Colombo Telegraph

Politics, Like Nature, Abhors A Vacuum: The TNA Moves Nearer Centre Stage

By Kumar David

Prof Kumar David

Something is quietly happening below the radar; it is not declared, nor is it policy, and I think the TNA senses that all this complicates its life; but when there is a political vacuum other actors, inevitably, are sucked in. What is the political vacuum? Who is being sucked in? There is an empty space in southern (Sinhala) politics; the turncoat left which kowtows to Mahinda Rajapakse is dead; it’s now called the Dead Left. The UNP is as impotent as a surgically castrated eunuch. Hakeem and the SLMC are competing with the Dead Left for the rank of first licker of presidential boots. The radical left is splintered. The opposition is a vacuum that would do Evangelista Torricelli proud!

The reluctant floss breezing in to these vacated spaces, believe it or not, is the TNA and its spokesman Sampanthan (S1) and Sumanthiran (S2). It started before the Northern Provincial Council elections and reached a high point in S2’s address to parliament in early December in the budget debate. I am surprised how many Sinhalese friends and the flood on the web pointing out that S1&2 are taking up national issues better than the Sinhala opposition. Maybe people are impressed by the novelty of a party long identified with Tamil politics expanding its compass to national issues. Or maybe it is approval of the TNA for not playing dirty politics, at least not to the same extent as others. Either way it is a sign of puberty; the TNA is morphing. This is welcome; let us wish S2 ever thicker testosterone.

If the TNA enters national politics, without compromising its mandate from the Tamil people, (and why not? what’s the contradiction?), it would be a great gain. The fault with Tamil politics for seven decades is not that it focussed on Tamil issues, that is a must, but that by and large Tamil political ideology remained reactionary.  You want examples? I will give you examples. Think of hardened old comprador GGP who voted to strip plantation workers of their citizenship; think of diehard SJV who opposed everything progressive that NM and the old-left attempted on the social and economic front. Think of the quintessential petty bourgeois Amirthlingam – in fairness, he was not a fossilised reactionary. Now things are changing. It is not that Ganesh, lord of wisdom, visited S1 in a trance, it is not that S2 experienced epiphany on the road to Jaffna, it is that if things that should happen don’t happen, then other things happen; my vacuum theory.

Mahatma, Madiba and Marx

A note on dates first; Mandela was born in 1918, Marx 100 years earlier in 1818. Gandhi’s birth was positioned almost exactly midway, 1869. The Federal Party (FP) and its successor the ITAK, if viewed in this background, is a pendulum. The FP and its founder SJV were avowed Gandhians, sworn to abide by the Mahatma’s path of satyagraha and ahimsa. This died with the rise of the LTTE compelling the ITAK/TNA, on pain of death, to submit to its gun. Post-2009 the Gandhian embryo has pupated into the voice of reconciliation, refusing like Mandela, to be defined by the enemy, the racist state. It is taking its first steps to reach over the head of the regime to the Sinhala people. The speeches and writings of S1&2 address national issues of relevance to all; abuses of the ‘royal’ family, corruption and venality of leaders, a budget which is a caricature of economic policy.

The argument, perhaps justifiable some decades ago, of why the FP/ITAK/TNA remained mum at best, backward reactionaries at worst, on social and economic issues is that it had to prioritise the national question and could not afford the divisive luxury of intra-Tamil conflict; divisive for class or cast reasons. After the LTTE, this is all gone; whatever its other faults and they were many and grievous, the LTTE impacted cast politics and women’s liberation, and gave voice to the poor and the underprivileged. The war could not have been fought without mobilising the great unwashed. Thousands of young women were armed and fought side by side with men. The significance of this for social and familial liberation of women will prove irreversible. Society has changed; the clock cannot be turned back.

The second reason that could prove important in forcing Tamil politics to face up to class issues is that a Northern Provincial Council Administration has come into being. The Administration has to make decisions, it has take actions; nothing can be class neutral. Developmental decisions have social and economic implications; they cannot remain class neutral. True, the NPC is not faced with a choice between fire breathing revolution and hardcore capitalism, but policy orientation will have a radical or a conservative tilt. S2 has done a good job championing bourgeois democracy, but though he may dread the day, fast moving events will not let him rest. He will, sooner than he thinks, have to take sides in the tussle between radicalism and social conservatism. He is a clever chap, and if he could cram up the law so well, surely he can pick up his Marx with modest effort!

From Mahatma to Madiba, and from Madiba to Marx, that journey will mark the emergence of a next Tamil left; this chrysalis can emerge only out of the mass movement that flowered in September 2013, not out of thin air.


The strong relationship the TNA has nurtured with the Tamil diaspora is good and healthy. It listens and consults but makes decisions on its volition; the tail is not allowed to wag the dog. Some in the diaspora encouraged the LTTE to gallop to purgatory. Other movements have been constructive and served a vital role in mobilising international support on human rights issues and international pressure was a sine qua non in compelling the Rajapakses to reluctantly acquiesce to NPC elections.

There is a relationship maturing between the TNA’s proxy, the NPC Administration, and the international community. David Cameron’s visit to Jaffna and the invitation to Wigneswaran to drop in at No.10, and now Delhi’s invitation, bypass the despised Rajapakses. The BJP ousted Congress in Rajasthan a few days ago and the rout of Congress in Delhi Assembly elections may be the forerunner to defeat in national elections in March 2014. The Aam Admi (Common Man’s) Party’s impressive performance in Delhi shows there is room for a third force – not as a winner but as a player. The Indian state faces an uncertain short term future; changes will impact on the Tamils and the TNA.

As it moves closer to the centre of the national political stage, faces socio-economic choices in the North, and premiers on the international scene, the TNA will have to make decisions. These are challenges that call for great intelligence, flexibility and sensitivity.

*Version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on December 12,  2013

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