By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The Tamil politicians and civil society movements are about to blow it—yet again.
A week after the TNA’s Mr. Wigneswaran, Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council, presiding over a militant mobilization at Mullivaikkal, greatly exceeded the remit of the Provincial Council by declaring a Tamil Genocide Day and a Tamil Genocide Week, the TNA’s Mr. Sumanthiran hopes to move the draft of a new Constitution which will give more power to the Provincial Councils and less power to the Center vis-a-vis those councils. And he thinks the parliament will give the draft a two thirds majority and the country will ratify it at a referendum by majority vote, or that the Sinhalese will vote ‘NO’ while the Tamils vote ‘YES’ and show the world the results of their ‘plebiscite’.
The Tamil politicians must take the self-deprecatory Sinhala folk saying “Sinhala modaya, kavun kanda yodaya” far too seriously—a habit I would have thought had ended on the same day they are so eager to commemorate, i.e. May 18th at Mullivaikkal. The ‘good cop-bad cop’ division of labor just won’t work.
What is much more likely is that the Northern Provincial Council will go the way it did in 1990, when a UNP President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, was forced to dissolve it. The rhetoric and symbolism that is manifesting itself in the North is such that the Yahapalanaya government is in all probability the last that will tolerate such outrageous provocation.
With the Jaffna university students playing the militant catalytic role of the Northern student and youth fronts, the Thamil Ilaignar Peravai (Tamil Youth League) and Thamil Manavar Peravai (Tamil Students League) of the early 1970s, under very different circumstances indeed (with a liberal government currently in office rather than the discriminatory one of that earlier time), the next President and government are likely to be elected in 2019-2020 on a platform of putting the lid back on.
To put it bluntly, a bloodless, constitutional ‘Tiananmen solution’ may become inevitable under a local Deng Xiaoping equivalent.
To spell that out, on present form the Northern Provincial Council won’t last longer than 18 months, if that. This is not to say that the 13th amendment will or can be scrapped. It means that the 13th amendment will remain on the books while the Northern PC goes back into mothballs as it did from 1990 to 2013. It also means that Jaffna University may have an extended vacation along Southern lines (where campuses have a history of remaining shut for extended periods).
This does not mean that Sinhala diktat must or will be imposed in the North. The 13th amendment helpfully provides for an Interim Administration, and the North can be run by one such, comprising of pragmatic Tamil political elements, until good sense dawns in that part of the island.
Anyone with the most cursory acquaintance of either Sri Lanka’s political history or arithmetic should see the need for a broad anti-UNP alliance and that no single political party could win at the next election. In short, a passing acquaintance with the basics of Sri Lankan politics and political strategy should show the flaw in the SLPP’s recent assertion that such an alliance was not necessary.
It has been an axiom of Ceylonese/Sri Lankan politics that the UNP can be defeated only by a center-left alliance or as it is sometimes known, the broadest united front of anti-UNP forces.
Whenever the SLFP has won it has been at the head of a coalition and whenever it has lost it has been shorn of partners and allies.
This has been so much the case that the UNP strategists have, through the decades, made it a goal to break up the coalitions headed by the SLFP. Today the SLFP is not what it used to be and its place has been taken by the SLPP.
This also means that what was true of the SLFP is also true for its successor party, the SLPP.
Certainly the SLPP which scored an impressive 40% at the 2018 local government election, cannot bridge the gap of 10% without the support of the SLFP.
It may think that it has won that 10% away from the SLFP already, but that an unproven assumption and in any case is far too risky an assumption to make.
It must be recalled that when President Rajapaksa lost in January 2015 he had scored in the high 40% percent range and when Mrs. Bandaranaike lost the 1988 Presidential election she had scored almost 45% of the vote, which is more than the Pohottuwa has. 45% is just not good enough, and that is even more so for 40%.
On present form, it cannot be ruled out that at a Presidential election the leading Opposition candidate may not get the requisite 50.1% in the first round and may have to head into the run-off.
It is true that Ranil Wickremesinghe, a chronically unsuccessful Presidential candidate is the front-runner on the UNP side, in the Presidential stakes. Even his manifest political weakness provides no excuse for a go it alone strategy on the part of the Opposition. Faced with as alienating and alienated UNP leader as Sir John Kotelawela, the progressive forces still chose to adopt a broad front strategy rather than a single party strategy, when contesting the 1956 General election.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no guarantee that Ranil Wickremesinghe will be the UNP’s candidate next year. The years 1988 and 2015 are the best examples of the unorthodox candidacies that could lurk. Any Opposition strategist who does not consciously strive to unite all possible anti-UNP forces and even dissident elements from within the UNP, is only setting the Opposition up for an ambush.
A grasp of political history would acquaint any strategist with the tale of the ‘Yamuna’ discussions of 1947, when Sri Nissanka brought together the divided Left and the independents, including SWRD Bandaranaike, at his home (named ‘Yamuna’) in an effort to form a progressive administration. It was a feasible goal which was shot down by Dr. Colvin R de Silva who, with his typical intellectual arrogance and sectarianism, denounced such a coalition government as a “three-headed donkey”.
Thus did Ceylon miss the chance of avoiding a UNP government and commencing its life as an independent state with a progressive and patriotic coalition government, which would have been a closer approximation of the Nehruvian model than was 1956.
The anti-UNP forces never made the same mistake again. In 1950, the Communist Party at its 4th Congress in Matara, put forward the line of the broadest anti-imperialist united front. By 1956, Philip Gunawardene, who had already had broken away from the sectarian LSSP, joined SWRD’s SLFP in a coalition, the MEP, under the symbol of which the 1956 election was contested. The highly intelligent SWRD Bandaranaike did not say that a united front was not necessary and that the SLFP could defeat the UNP on its own! Indeed the first result, from Matale, announced the victory of Nimal Karunatilleke, who was not a member of the SLFP, but of the left.
The LSSP joined the SLFP in coalition in 1964, at Mrs. Bandaranaike’s invitation. Half a century ago, in 1968 at the Bogambara grounds, the Communist Party joined the united front on a common program, and the winning coalition of 1970, the Second Silent Revolution, was born.
Sri Lankan society is so diverse and Sinhala society is itself so uneven and complex– especially with the new and millennial voters– that no party can claim to unite under it banner, all progressive, democratic, nationalist and anti-imperialist forces.
This is where the united front comes in. Only a broad front of anti-UNP forces can guarantee victory even under favorable national circumstances. As Mao said “unite the many, defeat the few!” “Unite all the forces that can be united, neutralize those who cannot, isolate the main enemy”.
Some absurdly want to fight both the UNP and the SLFP, and possibly the UNP, SLFP, JVP and all the Tamil and Muslim parties! Again as Mao used to say “he who wishes to overthrow everybody, eventually succeeds in overthrowing nobody!”