ven as the political crisis in the parliament and of government rages on, a near silence pervades the North. People are either indifferent or intentionally avoiding public engagement. The Tamil media, while extensively reporting political developments, paints the crisis as unrelated to the Tamil community, or uses it to bash the TNA, or in turn to claim that strong Tamil demands should be placed by the TNA on the parties vying for power in the South.
There have only been a few small public fora and no mobilizations in the North addressing the state of democracy and legitimacy of the Government amidst this crisis. However, in private conversations, a palpable fear emerges harking back to the dark post-war years under the Rajapaksa regime.
Regardless of how the parliamentary crisis is resolved, what are the reasons for the lack of engagement from the North during this moment of national significance? How have developments in the post-war years contributed to such a perspective in the North?
Part of the reason for the North’s indifference, and for that matter other regions of the country, is that media attention is limited to the confrontation between the executive and the legislative arms of the state, theatrics in parliament and the outcome of court cases. Furthermore, public mobilizations and protests have for the most part been happening within Colombo.
President Sirisena has suffered considerable credibility, and by his own act of appointing MR as Prime Minister made his own political future irrelevant. Without a significant political and social base, Sirisena will only be capable of interventions with the presidential powers at his disposal for at most another year.
The UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe is hardly capitalizing on the premature power grab reflecting a major political misjudgement that can undermine and de-legitimise MR. While he has lost his momentum after the local government elections in February, the UNP has yet to mobilize its base outside Colombo, pointing to its weakness in any electoral contest with the well-oiled electoral machine of MR.
The MR loyalists having taken a legitimacy hit are sticking to their guns and dragging out an unenviable situation in the hope the courts will come through in their favour on December 7, legitimizing the dissolution of parliament and early general elections. They are shamelessness in the face of various actors pointing to their illegitimate and naked stint in power over the last month.
In this context, the TNA has taken a commendable and strong stand in parliament exposing the power grab. While the Tamil media is spinning it as TNA’s instrumental support for the UNP in return for Tamil demands, the TNA’s strength has been its clear positions against the violations of constitutional and parliamentary norms. However, much like the UNP, the TNA has limited its efforts to moves in parliament and the courts, and in its weaker moments meeting with the diplomats.
The TNA acts as if holding together its fourteen members in parliament itself is an achievement, and has hardly communicated to, much less mobilized, the Northern population around the political crisis. Indeed, since the end of the war, the TNA is merely strung together by a lose group of individual leaders with neither a mobilisable party machine nor a committed social base. Their electoral fortunes, which took a major hit in the local government elections in February, have been for the most part due to the legacy of the Federal Party and the lack of a credible Tamil political alternative.
While the limelight is on the political manoeuvres in Colombo, the lack of concern in the North is revealing of developments during the post-war years. Perhaps the two most important post-war political events in the North were the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections in September 2013 and the defeat of the authoritarian MR regime in January 2015. Those elections brought considerable hope to the people in the North and were shaped by the moves of the TNA.
To be fair to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government over the last three years, it is to their credit that the dark cloud of militarized surveillance and climate of fear lifted in the North, after years of post-war repression under the MR regime.Sirisena through his many visits to the North also pushed for the release of lands held by the military. People’s public engagement and protests on a range of issues in the North became a new political chapter. Here, the continued expansion of democratic space in the North was thanks to the initiatives of local people and social movements on a range of issues, while their political representatives remained distant from such issues.
In this context, the political apathy in the North with respect to the current parliamentary crisis and representative democracy, I would argue, are linked to the dashed hopes of the people over the last few years. The failures of the NPC led by former Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran and the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government on a range of crucial social and economic concerns affecting the war-torn people have been a setback towards rebuilding interest in representative democracy after decades of disruption due to the civil war. Here, the TNA has to take considerable blame for the failures in the North.
"The failures of the NPC led by former Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran and the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government on a range of crucial social and economic concerns affecting the war-torn people"
The TNA swept the NPC elections, but failed to deliver even a modicum of results. Wigneswaran with his polarizing antics, lack of concern for the people and shift towards narrow Tamil nationalism was at the centre of this failure. However, the TNA having brought Wigneswaran to power was ultimately responsible; they should have controlled him or thrown him out. There is considerable resentment among the northern population, about the arrogance and lack of delivery by the NPC; particularly with the people suffering from the post-war economic crisis aggravated by rising indebtedness, collapsing livelihoods and a devastating long drought.
Similarly, the TNA swept the parliamentary election of August 2015 in the North. With a significant block in parliament, where the TNA consistently voted with the Wickremesinghe Government at every Budget after that, it did not have the vision or capacity to deliver the necessary economic support for the North. Sadly, the ex-Resettlement Minister D. M. Swaminathan, hand-picked by Ranil, ran amok with reconstruction initiatives.
Hardly a small fraction of the war devastated houses in the North were built under Swaminathan, as he insisted on the disastrous Arcelor Mittal 65,000prefabricated steel houses; a housing scheme environmentally inappropriate for the North, not used any local labour where unemployment was high and been a blow to national finances with a massive external loan of US$ 1 billion. The Arcelor Mittal scheme if implemented would have left an even darker blot on the Wickremesinghe Government’s legacy than the Central Bank bond scam.
While the TNA’s principled stand against the Arcelor Mittal scheme was welcome, the TNA failed to use its leverage to oust Swaminathan, who with the cabinet reshuffle in May this year was given the portfolio of Northern Development as well. On agriculture, on fisheries, on palmyrah-based production and other rural sectors, the reconstruction work over the last three and a half years of the Wickremesinghe Government has been an abysmal failure. For example, the famous Thickham Distillery, crucial for the livelihoods of oppressed caste toddy tappers in Jaffna to increase their production and incomes, has remained idle for four years. The TNA is answerable for their deep slumber in parliament as the social and economic lives of its constituencies deteriorated.
Democratic path ahead
History is not generous with political openings. The constitutional political solution – the sole concern of the TNA over the last few years that too in the realm of experts as opposed to mobilizing the people – is for all purposes dead in the near future. Regardless of how the current political impasse is resolved, the road ahead is going to be difficult.
These are times, to borrow from the Marxist-thinker Antonio Gramasci, for a “war of position”. That is ideological battles to confront the undemocratic moves of those in power and resist the ethnic polarization mobilized by the nationalists on all sides. Preserving and expanding the democratic space won over the last few years is a priority for all the people in the country, and particularly the North where the winds of fear are again blowing.
A lesson the rest of the country can learn from the North is that democracy, which is now the subject of debate in Colombo, has for long been undermined in the periphery. Peoples’ everyday lives whether it be interactions with the social welfare arms of the state such as Samurdhi or the repressive arms of the state such as the police, are of an alienating if not repressive encounter. If rebuilding democracy is the urgent task of the hour, it is important to start from the periphery with issues facing the working and rural people as well as the minorities. When a people-centred democracy begins to make sense for those on the margins, the state structures in Colombo will also fall in place.