Photo courtesy Lanka Standard
In this country, it is a rarity to witness really smart politics on strategic issues. We have just done so and got two breakthrough moves on the same issue. The first was by President Rajapaksa who chose to go ahead with the election to the Northern Provincial Council and have a meeting with Mr Sampanthan, the TNA leader. The second was by Mr Sampanthan who worked hard to persuade his coalition to field Justice Wigneswaran as the Chief Ministerial candidate.
Justice Wigneswaran is a candidate that every Tamil can be proud of to have as his and her representative, and may make a Chief Minister that most Sri Lankans of whichever ethnicity or religion can be proud of. In fact he will have the salutary effect of raising the bar of performance for every chief minister and Sri Lankan politician throughout the island.
The choice of Justice Wigneswaran illustrates the kind of strategic thinking that is needed in politics when fundamental issues are at stake; strategic thinking that is willing to stand up to and sacrifice more obvious ethno-populist passions and pressures for the defence of vital interests of the entirety of the people and place one represents. The choice further shows a capacity on the part of Mr Sampanthan (and his able young supporter Mr Sumanthiran) to think through those strategic interests in a manner that transcends baser ethno-populist sentiment. In short, Mr Sampanthan and Mr Sumanthiran have accurately understood strategic Tamil interests which they have not confused with the lowest common denominator of Tamil sentiments.
Justice Wigneswaran is a symbol of Tamil ‘soft power’, which is being depleted in the Sinhala society and most certainly the State. If handled correctly he can become a symbol of the soft power of Sri Lanka as a society and a country. The Sinhala Establishment has to get its head around the fact that though the Tigers were utterly defeated, the Tamil community has not been cowed and has bounced back politically. One of the reasons for this resilience and recovery is the continued availability of an educated elite, literate in an international language (English)—a sociological resource which has been depleted on the Sinhala side by and driven into alienation or exile by the state of suffocation imposed by the State. On the Tamil side the English educated elite is still available for politics and public service and is welcomed by Tamil society while on the Sinhala side, the public welcomes the incorporation of the elite but the dominant monolingual petty bourgeoisie which monopolises the state apparatus, does not. The choice of Justice Wigneswaran as Chief Ministerial candidate shows firstly, that the Tamil professional elite is still intact and willing to engage in politics and secondly, that the Sinhala state which has shed the equivalent human resources will find it difficult to compete in the regional and international arena.
It is not however a zero-sum game in which Tamil interests win and Sinhala interests lose. Indeed the choice they have pushed for, Justice Wigneswaran is the best chance to make the 13th amendment work and is therefore the best hope for North-South reintegration on the basis of frankness, dignity and mutual respect.
Whether or not it was intended as such – and I suspect, not—the choices made by Mahinda Rajapaksa (to hold the election) and R. Sampathan (to field Justice Wigneswaran) can be considered as complementary, and when taken together, offer the best chance for political reconciliation. It could mark the beginning of winning the peace and building a new Sri Lankan nation.
If both sides get it wrong though, it could mark the end of the road for a united Sri Lanka.
The single most important factor about the choice of Justice Wigneswaran as Chief Minister is that by so doing, the TNA has upped the ante and raised the potential cost to Colombo of any unfair and peremptory dissolution of the Council. In short, by choosing Justice Wigneswaran, Mr Sampanthan has cleverly installed a deterrent to arbitrary dissolution of the NPC.
Sri Lanka, it must be recalled, is haunted by the negative experience of the North Eastern Provincial Council. One of the reasons for its failure was the personality of Vardarajaperumal who was chosen as Chief Minister (despite my strenuous representations to the EPRLF leader K Pathmanabha as well as the Indian side). Perumal’s lack of political maturity and realism in dealing with the Sri Lankan state, his mercurial populism and alcohol-fuelled adventurism were among the main reasons for the mishandling of the inevitable contradictions between the periphery and the centre.
Justice Wigneswaran is hardly a Vardarajaperumal. Educated in Colombo and a distinguished senior representative of one of the arms of the Sri Lankan state itself, he has long functioned in a multiethnic social universe. A dignified yet outspoken, multilingual man, he is in the current circumstances, the best possible bridge between North and South. He is, in sum, the TNA’s Lakshman Kadirgamar.
If the deep state is hoping to de-stabilise the elected Northern provincial council, the security managers will have to think again. In the event of a manufactured crisis and a creeping or dramatic coup by the capital, who would be the better interlocutor with the world community; who would be better able to convince the world’s capitals? The national security fundamentalists or an erudite, reasonable, articulate ex-Supreme Court judge?
With Sampanthan, Sumanthiran and Wigneswaran, the fate of the Tamil community is in the best possible democratic hands.
I am especially gratified at the turn of events not only since I have been a supporter of devolution since 1984 and a Minister in the first North-eastern Provincial Council a quarter of a century ago, but because it bears out what I told the (then) Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams in early 2007, when he called on President Rajapaksa. There were several Cabinet Ministers, senior officials and Church personalities including Bishop Duleep de Chickera at the meeting. I gave a brief run down on the war as satisfying the major criteria of Just War theory. The Archbishop of Canterbury challenged me with a counter question. He had been wrestling with just war theory for about fifteen years and was concerned about a ‘just outcome’. Did I think that this war would lead to one and if so why and what were the chances? He queried. I replied that the military defeat of the LTTE by the armed forces of the state would be accompanied by the automatic re-enfranchisement of the Tamil people. This inevitable reopening of electoral space and the re-enfranchisement of the Tamil voter would give the Tamil people the leverage to re-insert their issues and demands at the very centre of Lankan politics. The revival of a political process in those areas would enable the criteria of a ‘just outcome’ to be met to some degree while further advance towards that goal was possible by negotiation between the state and the elected Tamil representatives. That was my answer, and current dynamics seem to be proving it right.
If a troika can crystallise, comprising the war-winning and pragmatic President Rajapaksa, the TNA’s R Sampanthan and the Northern provincial council’s Wigneswaran, Sri Lanka may yet win the peace, 30 years after Black July 1983. With the forces of ‘radical evil’ (as the great Goethe designated it) defeated in the North and East but not yet in the South, it will be a harsh and bitter struggle though—and a grim, emotive, turbulent transition. Living with and accommodating a TNA run Northern provincial council led by Justice Wigneswaran will require and may generate a profound shift in the collective psyche.
Justice Wigneswaran is no Alfred Duraiyappa. He will not bend the knee and tug his forelock before the Sinhala Establishment. He is nobody’s “malli”. An interview given to Ayesha Zuhair in 2011 reveals him to be a federalist who stands for the right of self-determination, though he never strays into endorsing secession. What is tricky is not the federalism but the fact that in most parts of the world, federalists do not stand for self –determination, though he belongs to that tendency which does. A Council led by him will be a counterweight to the dangerous neo-conservative surge which threatens not merely Northern lands but Southern film making! The Northern Council with him as Chief Minister will not be the answer to Sri Lanka’s needs but will constitute a counterpoint which will in turn help us discover a middle path, a golden mean between the nationalisms of the South and North. He is a challenge but the challenge he will constitute could be a positive one; just the benign shock therapy that the Sri Lankan state and Sinhala society need to accommodate and integrate if they are to catch up with the 21st century world.