The All-Party Conference on the 13th Amendment convened last week (26) ended in predictable discord, but that was not so much for the hypocrisy of the convener, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, as you might have already heard from a horde of lawmakers.
Hypocrisy was pervasive on all sides, but probably more so on the opposition, even more on the Tamil political representatives, the latter having harped on the inadequacy of the 13th Amendment throughout its existence, suddenly found a sense of urgency to hold provincial council elections and dismissed a rare opportunity that had brought together Southern political parties to explore the full implementation of the 13th Amendment.
That’s the kind of hypocrisy not called out by your usual NGO captains and other sections of chattering classes, whose criticism, don’t be naïve, is not about undermining Ranil Wickremesinghe as a person. If that is the case, that is all fine. But that is more about undermining the Sri Lankan state at one of its most feeble moments. That makes it not just hypocritical but also sinister.
On his part, President Wickremesinghe offered to negotiate the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, with amended police power and enhanced power in certain other areas, such as the powers granted to provincial councils to open universities, schools, industrial parks etc. That is a bold gesture for a man who does not command the support of the Sinhalese majority. Generally, Southern leaders do not broach the topic of devolution from a position of weakness. Nor does it make them strong. The historical practice has been to retreat to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism to prop up their ranks.
To call Mr Wickremesinghe indulging in a political gimmick design to win Tamil voters is cheap talk. His detractors of the opposition allege that Mr Wickeremesinghe being sure that he would get Mahinda Rajapaksa’s nationalist votes, is now throwing breadcrumbs to Tamils to win the North.
In the first place, if Mr Rajapaksa believes he has enough voters left with him, he would not be relying on Mr Wickremesinghe to save his skin. On the other hand, winning Tamil votes alone does not make you electable. If you lose the majority Southern vote, any victory is no victory!
Probably, Wickremesinghe is driven by more earthly calculations. He should be believing that the general goodwill of managing the economic crisis and gradual economic recovery would provide him with a level of leverage that could be harnessed to find a political solution to the Tamil political aspirations.
He is also capitalizing on a unique post-Aragalaya political climate that should make meaningful negotiations less acrimonious. The Aragalaya challenged the old-school political powerplay, which relied on racist dog-whistling to come to power. However, that window of opportunity is also closing as people forget the queues. Hence the sense of urgency. Alas, the TNA, which defined its whole existence clamouring for devolution, does not seem to share that sense of urgency.
What is sauce for the SJB is not sauce for TNA
The SJB and JVP have rebuked presidential overtures arguing that it was another gimmick by Mr Wickremesinghe. The SJB said in a statement: “If he ( the president) really wants to solve the issues facing Northerners, he must hold provincial council elections first. The Provincial Councils have been defunct for over 4.5 years, and they are under the Governors.” That is a tactical, still self-serving posturing by the SJB.
But TNA is not the SJB. After all, SJB or JVP did not write to the Prime Minister of India urging for devolution, which TNA did, nor have forefathers of Sinhala majority opposition parties defined their political existence on primordial aspirations or passed Waddukkodai resolution and thought they could win their demands by intimidating the Central government by aiding and abetting an armed struggle, which then bumped off most of their benefactors of old school Tamil politics.
“PM Modi also expressed the hope… implementing the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution — which flows from the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 — and holding provincial council elections. But yesterday, we were told to choose one or the other!!” TNA MP Sumanthiran tweeted after the meeting.
This is a rhetorical and self-serving explanation of things.
Sri Lanka does not have a problem with holding regular elections. In fact, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is more a populist leader than an authoritarian one, held more elections, too early, scheming the electoral calendar to his advantage. The biggest enemies of the electoral process were the LTTE, which the TNA accepted as the only representatives of Tamils, and the JVP; both groups prevented their captive constituencies from voting at gunpoint.
The opposition’s demand for the holding of local government elections, which had been delayed for two years, first over the delimitation of electoral boundaries and later due to Covid, both times invoking no opposition from the political opposition, has little to do with electoral rights of the public. Nor does it appear that the Sri Lankan public really cares about holding elections at the moment. It is the opposition parties that are demanding elections because they believe they could capitalize on the public anger over the mishandling of the economy and current economic hardships. Interestingly those were the same folks who vehemently opposed holding Parliamentary elections according to the electoral calendar in 2020, of course on reasonable concerns over the pandemic, but also to delay the inevitable of losing. The sense of urgency of the SJB and JVP is also because the overall public sentiment is fast changing. If Mr Wickremesinghe holds presidential elections first- premature calling of the presidential election before the expiration of the full term requires a constitutional amendment- it would be a totally different outcome.
Back to old habits
TNA’s reluctance to use the opportunity to negotiate a substantial devolution of powers is not about the electoral rights of people- or not even short-term political opportunism manifest in the Southern political opposition. TNAs reasons are far more sinister.
First, its stance is maximalist, and whenever there is a permissive political context, it has invariably shifted to its maximalist position. Similarly, now it has signalled a shift from the 13th Amendment to a federal state. “Our position is that power-sharing must be in a federal structure, consistent with the aspirations of Tamil people expressed at every election since 1956,” it said in a statement. A federal arrangement is a no-go area for the mainstream Southern political parties. Under such a circumstance, talks would lead nowhere.
Second, the Maximalist posturing of the TNA and its fellow travellers is designed as part of an electoral strategy. Northern Tamil leadership had played this game, trying to prove one’s Tamil nationalism over the other circa independence- One of the first and fate-defining such ventures was S.J.V. Chelvanayakam’s withdrawal from ACTA to form the Federal Party over the former’s decision to join the UNP led government.
Sri Lanka’s ethnic composition is not complex, but the Northern Tamil elites have made it poisonous.
The strategy of the TNA, yet again, is to keep that toxic pot boiling.