Despite some social media enthusiasts urging TNA’s international spokesperson and parliamentarian, M A Sumanthiran, to contest the presidential elections and some among them even betting a 20-per cent vote-share for his candidacy, the party or the Alliance may actually be going downhill. By putting all its eggs in the Ranil basket, the party may have closed other ‘Sinhala options’ even before the nominations had closed for the 16 November voting.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the TNA is not going to field any candidate, leave alone tasking Sumanthiran with being the poll-face of the larger Tamil community. Should still either or both of them were to happen between now, it could add a surprising twist to the tale. Rather, only a TNA/Sumanthiran ticket could bring back at least some of the action missing from the poll campaign, which unfortunately commenced as soon as the local government election results were known, way back in February 2017, full two and half years ago.
It was half the five-year term of President Maithripala Sirisena, who has declared his intention since not to yield to expectations for his retirement from active politics at the end of his term. Yet, he has also not declared that either he or any other SLFP nominee is contesting for the seat that he now occupies – as an ‘accidental President’.
Like the TNA, he too tried to play political Peter against electoral Paul over the last five years, and is now friend-less, or even ‘foe-less’. No one bothers about him, or the SLFP anymore. Rather, it is the TNA that seems to have pushed itself into a corner, having rode the past five years on the back of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesingh, and offering both its shoulders, in turn.
This is not to under-estimate or criticise Sumanthiran or the TNA in more ways than reality commands. Having entered Tamil politics only after the end of the LTTE war, and in a top-down approach, ‘Suma’, as he is affectionately called, has endeared himself to most sections of the larger Tamil community, as a possible ‘future face’ of the party and the community. In doing so, both Sumanthiran and the Tamil society seems to have shed most, if not all of their mutual apprehensions, including self-doubts.
In a way, Suma is the only positive thing that has happened to the Tamil polity, post-war. The ‘mutual acceptance’ if not ‘acceptance’ needs to be compared with the problems a ‘better-qualified’ C V Wigneswaran, a former Tamil Justice of the Supreme Court, to boot – for what has brought Sumanthiran to where he is today.
In a way, Sumanthiran is the god-son of party boss, R Sampanthan, and Wiggy, the latter’s god-brother, if there was one. Both are Colombo-based, Sumanthiran more than the other, but it is he, through his self-doubts of the forgettable past decade, who has become better acceptable to the party and the society.
Between the two, Sumanthiran began as a political apprentice, and realised early on that he was a product of the party. Wigneswaran, despite, Wiggy, though taking the same route to Tamil politics, would not accept that the institution was larger, bigger and historic than the individual. From day one, he declared that he was not in the ITAK, but was a direct member of the TNA….
It was a ‘unicorn-kind’ of existence, if there were one. As a respected jurist, he should have known at least two things. The TNA is not a registered political party with the Election Commission. So, it does not have an electoral existence, hence a political identity, other than as a sum of the parts, and more. Two, like all other TNA candidates before him, and now after him, Wiggy too contested the historic 2013 Northern Provincial Council only on the ITAK constituent’s ‘House’ symbol.
Majoritarian within minorities
A TNA candidate in the upcoming presidential poll can poll why 20 per cent vote-share, maybe even more, if only the party had started off the campaign early on, and also convinced fellow-travellers from other minority communities, including at times the Sinhala-Christians, who had not identified themselves separately until after the ‘Easter Sunday serial blasts’ earlier this year.
Put together, the minorities may account for close to 30-35-per cent of the nation’s electorate, but the TNA itself has done enough in the past, especially over the past five years, to distance itself from the rest. It had begun with the Upcountry Tamils whom the Sri Lankan Tamils (SLT) never ever accepted as one of them. Less said about the rest the better.
It is thus that even after out-living the LTTE’s ‘Kathankudy mosque massacre’ and ‘forced Muslim exodus’ from Jaffna, the Tamil-Muslim societal relations has remained, though not wholly intact. Yet, the Muslims of Wanni had not felt wanted even now. Nor has the Tamil positing themselves against the larger, innocent sections of the Muslim community after the ‘Easter serial-blasts’, helped matters.
