t has been a long time since we last heard from the Opposition, I mean the TNA-led main Opposition. Even when there are occasional isolated voices, such as by the National List MP M.A. Sumanthiran, they too appear to be too little, too late. Last time the Opposition Leader Rasavarodhayam Sampanthan spoke out was several months back, about the release of Tamil inmates incarcerated under terrorism related charges, that too was after a hunger strike launched by the prisoners. Recently, MP Sumanthiran raised concerns over the tender procedure adopted for the construction of 65,000 houses for the war-affected families in the North-East. His remarks (though belated) follow similar concerns raised by the local construction industry, civil society and even the Northern Chief Minister C. Wigneswaran.
They all noted the lopsided tender procedures, which have favoured the Indian multinational Arcelor Mittal at the expense of local construction companies, concerns over inflated prices of the housing units and the absence of secondary benefits to the local communities. MP Sumanthiran has echoed those concerns.
But, it is rather unusual for the TNA to take so long to raise a matter which has acute implications for its constituency in the North.
When Sampanthan was nominated the Opposition Leader, it was argued that given the nature of TNA’s primary constituency, ethnic politics would take precedence over national politics. Now, it seems, perhaps, in order to assuage those concerns, the TNA has decided not to talk at all.
It has been keeping mum on the national issues, with which it still finds hard to relate and has toned down its previous rhetoric on Tamil interests to a near inaudible level.
There is an explanation for this conduct. In the first place, their numbers (16 MPs from TNA plus 4 from JVP) do not add much clout to the main Opposition. After all, Sampanthan and Anura Kumara Dissanayake were nominated to the posts of Opposition Leader and the Chief Opposition Whip respectively with the tacit backing of the government. Perhaps, they do not want to upset the apple cart too soon.
"TNA’s muted role as the Main Opposition deprives it of the opportunity to integrate itself with the national level politics. Thus it is turning back on a golden opportunity to redeem its image in the eyes of the Southern voters, who still harbour some grouse about the TNA’s past "
Second, the TNA and JVP have more in common in their shared objectives with the UNP than with those rouble rousing members of the so-called “Joint Opposition” (JO), a bunch of petty minded men driven by equally petty personal and political interests. The TNA and the JVP supported Maithripala Sirisena in his presidential campaign, the TNA has also acknowledged that the new government is more amenable to their concerns which would make it easier to negotiate a durable solution to Tamil grievances. It may feel that an aggressive campaign on issues, which it considers as peripheral to the interests of its North-Eastern constituency would damage that working relationship with the UNP-led government. In that sense, its strategy may be right since the TNA itself has to deliver to its own predominantly Tamil Constituency. If the recent past is any guide, mistrust between the TNA and the previous regime made any meaningful effort to seek a political solution near impossible. (Whether the former regime in the first place wanted a political solution at all is a different story).
However, as the main Parliamentary Opposition, the TNA also has to deliver to the country. That can be done, only if it at least puts in an effort to check the powers of the government.
There, it has failed so far. The TNA is largely disconnected from the National level politics. It may be suffering from an information deficit or is not simply concerned at all about political impulses in the South. Either way, it is a recipe for disaster. The danger is that if it continues on that path, it risks being relegated to a ‘kept opposition’. And when that perception is cemented in the public mind, it is hard to get rid of it.
A muted Opposition is bad news for democracy. In our context, it helps the worst kind of detractors: the Eelam apologists in the North-East and loud-mouthed charlatans in the South. The latter group is far more consequential, in a dangerous way. The JO of the Rajapaksa acolytes has recently been making inroads, partly due to the void caused by the TNA’s inaction at the national level. However, the JO’s contribution to the national discourse has so far been regressive and damaging the prospects of reconciliation and efforts to seek a solution to the national question. The TNA by failing to fulfil its responsibility as the Main Opposition is creating a permissive environment that is being exploited by those self- interested groups who seek to advance their self-seeking agenda.
"The TNA and the JVP supported Maithripala Sirisena in his presidential campaign, the TNA has also acknowledged that the new government is more amenable to their concerns which would make it easier to negotiate a durable solution to Tamil grievances."
At the same time,it also enables the government to operate with little parliamentary oversight. That some government ministers themselves are raising concerns over certain government decisions is another sign of the void created by the absence of an activist Main Opposition. (For instance, Megapolis Minister Champika Ranawaka has questioned the CEB’s decision to purchase 55 MW from foreign power suppliers when, according to him, there is an adequate local supply. When even the government ministers insinuate about possible kickbacks, something should be wrong).
Finally, the TNA’s muted role as the Main Opposition deprives it the opportunity to integrate itself with national level politics. Thus it is turning back on a golden opportunity to redeem its image in the eyes of the Southern voters, who still harbour some grouse about the TNA’s past.
The Main Opposition should be able to pro-actively participate in political discourse and policy making. Its electoral considerations in the North should not be a reason for it to shy away from matters that affect the majority of people. Also, Sri Lanka’s democratic transition is still an unfinished business, many of the lofty promises made during the election time are yet to be delivered. The Main Opposition should be able to campaign to make those promises become a reality. The TNA’s silence, therefore, is disappointing.
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