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Friday, December 8, 2023

Beyond Sri Lankan provincial elections

Seema Sengupta
As a large majority of the sizable 715,000 eligible voters from Sri Lanka’s troubled north went into makeshift polling booths to cast their preferences for electing a 38 member provincial council on September 21, India’s influence was written all over.
From a five member election observer team led by former election commission chief N. Gopalaswami to transparent ballot boxes imported especially from India for use in polls, New Delhi seems to have invested heavily on this democratic process which is expected to usher a renewed hope for genuine reconciliation. With a 72 million Tamil population of its own who shares the grief of their Sri Lankan brethren and the imminent threat of China making inroads into Sri Lanka through strategic investment, India does have a vested interest in setting things straight in the island nation.

Moreover, it is the India-Sri Lanka accord of 1987 — inked by President J.R. Jayawardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — that forms the basis for creating a council system to devolve power to provincial levels. India, having provided moral and logistical support to the ethnic Tamil movement in Sri Lanka, which later turned violent, somehow believed that the model of decentralized local self-governance could bring that elusive peace in this war-ravaged nation. Hence, New Delhi put subtle pressure on President Jayawardene to delegate effective power to Tamil dominated northern province and at the same time seek a referendum to ascertain whether the citizens of the east prefer to merge with the north. Despite stiff resistance from the then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, Jayawardene went ahead with his plan to issue presidential proclamation for enabling the merger of northern and eastern provinces into one administrative unit in 1988.
However, this formula flopped after the bete noires, Sinhalas and Tamils, joined hand to defeat what they believed to be Indian imperialism in South Asia. For the foot soldiers of the Indian security establishment who were in the thick of things in northern Sri Lanka, trying to restore some semblance of order, those were nightmarish moments. Having bore the brunt of a violent backlash from both sides of the divide, most of them would indeed like to erase those turbulent days from memory permanently. Now that India is once again exerting her influence to broker a just deal, the back-channel interlocutors must not loose sight of the fact that a majority of the Sinhala people would link this attempt to New Delhi’s virtually non-existent territorial ambition. Let us not forget that years of rigid political discourse based on competitive nationalism — encouraged by both the Sinhala and Tamil political class — has vitiated the political atmosphere to such an extent that it has become extremely difficult for Rajapaksa to convince the Sinhala people that Sri Lanka’s well being lies in abandoning the dogmatic resistance to any sort of power sharing arrangement with the minorities. The skeptical majority is yet to recognize the hard reality that at the end of the day the Tamils, Muslims and Christians are also citizens of the same land and have equal rights to participate in nation rebuilding. Since, New Delhi’s excessive interference in Sri Lankan affairs over the years is one among the many reasons — apart from racial ostracism promoted by the Sri Lankan state historically — for the entrenchment of this deep rooted trust deficit in Sri Lankan society, it is incumbent on India to perform a perfect balancing act.

By this way, not only the Sinhalas can be assured that their giant northern neighbor harbors no ill will or aggressive designs against their motherland but also encourage the Rajapaksa regime to move beyond the optimistic first step of holding a long overdue provincial election, even if it is under duress.

Rajapaksa claims that, “this is the first free election in thirty years afforded to northern people to express themselves in a vote.” But with allegations of army intimidation coming to the fore, fixing the issue at the earliest is a political imperative for him. Otherwise the northern most part of the island nation, already the most militarized zone in the region, will gradually turn into another Kashmir-like fortress. Also, the state machinery would do well to resist the temptation of projecting high turnout in elections as sign of diminishing disenchantment. Let there be no doubt whatsoever that a long distance still needs to be traversed before the Sri Lankan government can genuinely win the hearts and minds of its minority populace.

Yes, there has been violation of election law, systematic misuse of state resources, assault on voters and bullying of candidates belonging to the Tamil parties in the run up to and during election. But such aberrations, visible even in the most vibrant of democracies like India, should be no reason for despondency. This election, with all its significance, was scrutinized minutely at the international level and the victorious Tamil National Alliance’s chief ministerial candidate C.V. Vigneswaran’s call for mutual cooperation and trust building will set the ball rolling for future negotiations. Besides, given the importance of Tamil vote share in Indian general elections slated for 2014 and the reality of Dravidian-Tamil politics revolving around the hopes and aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils, the ruling elites in New Delhi would inevitably be tempted to cajole Rajapaksa into delegating land and police power to the newly elected provincial council instead of seeking ways to dilute the 13th constitutional amendment. But the world eagerly await the day when Sri Lanka will achieve real integration with all the ethnic groups living side by side harmoniously, right from north to south.

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