23 October, 2017

Triumphing Triumphalism: Reflections On The NPC Elections

By Mahendran Thiruvarangan

Mahendran Thiruvarangan

For the progressive forces in the country, the night of 21st September would have evoked a mixture of contradictory feelings. The UPFA’s success, despite the slight decline in its vote share in the Central Province, in the elections that take place in the South is worrisome. It underscores how Sinhala Buddhist nationalism obscures the economic woes of the downtrodden people. For many, what happened in the North may appear phenomenally subversive, and therefore deserves praise and celebration. The TNA’s victory in the North is, beyond doubt, a clarion call for demilitarization, resettlement, an end to state sponsored discrimination in the Tamil speaking areas and finally for political liberation. I would also interpret it as a vote for devolution and de-centralization of powers and a clear indication that the voters in the North have rejected the government’s strategy of supplanting the political rights of the Tamils with large-scale development programs. It is a verdict for freedom, justice and self-respect and the writing on the wall is that the Tamils do not want to be treated as second class citizens in Sri Lanka.

The Northern Provincial Council will be the only non-UPFA provincial council in the months to come. We can hope that there will be more pressure on the center from the periphery, from the margins of the nation. Let’s also hope that the new provincial council will offer an alternative to the undemocratic political culture that the Rajapaksha regime has created all over the country. Yet, the TNA’s victory is troubling at the same time. I do not want to get carried away in the nationalist euphoria sweeping across the Tamil media or the liberal discourses circulating on the social media at present. We witness different forms of discrimination (caste, class and gender) in our everyday lives in Northern Sri Lanka. But we do not always see political forces struggling against those forms of oppression contesting or winning elections. To tell the truth, with the rise of Tamil nationalism, many of these mundane forms of discrimination and exploitation within the Tamil community in the North have hardly been electoral issues. In such a political context, the TNA owes its victory partly to the easily mobilizable character of ethnicity-oriented electoral politics within a contiguous territory where a particular ethnicity is the majority. Being reflexive about the majoritarian factor undergirding the TNA’s ascension to power would help Tamils build healthy relations with the Muslims and Sinhalese in the Northern Province who are going to be governed by the TNA-led provincial government (Read Dharisha Bastian’s recent article “Mannar’s holy wars” focusing on the complex ethno-religious tensions between Muslims, Catholic Tamils, Hindu Tamils and Sinhalese in Mannar and the manner in which the numerical strength of the different ethnic and religious communities impinge on their socio-economic processes[1]).

My frustrations with the Northern Provincial Council elections began while the TNA was preparing its list of candidates. The TNA’s failure to nominate Gnanasakthi Sritharan as one of its candidates for the Northern Provincial Council elections shows us the irreconcilable gap between nationalism and social justice in Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. Hence my take on the 2013 elections, particularly the elections for the Northern Provincial Council, begins with the story of Gnanasakthi Sritharan. A more detailed version of what I write below is found in DBS Jeyaraj’s recent piece “Gnanasakthi Sritharan: From EPRLF Comrade to UPFA Candidate[2].

Gnanasakthi Sritharan is a member of the EPRLF (Pathmanaba Wing). She was a member of the merged North and East Provincial Council when Varadarajaperumal was elected as its Chief Minister. Unlike Suresh Premachandran’s EPRLF, Pathmanaba Wing rejected the LTTE’s claim that the latter was the sole representatives of the Tamil people. The EPRLF (Pathnamaba Wing) joined the TNA post-2009, after the defeat of the LTTE in Mullivaikal, with a view to building a unified, larger Tamil political front. Gnanaskathi has been, for many years, a political worker committed to struggling against all forms of social oppression including class, caste and gender. She has had experience in working with grassroot-level women’s movements. The non-ostentatious manner in which she conducted her election campaign in the last few months drew the attention of many of us. She would organize small-scale meetings with women in areas in Jaffna where oppressed caste communities live. She would sit down on the mud floor and talk to the people to understand their grievances. We have hardly seen this form of political activism centered on the grass roots in recent times in Jaffna. The most important aspect of her politics is that she understood the dynamics between different forms of oppression and that they all should be battled against. There was a move to nominate Gnanasakthi on the TNA’s list of candidates for Jaffna district. According to DBS Jeyaraj, many within the TNA were willing accommodate her. However, Suresh Premachandran prevented them from nominating her[3]. The EPRLF (Pathmanaba Wing) decided to contest the elections under the UPFA’s betel leaf symbol. Gnanasakthi was offered a slot by the UPFA, but she did not win the election.

