Leaderships and their Limitations

Every discourse on a political solution in post-war Sri Lanka has centred on a single argument: President Mahinda Rajapaksa, having won the war against the LTTE, should have no problem delivering peace to the larger Tamil society and polity. Not only the Tamils in the country or their Diaspora brethren believe in it but the international community also has faith in such presumptions.

The inevitable conclusion flowing from such a construct is that President Rajapaksa does not intent giving the Tamils their due, now or ever. In a way, the pressure employed through the Darussman Report and Channel 4 videos, to an extent, flows also from the belief that the international community should pressure the Sri Lankan Government and President Rajapaksa to yield more on humanitarian assistance and power-devolution, if not on human rights and ‘war crimes’.

The reverse is also true. Sections of the Sinhala polity and intellectuals, as also their counterparts in the Government apparatus, still see the TNA in the same mould as its war-time self. They see it all only in black and white. There is no space in their minds for shades of greys. Individual Sinhala leaders and thinkers may have their preferences and perceptions, and the TNA leadership, they all have concluded, per se, is moderate.

Yet, doubts and suspicions remain. They do not have pressure-appliances to force the TNA to fall in line with a certain line of thinking, if at all they are ready to provide that much space for the Tamil polity in the post-war era. The periodic utterances of some TNA leaders, without reference to post-war realities, have not helped, either.

In both cases, the truth lies in between. The President who steered the nation towards victory in the war was dealing with a battle-trained military establishment that needed a strong-willed political leader and Government that would not wilt under international pressure, applied on behalf of the LTTE, as in the past. It was true of the administrative set-up, particularly the diplomatic corps, which too needed clear-cut directions and guidance whenever the Sri Lankan State was at war.

Political solution is a different game. It is not only about the ‘Sinhala hard-liners’, real and perceived, and their pre-allotted political positions in the national scheme since ‘Sinhala Only’, if not earlier. It is hard to expect a whole generation of the Sinhala political class to overnight give up their fear and frustrations with the LTTE. Their post-war suspicion about the TNA and such other sections of the Tamil society, starting with the Diaspora, has remained an inevitable consequence.

It is beyond logic, but their support for President Rajapaksa and his ethnic policies cannot be taken for granted. There are always those in the eternally nebulous Sinhala polity that has not seen a stable leadership for decades now, for whom leadership strength and authority of office do not appeal after a point. Individuals can be persuaded or pressured. Not groups – particularly when they get to read another piece of writing on another wall, and believe in it. The Government of the day cannot afford to trigger a process that it cannot hope to control after a time.

Hard-liners on either side should realise the reality of the ground situation in political terms. As politicians most of them do understand the circumstances and compulsions of the other side. Lesser mortals, particularly those that are pulled down by the immediate past and/or ideologically rooted in the illogical, have problem in the matter. It owes mainly to their ignorance, and their inherent inability to acknowledge that ignorance.

As politicians, however, most of them too exploit the situation that they find the other side in, to their own perceived political advantage. To the average Tamil politician, President Rajapaksa does not want to give the community a post-war political solution that addresses their legitimate concerns. From the Sinhala side, they do not want to accept that the moderate TNA leadership of septuagenarian Sampanthan does not fit into their continuing perceptions of the post-war, non-Government Tamil polity.

If President Rajapaksa is not able to – or, were even unwilling to – give the Tamils an acceptable political solution, no other leader in his place for a few more decades to come could do so. None would even want to venture out in that direction. In theoretical terms, it could include Tamil leaders of the three denominations, namely, the Sri Lankan Tamils, the Upcountry Tamils and the Muslims, even if one were to become President or Prime Minister.

The Government of President Rajapaksa, and also the UNP Opposition, not to mention Muslim parties like the SLMC and Upcountry Tamil parties have greater faith in the TNA than any other denominational representative group of Sri Lankan Tamils. If the present-day leadership of the TNA cannot be convinced about a power-devolution package – even incremental as it might be, and might have to be – none in the foreseeable future could bring them around to accepting a political solution that did not hinge on the pre-war prescriptions of the Tamil polity, society and the LTTE.

The results of such a stalemated relationship could prove disastrous not only to the two communities but also to the nation, even more. It thus becomes imperative for the two sides to begin trusting each other. More importantly, both sides need to acknowledge that the other side do face practical difficulties of the more pragmatic political variety and from presumptuous sections of the polity in their respective cases.

The Government and the TNA need to acknowledge that there could be flaws in the character that they have inherited, which refuses to go away, overnight. While charging the Government with insincerity, if not outright conspiracy, the TNA and its supporters cannot expect the Sinhala polity and society to take them and their proclamations of sincerity and seriousness at face-value. It also has to be a two-way street.

The Government too cannot believe in the propaganda that through ‘Eelam War IV’, the armed forces have ‘liberated’ the Tamil community from the clutches of the dreaded LTTE – and that the Tamil community should be grateful that. The ground realities are too complex and complicated for them to make such claims, and keep sticking to them, endlessly. Allegations about ‘war crimes’, for instance, is not only about the physical. It is more about the psyche, involving the political, where not enough has been done to win them over!

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