The Tamil politics in the nation’s North and the East has always been as bizarre as that of the Sinhala South. The majority Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the North and the East stopped wooing the Indian neighbour long ago, but the hard-liner section from within the local Tamil community and the TNA, represented by Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran seems wanting India to ‘intervene’ on their behalf.
Time was when reports said that CM Wigneswaran, on a private visit to New Delhi, declined suggestions for him to seek an appointment with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This was so despite his wearing his Hindu identity, not euphemistically on his sleeves but on his broad forehead, for everyone to see. Modi represents the pro-Hindu BJP and also the hard-line ‘Hindutva’ groups from within the party and in the country.
In such a case, however, more than his ‘Hindu Saiviite’ religious background, Wigneswaran’s ethnic background stood out – and rightly so, it would seem. When seen from a Sri Lankan Tamil hard-liner perspective, Modi was neither a Hindu ideologue, nor a new prime minister and new government, but a continuation of the Indian State. To Tamil hard-liners, India was the ‘villain’ of their ‘peace’.
Irony of India
That is also the ‘irony of being India’. Ask the Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liner, ideologue or otherwise, they would remember only ‘Operation Garland’ and India training and arming Tamil militants, to secure the community from a repeat of ‘Black July’ kind of ethnic pogrom. Ask the Tamil hard-liners and they do not want to remember Vadamarachchi, but only the IPKF, that too after the LTTE provoked a military war with India, which had sent only a peace-keeping force, in good faith.
It is this irony that both Tamil and Sinhala political leaders, and also the Sri Lankan State, at times have been playing up, from time to time, on an issue of their choosing. Ask Gota Rajapaksa, the war-time Defence Secretary, and he has not stopped claiming that ‘but for India’s help, the LTTE could not have been defeated’ – or, phrases to that effect.
Clearly, Gota was not praising India or acknowledging whatever contributions India might have made in neighbouring Sri Lanka’s war on LTTE terrorism. If anything, he was only seeking to provoke Tamil hard-liners into embarrassing not India, but their own TNA colleagues. Whether he intended it or now, every time Gota, or his brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa praised New Delhi’s ‘help in the war-efforts’, peripheral political parties and polarising leaders in the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu, definitely would raise heckled, how much feeble it might have become, over the past ten years and more.
Sharing the spoils?
Today’s Tamil politics in Sri Lanka is akin to the grandmother’s story of four robbers handing over their booty to an old lady and return it to them only when all four of them came together. The lady returns the booty to three of them when they reported after a time, claiming that the fourth one was in hospital and they needed money for his treatment.
When the fourth one comes alone later on and reminds her of the instructions to her, the wise(r) woman, is convinced that the other three had cheated her, after all. Failing to convince the fourth guy, wiser that she has become now, she simply asks the man to return with the other three, as that was also the deal, as he had just insisted upon.
What is true of Tamil moderates and hard-liners all along, viz their government is also true of their approach to India. They have never been together at it, and possibly never ever would they be. Either or the other alone has been holding sway, over the short and the medium term – and there is no more of any long-term polity and political strategy for and by the Tamils any more. Sad, but that is the truth.
Thus, when Tamil moderates of the CTC era was purportedly playing ball with the Sinhala rulers in the years immediately after Independence, the late S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, or ‘Thanthai’ Selva, represented the hard-line section, however mild he might have been compared to the LTTE era. When SJV moderated whatever hard-line position he represented by diluting his Federal Party or ITAK by coming together as (original) TULF, Tamil militancy showed up its face.
Yet, it was not as ‘ugly’ and as determined as it would become under the LTTE. When the LTTE ruled the roost, Tamil moderates either lost their lives or their political identity and possibly, the much-trumpeted Tamil pride and self-respect, too. The TNA was the product of the moderates losing their identity.
Weakened TNA, but…
Today, when the 10 February LG polls have shown up the TNA for whatever it was/is worth – or, less worth – the hard-liner in Wigneswaran has woken up suddenly. Possibly, this was not what his camp really wanted, or expected. Maybe, they wanted the TNA leadership of R. Sampanthan and of the ITAK weakened, and challenged from within – and not the TNA itself.
Even while winning the LG polls in the Tamil areas better than expected, the TNA has actually lost in vote-shared, down to 34 per cent, so to say. Better or worse still, in some Tamil areas, traditional Sinhala majority parties like the UNP and the SLFP too have done better than at any time in the recent past.
Again in the recent past, whether or not the LTTE was around, whenever or wherever the TNA lost, self-styled non-TNA moderates like the EPDP of Douglas Devananda, or one or the other of the localised parties of the Tamil-speaking Muslims alone used to gain. Today, non-TNA, non-EPDP, non-Muslim, hard-line Tamil parties have made a mark.
Adding up, there are more Tamil votes outside of the TNA in the LG polls in the Tamil areas than within the TNA…If not, they are ready to grab it, say, if the Provincial Council polls are to be held later this year, as it should be happening in the normal course.
Playing ‘India card’
It is anybody’s guess if Wigneswaran is keen on having India, or is using the India card just now, to influence the TNA leadership to accommodate him substantially, preferably on his terms than continuing to sideline him, almost from after making him chief minister. The message is also that rather than wanting to step down from power, which he was threatening in the early weeks of his chief ministership, today, he wants to be firmer in the political saddle.
If the Wigneswaran camp thought that a weakening of the TNA leadership would make him more relevant that does not seem to be the case, now. The LG results have thrown up the long-time peripheral hard-liners as the challengers to the status quo, and possible worth electoral competitors, too.
Tamil hard-liner peripherals, identifying in turn with Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam, who has been waiting patiently for long, for the TNA to lose its sheen or relevance, is a tougher nut for Wigneswaran to crack, given the kind of Diaspora hard-liner backing he might be enjoying. Having distanced himself from the TNA, post-polls, and never identifying the ITAK with its ‘House’ symbol, Wigneswaran finds himself more at the cross-roads, than the TNA and the TNA leadership – and possibly, the Tamil community and polity as a whole!
If only the ‘India card’, if not India per se, could help!
(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)