By Kumar David –
There is a fifty-fifty chance that the government will dish out some cock-and-bull excuse and rescind the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections. Nothing can be put beyond its craft and cunning, its sordidness and duplicity. But this leaves us with a fifty percent chance that elections may be held and if so the TNA/ITAK will win; so says everybody I have spoken to, even government henchmen. It is indisputable that this is why the government desires to scuttle the elections if it could get away with it. Authoritarians are totalitarians in that they cannot survive without the total control of power; even one pocket of resistance is fatal for autocrats.
The regime’s instincts are right, and conversely therefore, it is precisely for this reason that it is imperative that the Tamil alliance wins control of the NPC. This is a significant foot in the door; it opens a way to confront the would-be dictators. Every chink in the armour – electoral defeat, economic setback, or spotlight on graft and abuse – is another abscess through which to drive the dagger and twist the blade. An independent PC with a mind of its own, not kowtowing at the beck and call of the Rajapakses, is not a chink but a gaping tear in the armour. The value of defeating the government at the NPC elections cannot be exaggerated, not only for the denizens of the province, but nationally.
It is true that elected provincial councils, provincial administrations, and chief ministers, are statutorily emasculated. Decision making can be wrested away and exercised by a governor who is no more than a puffed up yes-man of the president. It is also true that PCs are miserably funded and after Divineguma their resources further depleted. In these circumstances it is unsurprising, but short-sighted, that some minor parties want the TNA/ITAK to boycott the elections. It is short sighted for three reasons; first, control of the NPC will give the Tamil alliance pole-position in prosecuting the fight for autonomy and against dictatorship; statutorily impotent but politically potent! Secondly, the current regime must be prevented from grabbing this political instrument away from elected representatives of the people. It would be disastrous if the regime, this one in particular, grabs the NPC.
The third reason why a boycott is plain lunacy is the international dimension. Tamils cried themselves hoarse all over the world that they were denied an instrument of self-administration and demanded an elected council. Now when the ship is steering into harbour, how ridiculous to jump overboard! Internationally, it would be a gross contradiction if the Tamils pull out of the NPC elections. Retaining some influence over police and land powers and resisting the army’s land grab whose motive is to change demography in the North, also require international and Indian support.
It takes a Tamil to see through another Tamil. The ITAK leadership no doubt espies that the real motive of those Tamils who call for a boycott is envy. They cannot win, so their ruse is to talk the ITAK out of it as well. I also learnt that when an ITAK leader addressed a gathering in London last month, some Tamils faulted him for speaking up on behalf of Muslims and on broader national issues. “You must stick only to our concerns” was the refrain. Is it only the Jaffna Tamil who is so self-centred that he shrieks in Geneva and all over the world demanding attention to himself, but rejects intercession for others?
There is friction about distribution of nominations, since legally it is not possible to register a new party before September. The TNA is an umbrella of five groups with just one mass party, the Illangai Thamil Arasu Katchi (former Federal Party). Acronyms (leaders) of the others are PLOTE (Sidharthan), TULF (Anandasangaree), TELO (Adakalanathan) and EPRLF (Premachandran). They will be decimated, notwithstanding their presumed standing in the Vannie, if they contest without hanging on to ITAK coat tails. The election will have to be fought under the ITAK name and Veedu (House) symbol, but keeping the TNA concept in the foreground and offering a few nominations to each to the other four will impart a sense of Tamil unity.
The Chief Ministerial nominee is also pending. Sampanthan and Sumenthiran cannot be released from Parliament where they serve vital functions. Former judge Vigneswaran’s name has croped up, I am told he is a good man, but he lacks grassroots standing or political experience. This leaves Maavai Senathirajah as the likely nominee; Premachandran is out of consideration as he is from a minor party.
The programmatic side
There will have to be two sides to the TNA/ITAK manifesto; one, a programmatic side, and the other, perspectives on how to drive for greater Tamil autonomy and sway this towards the fight for democracy at large. While it is not my task to give gratuitous advice to the leaders, I do have my views on a programme for regional governance in the North and East. There are four areas the Northern Provincial Administration must prioritise; education, agriculture-fisheries, transport-communications, and normalisation of law and order.