The scholarly work of Sivamohan Sumathy, Sitralega Maunaguru, Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingam and Radhika Coomaraswamy has provided some insightful analyses of the manner in which Tamil nationalism overtly and covertly represents the interests of the middle class, upper-caste (Vellala), patriarchal forces within the Tamil community[4]. What happened to Gnanasakthi Sritharan in the run up to the provincial council elections attests to this view. Besides Suresh Premachandran’s steadfast opposition to EPRLF (Naba Wing), it stems from the TNA’s lack of interest in attending to the serious internal contradictions within the Tamils. One cannot alternatively support the UPFA which overlooked the Tamil community’s political aspirations and obscured its discriminatory politics through a flashy rhetoric of development. While we may be reluctant to back Gnanasakthi as a candidate of the UPFA, we should note that the TNA’s failure to have her on their list is disappointing.

Symptomatic of the TNA’s ethnicity-centered politics, the gender asymmetry in the party’s lists of candidates was appalling. The party nominated only three female candidates for the entire province. The TNA fielded 20 candidates in the Jaffna district. Ananthi Sasitharan was the TNA’s lone female candidate in Jaffna. Ananthi Sasitharan is the wife of an LTTE chief. Her husband surrendered to the military in May 2009, but she has not received any credible information about him since then. She received threats several times during the election campaign. Her house was attacked two nights before the election allegedly by the military. It is remarkable that she withstood all forms of pressure and threats and became 2nd in the preferential votes in Jaffna district. During the campaign, Ananthi presented herself as a voice of war-affected women and women who are searching for their family members who have disappeared or have been abducted and detained by the state and its agents. The thirty-year war has produced new identities within the Tamil community in Sri Lanka: the internally displaced Tamils, the ones who have lost their land, Tamils whose family members have disappeared, to name a few. The aspirations and expectations of these Tamils are, in crucial ways, different from the rest of the Tamils within the North. These new identities speak about state-sponsored discrimination against Tamils in concrete and material terms and deserve our special attention. Even though many attempted to project Ananthi as an LTTE chief’s husband in order to garner more votes for the TNA, I see her as representing one of these new Tamil identities that tries to find a space for itself in the larger political spectrum. Her victory is significant in this respect.

While the TNA was heading for a victory by a ¾ majority in the early hours of Saturday, social media spaces were swarmed by messages from the North, South and diaspora expressing jubilation. For many, the TNA’s victory meant a total blow to the ruling regime and its false claims about successful reconciliation post-Mullivaikal. Some described it as a new dawn. Uthayan newspaper called it the blossoming of the Tamil People’s Arasu (‘Arasu’ is used in Tamil to denote both ‘state’ and ‘government’). We could also see some commentators describing the TNA victory as Tamil revenge and others celebrating it as Tamil pride. Some even posted meaningless statements like “In life and life history, the victory is always for Tamils.” Some of these statements are patently problematic. On the other hand, in our haste to celebrate this successful enactment of our political defiance, we make statements that might appear innocuous and politically unproblematic. It is only when we reflexively looking at our pronouncements that we notice that they carry a disgusting undertone of triumphalism that does not augur well for our future. There is a process of ‘Othering’ happening consciously and discreetly in these utterances. The key question is how and why we want to deploy this victory in our conversations – Is it a marker of pride and revenge? Contrastingly, could we enunciate it a milestone in our democratic quest for justice, equality and liberation? We need to ensure that this victory does not alienate Tamils from the other communities in the island. To allow narrow-minded identity politics to conquer this victory will indubitably prove disastrous. Triumphalism is regressive and divisive. We sadly witnessed how one part of the nation celebrated the military victory in 2009 while thousands of people were being displaced from the Vanni. Living in the South during this time, I felt alienated and cornered. A group of young men celebrating the military victory in the Wanni shouted derisively (I can remember the word “Demala” in what they said) and waved the lion flag at us from a trailer truck, while some of us, undergraduates at the University of Peradeniya, were standing near an eatery. I do not suggest that what is happening in the social media now is comparable to the victory parades held in the South in 2009 or later. Stories coming from the North inform that voters are celebrating the victory silently. However, the undertone of some of the utterances circulating in the social media is a cause for concern, for triumphalism involves the denigration of the ‘Other’ and could lead to a political culture of disengagement, while what is required now is dialogue and discussion.

