By Dayan Jayatilleka –
It is not in the interests of the TNA and the other parties of the Tamil and Muslim minorities to be associated with an unpopular PM, on an indefensible issue. It is also not in the interests of ethnic and ethno-religious reconciliation that the minority parties be so precariously positioned.
When an impeachment motion was brought against President Premadasa he obtained the support of the minorities but he also had the support of a larger slice of the majority, including the Buddhist clergy and the poorer classes. Furthermore, the economy had revived and he was popular due to his welfare measures. President Premadasa also had a credible progressive narrative in his own defence and with it, he occupied the moral high ground (“this is a class struggle”).
I should know, as I was one of the most prominent public defenders of President Premadasa during the impeachment crisis—something for which I almost paid with my life when attacked by a lynch mob at Kanatte on August 10th 1992 at the funeral of Gen Kobbekaduwa. I felt I was defending a noble cause—that of protecting Sri Lanka’s equivalent of a Salvador Allende, Mohammed Mossadegh or Patrice Lumumba, from a pro-Western, rightwing conspiracy. I did not have to defend President Premadasa from the charge of bringing in a Fat Cat friend from a foreign country, installing him on the strategic heights of the economy and turning a blind eye (to put it charitably) while he ripped-off the country and thereby saddled the people with a huge financial burden!
So, the context during the anti-Premadasa impeachment was as different as it could be from today’s situation of the anti-Ranil no-confidence motion. The minority parties should not get on the wrong side of this one, defending a leader who, as the results of the local authorities’ election proved, cannot carry the majority of the majority.
If the Tamil and Muslim parties support the PM on April 4th, they would not only be taking a stand in support of someone who is not supported by the majority of the majority, they would be committing at least three more serious blunders. They would be standing on the opposite side of the SLFP, a moderate Sinhala party which is a significant partner of the coalition government, and which, if it goes into opposition, would be a no less significant component of it.
If the minority parties vote with Ranil they would risk taking a stand which is not that of the Executive President.
They would also be supporting the status quo in the UNP, which would not be welcomed by the dissidents/potential successors in the UNP who are waiting to take over and most probably will, sooner rather than later.
If they back Ranil, the minority parties would of course be at variance with the JO led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, which is the largest single political force in the country and the only one that is on the ascendancy.
By supporting Ranil the minority parties would stand in anger of confirming one of the longest standing tenets of Sinhala majoritarian populism, which the late Regi Siriwardena correctly called “ethno-populism”. That ideological tenet is that the minorities “always support the pro-Western reactionaries and never the cause of the progressive masses”. Though this is not strictly true in an empirical sense, i.e. it is not strictly factual, it is also true that Tamil leftists like N. Sanmugathasan always accused the Federal Party and the Tamil Congress of failing to support any progressive legislation and consistently opposing such steps—his favorite example being Philip Gunawardena’s Paddy Lands Act of 1958.
It these wrong optics, of the minority parties supporting the UNP which itself is a minority party in the sense that it supports the “haves” rather than the “have-nots”, that adds a powerful populist charge to majoritarian ethno-nationalism.
Under two years away from national elections, such a rekindled perception would only impact upon the policy agenda of the incoming populist government, as the Tamil parties’ support for the UNP in 1965-1970, provoked the then Opposition into a chauvinist response which impacted on the policy agenda of the 1970 government. That agenda included the 1972 Constitution which removed safeguards for the minorities, and the ghastly discriminatory policy of District-wise and media-wise standardization of marks for university entrance.
The Tamil and Muslim parties would do well to understand that the country is in a transition, away from the mood and arrangement of January 8th 2015. The Tamil leaders thought that January 8th 2015 was irreversible—indeed the most distinguished of them told me this later that year. Even more so, the external (mainly but not exclusively) Western patrons if not architects of this regime change thought it was irreversible. That has proved delusional and was predictably so. The President is seeking to preserve some aspect of the 2015 change by effecting triage and surgically excising the most gangrenous of the Greens. If the PM fails to resign by April 4th, then a more wide-ranging re-composition of the 2015 outcome will be sought through the vote. Which side of this effort do the minority parties wish to be seen on?
If the painless change of April 4th fails then there will be a rupture, with the SLFP or a significant part of it going into the opposition with its votes. In any case the SLFP’s residual 13% vote will shift to the JO-Pohottuwa, with or without the SLFP MPs.
Do the minority parties wish to stay on board a sinking ship? Or do they wish to be part of the transition and the incoming dispensation of 2019-2020? What they do now will not only influence their shareholding in the emergent political order, but much more crucially, will help shape the political and social ideology as well as the policy agenda of the incoming government.
Is it at all prudent to be on the wrong side of this inevitable transition, which is either imminent or visible on the horizon?
The Tamil and Muslim parties tried it the other way around in 2015, namely, throwing the combined weight of the minorities behind a bloc that won a minority of the votes of the majority. That experiment — the majority of the minorities plus the minority of majority– is coming apart at the seams. Isn’t it manifestly in the enlightened self-interest of the minority parties to try the other option, namely to invest politically in a bloc that can carry the majority of the majority? Imagine how quickly the 13th amendment could have been implemented and built upon, had the TNA allied with Mahinda Rajapaksa in his second term!
What the minority parties, Tamil and Muslim, should perhaps do now is to ask themselves what their most successful leaders like S. Thondaman would have done. I recall what the great Mr. Thondaman told my father at our regular dinner at his residence in the flats near Royal College. When my father asked him to sum up the secret of his political success, he strangely replied: “are you enjoying your thosai?” My father, puzzled, replied that it was excellent. Mr. Thondaman then pointed to the woman who was making the thosai, and said “just watch how she does it—the secret is her wristwork; she flips it over at exactly the right moment.” Then he paused and said with a cryptic smile: “that is the secret of my political success. I know exactly at which moment to turn the thosai”.
It is time for the Tamil and Muslim parties to pivot. But will they instead conform to the reputation that the liberal Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban gave the Palestinians, more than a little unfairly—that “they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”?