Presidential elections have always posed a problem for Tamil nationalist politics. An exclusivist Tamil outlook undermines the articulation of politics and engagement with a leader representing the country.
Tamil nationalist politics singularly focused on regional autonomy and ethno-political demands have continued even after the decades of political changes in the country where state power has been excessively concentrated in the Executive Presidency. Furthermore, with the exception of the TNA leadership in recent years, particularly M. A. Sumanthiran, Tamil political parties have hardly worked towards the abolition of the
The contradiction in this outlook is that they neither prudently engage with the Presidential elections nor organise towards the abolition of this authoritarian majoritarian institution. Rather, Tamil nationalist politics only seeks to wish away the tremendous state power concentrated in the presidency, and if not overtly then through their omissions of engagement tend towards boycotting
The LTTE was able to boycott elections with the power of the gun; most famously when it contributed to the election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, where a narrow victory was contingent on a forced boycott. In the decade after the war, regardless of the positioning of Tamil nationalist politics, the northern constituencies have voted overwhelmingly in some of the national elections. In the upcoming presidential elections as well, the northern Tamil vote will go significantly against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as he more than anyone else is the image of post-war militarisation and repression.
Over the last two months, northern Tamil politics has been rudderless in
The EPDP has predictably joined the Rajapaksa campaign as it has in the past. Furthermore, the remnants of the EPRLF led by Varatharaja Perumal, have taken an opportunistic leap in supporting Gotabaya.
The political parties within the Tamil nationalist fold on the other hand, have been dithering with respect to the presidential elections, and their priority seems to be that of positioning themselves ahead of the parliamentary elections.
The first of these polarising nationalist moves was the Ezhuga Thamilrally in Jaffna last month led by C. V. Vigneswaran and Suresh Premachandran, and supported by the Jaffna University students and lecturers. That initiative, which had split the narrow Tamil nationalist movement with Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam refusing to participate, ended in a flop. The glamour that Vigneswaran enjoyed while in office as Chief Minister has now dissipated, and his political future seems to be in question.
In this context, the university students initiated a move last week to bring together Tamil nationalist political parties around a set of common demands. Five parties led by Maavai Senathiraja (ITAK), Selvam Adaikalanathan (TELO), Darmalingam Siddharthan (PLOTE), Suresh Premachandran (EPRLF) and C. V. Vigneswaran (TPA), all of whom are currently or were formerly with the TNA, have signed an agreement as the basis of engaging the presidential candidates. Ponnambalam (TNPF) walked away from the agreement, again positioning himself on the far right of the Tamil
I argue this agreement signed by the five parties is flawed and counterproductive. Its preamble repeats the old formulation claiming the solution to the Tamil national problem should recognise Tamil national political aspirations, the North and East as the traditional homeland of the Tamils with independent sovereignty, and the right to self-determination of the Tamil people under international law, and institute federal rule. The tone and substance of the 13 demands to be presented to the major presidential candidates, seem to be more for the consumption of their own constituencies, rather than for seriously engaging the presidential candidates.
The important demands for example to abolish the Prevention of Terrorism Act, address the plight of the families of the disappeared and to address the issue of land grabs by the Archaeological and Forest Departments, are lost in the often-repeated rhetoric of international mechanisms. Rather than engage and shift the debates around the presidential elections, these demands couched as exclusivist Tamil demands will only further strengthen the national security and sovereignty discourse currently dominating the South.
I quote here as I have done many times in the past, V. Karalasingham’s profound words:
“We have come against a strange paradox. The Tamil-speaking people have been led in the last decade by an apparently resolute leadership guided by the best intentions receiving not merely the widest support of the people but also their enthusiastic cooperation and yet the Tamil speaking people find themselves at the lowest ebb in their history. Despite all their efforts the people have suffered one defeat after another, one humiliation after another. How is one to explain the yawning gulf between the striving of the people and the virtually hopeless impasse in which they find themselves?
The fundamental flaw in the political strategy of the Federal Party is their conception that the fight for the rights of the Tamil-speaking people is the responsibility solely of the Tamil speaking people themselves and that it is only the Tamils who can wage this fight and that they must do this as Tamils.”
These words were not written yesterday, but in the Young Socialist in 1962 in an essay titled, ‘The Way Out for the Tamil Speaking People’. Despite the continuing hopeless impasse, Tamil nationalist politics, whether it is of the Federal Party or the TNA, are refusing to realise that the rights of the Tamil people cannot be won by the Tamils alone. They have only gone deeper into the search for legal answers of whether it is of constitutionalism or international law, while disregarding political realities. Worse, they have placed their entire future in the mirage of international intervention, which is not only farthest from political realities but also provides fodder for the campaigns of their nationalist counterparts in the South.
The way forward for Tamil politics is dependent on uniting with the other minorities, including the Muslims and the Up-Country Tamils, and progressive Sinhala constituencies. Such a minorities’ consensus with a class perspective joining with a majority of the Lankan citizenry is the hope for both ensuring the rights of minorities and protecting democracy in the country.
In the weeks ahead leading to the elections, the priority for the Tamils and the other minorities, who have time and again come under attack by majoritarian chauvinist forces, is to the ensure that the democratic space continues after the election through the defeat of Gotabaya. However, the minorities positioning in the election debates, particularly on issues of economic justice and political rights linked to future alliances with progressive forces in the South, are going to shape the post-election democratic struggles for equality.