Crudely put, in the recently concluded elections, Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims have overwhelmingly voted for ethnicity-based political parties that represent the interests of the respective communities. As some of the comments that I saw yesterday, the liberal South may want to celebrate the TNA’s spectacular electoral performance as a victory for group rights and multiculturalism. Yes, we do not have a third force that represents a progressive and connective ideology. The Left, both the new and the old, have failed us. In the absence of a strong alternative force that accommodates multiple struggles in its political program, we have got caught in a web of representational identity politics. Yet, we can be reflexive about it. We need to think about the ways in which the diverse ethnic populations in the country could collectively build an alternative political force and understand and engage with each other’s concerns. We need to keep the flame of solidarity alive, however feeble and flickering it may appear now before the polarizing storms of identitarianism and nationalism.

The historical connections between the different communities on the island, their territorial overlaps and the mobile nature of their identifications and cultures are important realities that we need to reckon with. This does not, however, mean that all the communities in the country face the same problems in the same manner. In the context of state-sponsored discrimination against the minorities, ethnicity has emerged as a key player in Sri Lankan politics. I do not say that we transcend it; but we need to address it constructively and courageously. There are other forces such as class, caste and gender that complicate the political picture further. The progressive character and content of democracy rely on how best we address these interlocking discourses without furthering the divisions and fragmentations that have crippled our communities. Circumventing the traps laid by concepts like group rights and ideologies of multiculturalism and nationalism, we need to navigate our political processes carefully. The concept of group rights often homogenizes communities where power inequalities produce significant social, cultural and economic differences internally. Group rights can also confine us to stifling cultural, political and geographic territories. Nationalisms can reinforce each other and pave the way for destruction. Celebrating our own communities uncritically and non-reflexively for resoundingly supporting a political party that represents, in obvious ways, our ethnic group alone is narcissistic and self-congratulatory; it prevents us from envisioning creative ways of moving forward. Triumphing triumphalism is as important as invoking this victory to speak about people’s passion for bringing about socio-political transformation in times of crisis and despair.


[1] http://www.ft.lk/2013/09/20/mannars-holy-wars/

[2] http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/25946

[3] Ibid.

[4] (a) Coomaraswamy, Radhika & Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham. “Being Tamil in a Different Way: A Feminist Critique of the Tamil Nation.” Pathways of Dissent: Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka. Ed. R. Cheran. Los Angeles: Sage, 2009. pp. 107-138.

(b) Maunaguru, Sitralega. “Gendering Tamil Nationalism: The Construction of ‘Woman’ in Projects of Protest and Control.” Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identityand History in Modern Sri Lanka. Eds. Pradeep Jeganathan & Qadri Ismail. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 1995.

(c) Sumathy, S. “The Rise of Militant Tamil Nationalism, its Assumptions and the Cultural Production of Tamil Women.” Sri Lankan Society in an Era of Globalization: Struggling toCreate a New Social Order. Eds. S.H. Hasbullah & Barrie M. Morrison. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2004.

(d) Sumathy, S.Militants, Militarism and the Crisis of (Tamil) Nationalism. Colombo: Marga, 2001.

*Mahendran Thiruvarangan is a graduate student in English at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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    Well, What ever said and done I congratulate ITAK and CM VIG for all his endeavors to be very sucessful and I heard that 90% of Muslims voted ITAK as Muslims lost the faith is Muslims ministers. Well done guys I am with you .. please make sure to make the area peacful and well developed and living harmony with all and get back the Muslims settled soon…. All the Best CM VIG… God Bless You…

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    Links [1] – [4] ***within*** the article does not work.

