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For a United Tamil Voice

[DailyMirror, Sunday, 4 October 2009 21:46 No Comment]

Not very long ago, a suggestion was doing the rounds for parties and groups of the minorities in Sri Lanka having to identify with one or the other of the two ‘mainline parties’ in the country. The reference was obviously to the SLFP leader of the ruling United Progressive Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the Opposition United National Party (UNP).

The suggestion was often attributed to the ruling combine, particularly the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was known to have had the endorsement of at least a section of the UNP leadership. There was however no formal proposal or proposition from either – nor an endorsement from any other.

The argument was that divided, the voices of the minorities did not get heard. United, they could not be ignored. The reference obviously was to the political voice(s) of the Tamil-speaking people.

The point used to be made as to how the political parties of the Upcountry Tamil community in particular had won for their constituents, benefits that only a share in power would have been able to do. The underlining argument was for the parties of the Sri Lankan Tamils to work with the Government of the day.

By implication, the role of the SLFP and/or the UNP in government-formation and heading the same got underlined, time and again. It was often forgotten that a break-up of the party-position in the current Parliament would show that the SLFP and the UNP together does not have one too many seats to deny a non-mainline combine a fair share in the post-poll processes at government-formation.

Post-poll it had to be, if at all, as the seat-share of individual constituencies of the UPFA, for instance, provided an ambiguous, anomalous situation. It was so even in the case of the Opposition UNP-led UPF. In both cases, the Alliance tally in the number of seats won was more than the projections arriving from the sum of the individual vote-share of their constituents.

It was this that caused the anomaly, which otherwise got attributed to the ‘proportionate representation’ (PR) system of elections. The fact remains that the contribution of the two ‘mainline parties’ to the effort and results of the respective electoral alliances was substantial but so was the contribution of the allies to their own vote and seat-share was.

In a way, but for the PR system it would have been anybody’s guess as to how the vote and seat-share among parties would have turned out to be – with or without alliance politics that is now well in place. Minus the alliances, the results would have been anybody’s guess. And the options for the so-called smaller parties, including those representing the ‘majority Sinhala interests’, would have been more in the post-poll scenario.

If no one is now talking about such possibilities, at least for the time being, it is because of the euphoria caused by the war victory on the one hand, and the consequent demoralisation that it has inflicted on the other. If anything, the PR-driven arguments relating to vote-share and seat-share of individual parties has also taken a beating in what has essentially turned out to be a one-sided affair in a series of provincial council polls over the past two years.

If however there is scope for a possible consolidation of vote-share and seat-share in this context, it pertains to the political representation of the ‘minorities’. It is in the Tamil-majority North and to a lesser extent the East and the Upcountry that a societal consolidation in terms of vote-share could automatically translate into a similar consolidation of seats in their favour.

Even in the outgoing Parliament, for which an electoral replacement is due by April next, there are, for instance, over 45 members representing the political interests of all Tamil-speaking people in a House total of 225. Included in the list are an Upcountry Tamil representative and a Muslim in the list of 40 MPs elected on the ticket of the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ JVP.

If however the proportion has not got translated into political power and clout, it owes to the political divisions and ego clashes among the political leadership of the parties of the Tamil-speaking people. Broadly, they are divided among the Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil people. But within each of these societal divisions are political divisions that make one’s head reel.

History has shown how the ‘visible majority’ in any democratic scheme has perpetuated internal divisions that the ‘minority constituency’ has been able to politically exploit in favour of the latter – through alliances and combinations. In Sri Lanka, too, the Sinhala majority has remained divided since the first post-Independence opportunity presented itself.

Where a consolidation of the minority vote was possible, it has also remained divided – and has done so increasingly with each passing election. It is this trend as much as the existence of ‘competitive majority politics of denial to the minorities’ that has been at the core of the ‘ethnic issue’ in electoral terms in the past.

If not by design, at least by desire, the vote and seat-share of the Tamil-speaking people have remained divided. The impact is worse in real terms, considering that the Tamil-speaking people, including those from the Upcountry Tamil community, are localised, and thus concentrated, in certain areas and regions of the country.

This concentration, rather than being used to flex the political and electoral muscle of the larger Tamil-speaking community, has been used only to fight a military battle, where Sri Lankan State power, as different from the ‘majority Sinhala electoral power’ (?) won the day. The brutal electoral power that the UNP won in 1977 owed it to special circumstances – but has not been sustainable. This fact has not been lost on the Tamil polity in the country.

All this is not to suggest that a united Tamil voice and vote should be used to the detriment of the Sri Lankan nation or to send out a sense of political/physical insecurity the Sinhala majority all over again – as the LTTE-led militancy did until recently. What should be aimed at, and what could be achieved, is a political unity of the Tamil-speaking people, where their voices are heard loud and clear – and their shared political aspirations and concerns get aired in unequivocal terms.

It should neither be seen as a threat to the majority community or its interests and concerns, nor to the Sri Lankan State. The responsibility for ensuring this would be with the leadership of the emerging Tamil polity as with that of the existing Sinhala polity. It was in the absence of the same that issues got aired as controversies and controversies became the core for hard-line position that became military issues and victories, if only over time.

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