Thus, for the larger Tamil community and society to feel aggrieved against the majority Sinhala-Buddhists in the country, even while holding a ‘majority attitude within the minorities’, is not on. Rather, it is not going to help the Tami society or polity, as they have already found out in holding a ‘white threat’ to the UNP in the choice of their presidential candidate. Truth be acknowledged, every other ‘minority’ party and grouping in the UNP-UNF backed Sajith Premadasa, and within that larger conglomerate, the TNA is seen as being isolated – whether it feels the pinch or acknowledges the same.
At best today, the TNA is at the cross-roads. In turn, if not because of it, the Tamil community too is also where it is so. Defined past, where its record is mixed at best, a tentative present and a unsure future. Ten years after the end of the war, a new generation of Tamils want to live their future in the present, not just the past…. Hence also why the Tamil youth, blaming it all on the Sri Lankan State structure, majority Sinhala polity, and the security forces, whether true or not, is seeking to smuggle itself into Australia, Canada and elsewhere, in the name of ‘minority victimisation’. Truth be told, it is nothing more than their seeking ‘economic refugee’ status, for which there is no provision in any nation’s laws.
The local government elections, in which the TNA’s vote-share plummeted to 35 per cent from the earlier 70-75 per cent in the presidential and parliamentary polls in 2015, should be an eye-opener. If today, however, the TNA’s writ may run in the presidential polls, it has nothing to do with the TNA or its leaders, Sampanthan and Sumanthiran included.
Instead, whoever gets a majority/substantial share of the SLT votes and has reasons to conclude that it was thanks to the TNA, he should actually be thanking the controversial Sinhlaa-Buddhist monk, Gnanasara Thero, for helping the TNA mobilise Tamil sentiments against ‘southern hard-liner’ sections. The TNA should thank the Thero even more.
What is by now known as the ‘Neeraviadi Pillayar Kovil’ controversy in Mullaitivu could not have come at a more opportune time for the TNA and its constituent-parties. It began as a dispute over Sinhala-Buddhists ‘taking over’ control of the Tamil-Hindu Pillayar kovil (or, temple), leading to a court case and local tensions. When the rest of the nation and more so the ‘national media’ was plunged in the UNP presidential candidacy issue, the Buddhists cremated one of their dead monks on the temple premises, disregarding Tamil-Hindu sentiments, and violating court orders to the contrary.
The controversial Gnanasara Thero, heading the equally controversial and violent Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), did not endear himself either to the Tamils and or the courts, when he provoked the Tamil community with his vitriolic-laden references to the ethnic issue. Tamil lawyers in the North boycotted the courts for a week or so, but to no avail. As the protesting lawyers and the larger Tamil community has pointed out, the security forces remained a mute-spectator throughout the weeks of events and developments – if not they were partners to the ‘crime’.
By the same token, the security forces, their officers and men who were present at the venue throughout the controversy, more so during the cremation of a Buddhist monk, could be as answerable to ‘contempt of court’ as Gnanasara Thero and the rest. Yet, like all other issues that have gone by through the past years, from ‘bonds scam’ to Hambantota ‘debt-equity swap-deal’ with China, ‘Avant Garde’ issue, the twin constitutional crises of last year, and more recently, Candidate Gota Rajapaksa’s ‘nationality’ dispute, even the ‘Neeraviadi row’ need not become a deciding factor in the Tamil electoral behaviour.
For the TNA, going beyond the presidential poll, where even if it is able to arouse the Tamil majority in favour of the ‘ethnic threat’, they may be able to garner Tamil votes in favour of their candidates…. if at all. But they will still have to face the parliamentary polls next year, and hopefully the forgotten Provincial Council, poll, too, not to mention the local government polls, which may now be due by 2022, five years after the previous one in February 2022.
That is also all the time that the TNA has to prove its mettle, and make itself acceptable to the new-generation Tamil voters. Having failed even in thinking about moulding the GenNext Tamil views, post-LTTE, they now will be led by the latter, influenced more by emotions of the Neeraviadi kind, and propaganda by the Diaspora LTTE-backers. The fact is the TNA has lost the initiative, and it has three or four great electoral opportunities, to try and regain its moderate path to leading the Tamil youth from the front.
That is to say, the TNA leadership may at best have just five years to prove itself, re-shape and re-engineer itself, to become acceptable to GenNext Tamil voters, for whom jobs and incomes, peace and prosperity, denied to their parental generations, may be as much important as ideology and self-respect. How the TNA is able to mix or re-mix both within a short span, convince the old-timers and also appeal to the new voters, is a myth that no one in the party seems wanting to acknowledge, leave alone address!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)