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    Gnanasakthi Sritharan … I do not know the whole story. Even then,in my opinion, joining UFA because TNA did not offer her seat is not the right thing to do.

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      For someone who was fighting for social justice to simply join another party because the other did not accommodate her wishes brings into question the values, principles and motives. If changing airlines to find a seat is the way one seeks to serve the community then I have to ask doesn’t alignment between one’s own values, life goals and ethos and that of the party they are seeking to be part of matter

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    Superb piece of progressive writing.

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    Some sensible thoughts from Mahendran. But they will take time to digest. What to do? We have to live in the realities of the present and yet look for ways and means to move forward!

    Sengodan. M

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    Very clear thoughts with analytical rigour. Perhaps I like them for similar views of my own. Appalled to know the EPRLF (Naba wing) contested under the UPFA! My thoughts are however with Gnanasakthi Sritharan in her electoral defeat.

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      I have heard about Ms.Sritharan as an activist in the EPRLF.Is she in some way connected to a chap called Sugu an EPRLF Padmanaba winger who is aka Sritharan?
      That Suresh Premachandran stood in her way is somewhat difficult to believe because if she really had worked at ground level with the ordinary folk as the writer makes out.The TNA could not have ignored such a valued woman candidate who knew the dynamics of all forms of oppression and how they should be encountered.
      If she got impatient and opted to contest under the betel leave election symbol ,then it is probable that the TNA was correct in it’s assessment to not take a risk by including her in it’s fold.

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    To get even the other camp will also need a new triumph!

    This won’t be the last.

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    Perhaps Suresh Premachandran knew a thing or two about Gnanasakthi Sridharan’s commitment to defeating that which the military and government represent? It’s utter rubbish to blame a party for failing to nominate someone who one week later would oppose everything the party stands for, just for the sake of nomination. Thiruvarangan must think long and hard about the character of the candidates he is talking up.

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    An excellent and rational analysis. Bensen

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      Bensen Burner,
      However, you are an idiot.

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    A thoughtful presentation. The caste issue in Jaffna post-war needs in depth research. The old realities no longer exist to the same degree and the non-Vellalah castes are upwardly mobile. However, the likes of Suresh Premachandran are a burden on the Tamil community trying to chart a new and pragmatic course. Both Sughu Sritharan and his wife Gnanasakthi should have been accommodated on the TNA slate. The TNA has much stable cleaning to do.

    I hope MR Anandasangary who has not won a seat in the new NPC should be honoured in some tangible manner. He was used and discarded by the MR government. Let the Tamil community pay its respects to a man who had the guts and fortitude to stand up to the LTTE, when he is yet alive.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

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      Mr Anandasangary has been in active politics longer than anyone in Sri Lanka. He had his ups and downs. He was given a chance but people in general election in Jaffna and in provincial election in his own Kilinochchi rejected him. He went all the way to South Africa to canvass support in favour of Maninda Rajapakse and The Island and Asia Tribune honoured him by publishing whatever he wrote in support of Rajapakse government. He has past his age of retirement. So be it. People’s verdict must be respected.

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        I agree.

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        Saro,

        It is true that Sangaree has lost the respect of the people.

        But here is something that I find puzzling–

        The second highest number of preferential votes was obtained by Anandhi Saistharan, whose husband was in the LTTE. But the 3rd highest was obtained by Sitharthan Tharmalingam.

        The late Taraki Sivaram told me in 2001 that Sitharthan was then still working with the SLA; as a former PLOTE leader himself, he knew Sitharthan’s activities with the SLA well. It seems to me that the public has not forgiven Sangaree for supporting the regime, but has forgiven Sitharthan, whose collaboration was probably much worse.

        Can someone give me an explanation of how this happened?

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          Because his father Tharmalingham very humble and honest man, may be most of the votes he got it from manipay constituency. His fathers strong base….

