one-time EPRLF ally, and also their own even more controversial former Chief Minister of Northern Province, retired Supreme Court Judge, C V Wigneswaran. With the current crop of students of Jaffna University, a historic hotbed of ‘Tamil nationalism’ for decades, wanting them all to come together, the TNA could not but sign up as any other…
If rhetoric-strong Gajendra Kumar Ponnambaam chose to stay out, some leaders within the TNA and non-TNA signatories to the five-party combine would be happy. It however remains to be seen if at the end of the presidential elections, whether their candidate wins or not, the five parties would stick together for the parliamentary elections that could come up sooner than the August 2020 deadline, and the much-delayed provincial council polls, which can come up before or afterwards – if not along side.
The problem for any Sinhala candidate, or another abiding by the existing Constitution, lies in the five-party Tamil combine’s demand for the Sri Lankan State under the leadership of the chosen one, having to acknowledge the community as a ‘separate sovereign’. It goes far from the ‘shared sovereignty’, if any, under a ‘federal’ set-up or a ‘confederal state’. It is also much different from the ‘surrendered sovereignty’, as in the case of UN, and affiliates of the latter, like UNHRC, and UNDP, IMF and the World Bank.
On record, no mainline candidate, including Sajith Premadasa and AKD can be expected to accept the ‘collective Tamil pre-condition’ on the ‘sovereignty question’. It is not only about their losing the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ voters, which anyway is guaranteed to happen. It is about their compromising the Sri Lankan State sovereignty, without having to dwelve deep into what (all) is in store.
The problem for the TNA, on the other hand, is that without such a public commitment, possibly in writing, their own Tamil youth, or separatist sections’ within, may have no reason to heed their campaign in favour of one or the other candidate. T”he fact that the TNA first, and the five-party combine since, do not want to consider AKD, Sivajilingam, or other ‘Tamil-friendly’ candidates like Independent Rajiva Wijesinha, who had worked with them closely as a member of the Rajapaksa regime’s negotiation team with the TNA, but only with one of the two main contenders with a chance to come out victorious, also shows that they are serious about it all.
In this, the Tamil political leadership cannot be seen as running with the hare and hunting with the hound. Worse is the case of the two main contenders, who have everything to lose and nothing to gain, from scripting such a scenario, and also be a part of the main cast. They will lose not only the larger Sinhala vote but also their own personal and political base, both within party cadres and non-committed voters.
Dividing Muslim votes
If however Premadasa still has a fight on his hand, it’s because other ‘minority parties’ in the UNP-UNF fold (now rechristened as the ‘Democratic National Front’, or DNF, for no earthly reason), have signed up for him, independent of the TNA position and posturing. Yet, there is a huge question if SLMC boss, Rauf Hakeem’s criticism of fellow-Muslim leader, M L A M Hizbullah, for contesting the presidential polls and seeking to divide the community votes, would bear fruit, one way or the other.
At the height of the post-blasts political targeting of the Muslim community, Hizbullah, the chosen one of President Maithripala Sirisena, had to quit as the Governor of Eastern Province. Another Muslim leader, Rishad Bathiudeen, had to quit, followed by ‘in-sympathy’ resignation of six other representatives of the community in Team Wickremesinhe. Though Bathiudeen and the rest, led by Rauff Hakeem, returned to the Government and to the very same ministry with equal swiftness as they quit, the avoidable controversy over the former not being fielded to speak at Premadasa’s maiden poll campaign at Colombo’s Galle Face Green may not have gone down well with a section of the community, whether or not they supported or sympathised with Bathiudeen earlier.
Of course there is the Upcountry Tamil supporters of the Sajith ticket. They have been been with the UNP-UNF, as allies and ministers. That by itself should have put off CWC leader Arumugan Thondaman, leaving him with little choice to sign up for Gota R. Rather, if the Premadasa ticket were to have considered signing up Thonda along with other Upcountry Tamil allies, they might well have walked on to the other side, no questions asked, no principled stand, either.
Yet, questions remain about the pregnant silence of TNA boss and the only acceptable Tamil leader, R Sampanthan, who was/is among the few to have overcome the ‘anti-Eastern bias’ of the domineering “Jaffna Tamils’, including their Diaspora elements. It is anybody’s guess if the 13-point, five-party Tamil alliance’s agenda for supporting a presidential candidate has had his blessings or not – whatever may be said by him, or on his behalf once the framers of the same had struck an ‘acceptable deal’ (?) with the candidate of their choice.
That way, whether or not the Tamils’ vote help win or lose the presidency for a mainline Sinhala candidate, clearly this presidential election, along with the parliamentary polls that may follow sooner than expected, may signal the passing of the Tamil leadership baton from Sampanthan – to a collective few, at least initially, than to a single individual. Between now and the presidential polls, it however remains to be seen if the two parties and the individuals who would not accept the TNA leadership (and the reverse was also true) would help consolidate the Tamil electoral position , or torpedo TNA’s decision, from within. That all may also hold the key, not only to the presidential polls, but also to the future of Tamil politics in the country.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)