Tamil parties need a new political approach

As India appears increasingly unwilling to head-butt with the Sri Lankan government

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By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham

Speculation is rife about the meeting the visiting Indian National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, had with Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader, R. Sampanthan, half an hour before his departure, with those in the know saying the two talked about the future of the provincial councils, which would give some devolution to the Tamils, and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which led to the setting up of the councils. It is also learned both parties had agreed to keep the issues discussed a secret, owing to the sensitivity of the issue.

During the meeting, Doval, who was in Sri Lanka ostensibly for the trilateral maritime cooperation summit last month, had expressed interest in the economic development of the Northern and Eastern Provinces and advised Sampanthan the TNA should follow suit.

The expressed interest is indicative of India’s inability or unwillingness to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government with regard to domestic political issues, be it the constitution or devolution of power. This is despite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s insistence, during his official meetings with the Rajapaksa brothers, that the aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils be addressed through the full implementation of the 13th Amendment.

Interestingly, the Rajapaksa brothers have always maintained a studied silence in front of Modi, only to give lengthy interviews to prominent English language news papers in New Delhi later, explaining why they are unable to grant anything against the will of the Sinhala majority. Their response to Modi’s latest request regarding Tamil problem was no different.

No doubt, India will, at superficially, continue to raise the issue and the government will continue to list out why it can’t acquiesce to any resolution that has the word ‘autonomy’.

However, what makes things different in the current context is the fact that India is not prepared to alienate or contradict Colombo at a time when it is engaged in strategic moves with the United States to curb China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean region. Meaning, India will not take any action that could embarrass the Rajapaksa government. That is the Geo political reality today.

In such a scenario, it is more prudent for India to be concerned with economic development than to be at odds with the government over political issues of the Tamils in the North and East. If the TNA is willing to cooperate with the government in this regard, India has said it is ready to provide assistance for development projects in the Tamil areas. This is India’s current approach to the Tamil issue. If the TNA does not cooperate, they cannot expect anything else from India.

The need therefore is for the TNA leaders to change their political strategies and action in line with the economic development approach, which India considers convenient at present, though how it is going to be executed remains a different issue altogether.

One cannot say the TNA has not focused attention on the economic development of the constituencies of its MPs. They have implemented many economic projects with the funds allocated to them annually.

However, aside from the fact that the funds are not adequate for the development envisaged, the TNA’s main collective focus continues to be on a political solution to the ethnic problem. Most of the MPs in the Alliance speak emotionally and live in the past. In the changed geo political arena, they are unable to devise new approaches to guide the Tamil people in the post-war era.

Tamils are not accustomed to a political culture that collaborates with the government in Colombo. Since all the governments in power from the time of independence have discriminated against Tamils, their political parties have always engaged in oppositional politics. Therefore, it has become customary for Tamils to call politicians who work with the government ‘traitors’.

Although it is difficult for Tamils and their political representatives to change from such a political culture, the situation has changed since the end of the war. If the Tamils want to move forward, they need to make changes to their political culture.

When the Maithri-Ranil-led government embarked on the process of drafting a new constitution, the TNA collaborated with the government in an attempt to find a political solution to the ethnic problem through that process. Although the TNA did not join the government, the Alliance fully supported it. However, when the new constitution drafting process failed, the TNA’s influence among Tamils began to wane. Even cooperating with Colombo was to no avail.

In such a scenario, it is an embarrassment to the TNA when India asks it to co-operate with the current Rajapaksa government in economic development activities.

The Rajapaksa government is pursuing a development agenda for the North and East, with scant regard for the sentiments of the Tamil parliamentarians, who are of the view they should be consulted. There is merit to this thinking, for, if the government adopts a strategy that includes the Tamil MPs in its development activities in the North and East, it will be easier for them to co-operate in economic development activities as per India’s insistence. India should use its goodwill to persuade the Rajapaksa government in this matter.

Meanwhile, Tamil parties must not give up the basic aspirations and ideology of the Tamils’ struggle for their legitimate rights, but at the same time they must prepare themselves to adopt a short – term pragmatic political approach or strategies to address the post-war economic and humanitarian needs of the Tamil people, especially given the current context.

The necessity to give up the traditional confrontational politics to facilitate a new approach in the interests of their people doesn’t have to necessarily mean surrendering to Colombo’s indulgences.

– Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is a senior journalist and Consultant Editor, Express Newspapers Ltd

 

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