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            Let me add to that. Mr.Sitharthan used his father’s photo generously in his campaign posters.

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    Mahendran Thiruvarangan,

    Your article is smooth flowing and a pleasure to read. I can see the theme of socialism in your writing, unfortunately it is not fashionable in today’s world.

    However, you are talking of an utopia that exists nowhere. Nations are created on the basis of nationalism, religion or other factors.

    After Marshal Tito, Yugoslavia was balkanized because the cement that held them together – brotherhood of socialism was no more with the fall of socialism in Europe.

    More nations are constantly being created because of decolonization, and other factors. Sri Lanka was held together nicely by the cement of colonialism under the Europeans, and when it was decolonized nationalism raised its head again.

    I agree there are several contradictions in any society, but to solve all these problems needs Herculean effort. For example gender discrimination exists in almost all countries, but is being attacked slowly.

    So, in the meantime one has to be pragmatic, and move with the times.

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    Interesting analysis Thiru….

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    Thank you for this very thoughtful and, well, yes, let me use the probably now rejected term “progressive” piece of writing, Mahendran. I do hope you return to Sri Lanka and contribute to the development of university education and environment here instead of remaining to add to the already rich and well resourced system that you are presently engaged in. Sri Lanka has lost far too many of its academic/intellectual (as well as other) resources over the years. It is far easier to flee to richer climes, with apparently less conflict, than stay and try to nourish the deprived and ailing situation in this underdeveloped part of the world. The latter requires a different kind of sacrifice which is rarely recognised in its own land.

    As for triumphalism, It must be eliminated as soon as possible. This does not mean forbidding the immediate,manageable, natural celebration of the winners, especially if they have overcome great obstacles and risen from a suppressed or lowly condition. But I am totally against the establishment of a regular commemorative military victory parade after a situation of civil war/conflict. The annual turning over of what is left of public space at Galle Face Green, normally shared by the civilian public of ALL communities, in peaceful unaggressive “occupation”, is something I find very painful. I think this space should be held “sacred” to the memory of all those who have enjoyed or helped to maintain its special and increasingly rare qualities (in this rapidly urbanising city) as a place of peaceful resort.

    The annual military victory parade goes against the grain of a united people when the conflict was with one section of those people. Since it has become a regular ritual it may be hard to bring to a halt without a careful educational programme directed especially at the security forces. If it is felt necessary for sometime, for some reason, best known to those who insist on such things, to continue them, then let them do so in the parade grounds provide to the various services for their other similar occasions. But, to my mind, it were better to provide health services and education and housing benefits in the place of this triumphalist display which has no place in any process of reconciliation.

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    I enjoyed reading this article, more so because I knew of the story of Gnanashakthi… What this article describes is not some impossible utopia but something that some of us here are working towards… Come join us!!!

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    Am erudite “second-order” reflection and a must-read for those rare moderates who fear a religio-ethnic backlash. Thiruvarangan’s reflection transcends polarized ethno-nationalistic sentimentalism.

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    I feel that there is still quite significant distrust between the ethnic communities in Sri Lanka, and the government is probably anxious that the rhetoric of prominent writers manifests in the civic body of the Northern province if either its military presence or its grip on power is relented in any way.

    That could be why there is subtle ethnic integration and dilution in the form of more Sinhala presence in Jaffna via “social engineering”.

    The “triumphalism” is not reserved for the national ruling party but applicable to provincial heavyweights also…

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    I enjoyed reading the piece of writing by Thiru Mahendran. I have my reservations about some of the things he pointed out here. Being a young Tamil graduate, Thiru has mastered the writing style in English and demonstrated his ability in analysing a political context with social background. He did not have much personal experience with the Tamil strugle before 1983 Riots.

    He was led by the suggestions and findings of some feminism activits such as Radhika and Chitraleka. I have my doubt whether these authors have truly potrayed the Tamil Middle class. It is very common parctice for any one who claimed to be progressive, to comment about Jaffna Vellala middle class.

