The unilateralism of Tamil nationalism

Saturday, 30 April 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Untitled-6As always Tamil nationalism has overreached; acted unilaterally and overplayed its hand. As always this overestimation based on (congenitally?) misplaced arrogance undermines its Sinhala moderate counterparts and negotiating partners. 

This has been so for decades, from the anti-Sri campaign of 1957 which undermined the B-C Pact, through the Vardarajaperumal NEPC’s confrontational adventurism vis-à-vis Premadasa in 1989-’90 and the LTTE’s ISGA/PTOMS which rendered Ranil and Chandrika easy political targets, right down to the latest NPC resolution and the TNA’s attempt to gate-crash a military camp. 

The NPC resolution spontaneously triggered an anti-federal reaction on the part of the SLFP (Mahinda Samarasinghe), UNP (Kabir Hashim, Ajith P. Perera), JVP (Vijitha Herath) and FSP (Pubudu Jagoda). This happened on prime time TV news within 24 hours and without a single word from Mahinda or Gotabhaya Rajapaksa – neither of whom was in the country when the story broke. They have yet to say something on the matter. 

Thus the NPC resolution and the TNA’s federalist stance has already caused a programmatic and ideological fissure in the 8 January 2015 Yahapalana bloc. 

Most interestingly, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe went on to explain the official SLFP’s position, which it is safe to assume, reflects the views of its leader, President Sirisena. The Minister said that if there were any powers that should have been devolved according to the 13th amendment but were not, then the Government would consider the matter, but that would be about it, and federalism was well off the table. 

Minister Samarasinghe is an enlightened moderate representing the liberal moderate wing of the SLFP. He widely tipped to be the embarrassing Mangala Samaraweera’s successor in the event of a Presidential intervention and reshuffle. What his remarks make clear is that even in the Yahapalana coalition there is common denominator and a bottom line: devolution not federalism, with the 13th Amendment as base and framework of any new deal.   

This may leave the federalists Ranil, Mangala, CBK and Jayampathy, together with usual ‘reconciliation’ suspects (un-rehabilitated Sudu Nelumites), out on a limb, with their TNA buddies for company. 

The negative reaction to the NPC resolution and to Sampanthan’s alleged intrusion into a military camp, indicates that the government is fast arriving at a crossroads where the choices are: political survival and governmental stability, or ideologically-driven dogmatic reform? Internal realities and domestic power balances or external alignments and compulsions?

Now it is quite possible that the UNP-TNA-CBK bloc and its external patrons assume that no retraction of the neoliberal reform agenda, no slowdown, no recalibration, is needed because a split in the SLFP will weaken Sinhala nationalism – but that may not be the case. 

In the first place a new survey by Ayesha Zuhair for the CPA (‘Dynamics of Sinhala Buddhist Ethno-Nationalism in Postwar Sri Lanka’), reveals a post-election resurgence in Sinhala nationalism. 

In the second place, a split in the SLFP would give birth to a dynamic new movement which would be more influenced by a more untrammelled populist nationalism than the SLFP currently is. 

It is a toss-up. While it can be argued that a clean split in the SLFP will purge that party of its nationalist wing and render it a more moderate entity, more amenable to partnership with the UNP and the TNA in the project of federalisation and accountability, the converse can also be argued. Southern populist-nationalism will no longer be contained within the framework of the SLFP, and if a new movement succeeds in mustering the support of the majority of elected SLFP representatives at all levels, then an adversarial nationalism will have more momentum and velocity than ever before—perhaps not since 1956 itself. 

From a systemic perspective that is not necessarily a good thing, because it would reverse the basic contribution of SWRD Bandaranaike which was to deeply root a two party system in this country by creating a moderate democratic nationalist alternative to the UNP, interposing the SLFP between a pro-Western UNP and a radical anti-systemic opposition movement. 

The split in the SLFP will erode the middle ground, because it takes place in the context of and is a response to the coalition between the UNP and the SLFP. Had the SLFP still been an anti-UNP force or were it to pivot to its traditional anti-UNP stance, then the space for a neo-nationalist Mahindaist movement would be eroded. 

However, the way things are now, the two party system would be ended and the country would be back to pre-1956 or even pre-1951, placed between the UNP and a radical anti-imperialist mass movement (albeit of a different ideological persuasion than in those days). 

Meanwhile the official, non-Mahindaist SLFP would be further subdivided between those who find a home in the UNP, those who move towards the dynamic new movement for future electoral benefit and those who stay put. 

Faced with the competition from the Mahinda movement, and with elections early next year, the official SLFP may be less rather than more willing to collaborate with the UNP-TNA bloc in federalisation and accountability hearings. 

Crudely put, the need to compete on two fronts, against the UNP and the Joint Opposition at the local government elections of early 2017, makes it utterly unlikely that the SLFP can be seen to support the UNP on controversial, polarising issues (federalisation, Geneva, Hanuman Bridge, IMF cutbacks and retrenchments) which are not only electorally expensive but also at drastic variance with the SLFP’s traditional positions and ideology.

The official SLFP will not wish to lose its orthodox voters to Mahinda on the one hand and its revisionist voters to the UNP on the other, reducing it almost nothing.         

At its deepest level, the instant, across-the-board, multiparty consensus from right to left in response to the NPC resolution reveals an existential truth. For the Sri Lankan mainstream, or more cynically, the ‘greater South’, what Fidel once said determinedly and defiantly in the face of Gorbachev’s glasnost, perestroika holds true of the Sri Lankan state formation: “if the choice is to stop being what we are, we would prefer death a thousand times”.

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