Historically, education has been the jewel in the crown of Jaffna society; it must be restored to a position of excellence; society is crying out for it. The building blocks are available – motivated students, the raw material from which a reputable teaching profession can be refashioned, and brick and mortar if not academic excellence at Jaffna University. A lot can be done. Schools must be the centre of education and the tuition pandemic rooted out. English language fluency (not just proficiency) must be implanted and ingrained. Diaspora and overseas funding can be channelled into quality education; money will flood in if an effort led by the people and their democratically elected representatives is in place.
Agriculture, fisheries, animal husbandry and toddy tapping are devolved subjects under the PC system. I have read of “the chaos created by devolving agricultural planning and production to provinces along with dismemberment of the original Department of Agriculture” (Cecil Dharmasena, Island, 6 May 2013). The clock cannot be turned back and centralisation restored, but if there is one place where chaos can be overcome and a vibrant system of agricultural support established, it is the Northern Province. In the same piece Dr Dharmasena waxes eloquent on the “dedicated and hard-working northern farmers whose Farmer Cooperatives were exemplary institutions”. These organisations provided information on production, helped with credit and kept a check on marketing. The new NPC administration has its work cut out if it is to measure up to these challenges.
Public transport is in a state of breakdown; literally in respect of the railway. It is scandalous that four years after the war, a fast modern railway is not up and running. There is no excuse as it creates great inconvenience for passengers and imposes an overhead cost on economic activity. I am surprised Tamil leaders of all political hues are silent when it is manifestly absurd that the railway is not functioning; 43 km to Madhu after 4 years is a caricature. I attribute the worst motives to the control freaks in military and government. In the meantime, we fabricate billion rupee white elephant airports in the President’s backwoods home town that not a cat wants to arrive at or depart from!
If the new NPC administration does a good job in the North – Basil can lay roads, but cannot enthuse people or deliver a programme as outlined – the Central Government will put obstacles in the way at every step. Have no illusions about the Rajapakse regime and its chauvinist coalition entourage as all nationalists are imbued with jealousy. They will fight progress, especially law and order. The NPC will have to conduct a prolonged campaign to end military intimidation, remove troops from the streets and have them confined to barracks, end land grabs, and stop the military throwing its weight around. There is no terrorist threat now; this is balderdash spouted to retain the jackboot on the public neck.
There must be no let up in the demand that police powers in Tamil areas be placed in the hands of an elected provincial administration. There can be no impartial law enforcement when a police force staffed by one community and steeped in its ideology holds the whip over another community. There will be enough and more abuses of power by the state for the NPC to capitalise on and keep up pressure. Success is possible if there is tenacity.
I spoke of two sides to the manifesto, a programmatic side as outlined above and transitional perspectives towards a democratic state configuration. The two paragraphs concluding the previous subsection introduced the transitional aspect. There are two sides, in turn, to this aspect; one, the campaign to restructure and devolve substantial power to the Tamil people enabling them to manage their own affairs, and second impeding the dictatorial encroachments of the Rajapakse regime. The first is a general issue, commonly referred to as ‘the political solution to the national question’. This is not specific to the Mahinda regime and will need to be sorted out whoever is in power at the Centre. The second is a very specific matter relating to this regime hell bent on autocracy and a corporatist dictatorship.
The manifesto that I dream of, no doubt the TNA is not much interested in my daydreams, will make reference to both sides. It will spell out how, once it forms the NPC Administration, it will use it as a platform for campaigning for a devolved system of governance for Tamils; the NPC is not an end in itself but a step to substantial devolution. The other aspect is cooperation with democratic movements in the South, that is Sinhalese and Muslims, to defeat the ambitions of the Rajapakse siblings. The two struggles are inseparable; progress along either path creates opportunities and strengthens the other.