    I am glad that TNA did not give a ticket to Gnanasakthy Sritharanan. What happenes, she joins the UPFA after winning on TNA ticket? She has proved that she is capable of moving away from a cause because she was not recognised. It did not mean that I totally disregard her contribution towards social justice. Blaming TNA for not having enough represenatation to women is also not credible. When choosing candidtaes, there are many more prioroties than gender.
    Western cuntries such as USA and Australia are good examples.
    Nanthan

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    Am I right in conjecturing that whatever the election’s outcome in the north, the govt’s populist base in the south was going to be reinforced because, as you note, opposed nationalisms prop up each other? There’s very little space for progressive politics until mainstream extremism on either side is defeated.

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    Personally I feel that some of the points raised by Thiru — in particular, issues of gender and caste sensitivity and the need to be more representational in these regards — are relevant to how we build up from here. The concluded election was held with democracy on the pillory and under so much duress that the initial step would have been to earn the “springboard” to map a path ahead. That, I think, is why the mandate earned by the TNA matters.

    The democratic process has to be facilitated from here onwards. As a friend of mine also observed, the issues raised are more crucially relevant to — say — the NEXT NPC election to be.

    Thank you very much for these progressive thoughts.

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    Why is Thiruvarangan batting for Gnanasakthi Sritharan and that too a turncoat? I have never heard about her, so how can the Jaffna voters? The fact that she bolted to the UPFA when she was denied nomination by the TNA shows her colours. As rightly pointed out she would have been the first to be bought over by Mahinda Rajapaksa who has specialised in this game. He has boasted he can buy any MP if he is so inclined. It is time Anandasangaree retires from politics. Nemesis caught up with him sooner than we expected. He is paying for his past sins. His anti-LTTE stance and pro-government stand did not sit well with the people as the results shows. He polled a miserable 2,896 votes and placed 6th. As for Sidtharthan, he used his father’s name claiming he comes from an ITAK family. Finally, caste is no more a factor in elections as the results clearly shows. People vote for party and not caste. Mudiappu Remedias who after winning on the TNA ticket switched sides and came a cropper at the elections. The 10,000 votes he polled at the 2010 parliamentary elections evaporated in thin air!

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    Thanks everyone for your comments. A quick response to some of the comments left here.

    The article does not defend Gnanasakthi’s decision to join the UPFA. I do not think Gnanasakthi is a turncoat, nor do I like such labels applied to anyone. She might have decided to join the UPFA thinking that she would be able to work towards the development of the grass roots that she actually represents. Those who can understand Tamil may want to listen to her interview:

    http://www.eprlfnet.com/audio/ara050913.mp3

    Even though she contested with the UPFA, her campaign focused mainly on women’s issues. And she did not say that the presence of the military was good or that people should not be resettled in their own lands. Her ideas about development were also centered on the grassroots, and different from the ostentatious development projects that the government gave publicity to in its campaign. Those who do not know Gnanasakthi should do their homework. DBS Jeyaraj (see link above) and Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai have written about her in detail.

    http://www.passionparade.blogspot.com/2013/09/i-want-to-serve-my-people-because-i.html

    2. In the context of the TNA’s landslide victory, we need to ask certain questions about the internal contradictions within the Tamil community. It is not correct to say that caste was not an issue in the election. Many of us know that caste played an important role in the selection of candidates in the TNA. But the point is the TNA or any political party should not address this issue by fielding representatives from each caste. Instead, the party should work towards eradicating caste discrimination. What we need is not caste-based identity politics but a politics that aims at the annihilation of caste. The only criticism leveled against the TNA these days is that it is not nationalistic enough. In such a context, demanding the TNA to take up issues related to gender, caste and class is very important. I chose to write about Gnanasakthi, because the way she was cornered by the TNA indicates the TNA’s lack of interest in engaging with internal social issues within the Tamils.

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    See below article for a response to this article by Mahendran Thiruvarangan,“Triumphing Triumphalism: Reflections On The NPC Elections”

    Defeating Defeatism – Reflections on the anti-nationalist analysis of the NPC elections.
    http://multipolarview.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/defeating-defeatism-reflections-on-the-anti-nationalist-analysis-of-the-npc-elections/

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