Leading from a position of strength

Independent of their relative positions and posturing on the ethnic issue, one thing is becoming increasing clear. If President Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot deliver an acceptable solution to the ‘national question’, no future leader in his place would ever even attempt one, for decades to come. Likewise, if the Tamils in the island have to trust someone, it has to be incumbent TNA leader R Sampanthan. His successors, whoever they be, would have to spend time and energy, proving themselves as much to the Tamil community nearer home and/or afar as they have to become equally acceptable to the Sri Lankan State, the Sinhala polity and the international community, not necessarily in that order.

As coincidence would have it, both leaders have greater acceptance within their respective constituencies, owing to a variety of reasons. Both operate through the medium of consensus. In this department, one seems to be overdoing the other, more out of coincidence and habit than out of design or motive. This also comes with problems of their own – in the case of both. Their tendency of wanting to carry every section of their real and perceived, means that they will never ever be able to find a path and solution acceptable to every individual in every section or faction in their respectively constituency – and at the same time, to the other side across the ‘ethnic divide’.

Leaders are there also to lead, and from the front. Circumstantial strength often augments and to help consolidate the inherent strength of the leader. He can afford to overlook the former only at his own peril. His constituency would suffer even more – and beyond his own time and circumstances. They would then blame him for inaction and inadequate leadership when opportunity knocked on the door.

Both President Rajapaksa and TNA’s Sampanthan have constituencies that comprise various elements and segments. The former will have to consider as much about the concerns of the Sri Lankan State and Government, the considerations before the armed forces that would not want to lose more men for years to come and of course, the Sinhala-Buddhist polity and society. The latter has his own compulsions in the form of the self-righteous core constituency in the North, the war victims housed in the IDP camps and elsewhere, and also the Diaspora, whose heart is in Sri Lanka but whose present and future will continue to be in their host nations.

If President Rajapaksa were to have heeded his larger constituency at the time of going to war with the LTTE, the larger national opinion and consequent international perception would have been for his Government to sue peace with Prabhakaran at whatever cost. He did attempt it but decided on an all-out war, once LTTE negotiators walked out of the Geneva-II talks in 2006. Once again, Prabhakaran had taken the decision for the Sri Lankan Government leadership. Only that this one reacted – and later, acted – differently.

So is it with Sampanthan and the TNA leadership. They picked up the pieces after the war with courage and conviction that would have to sue peace, and not lead their people through another era of trauma, trials and tribulations. In doing so, they need to be more circumspect than they already are. It is one thing for the TNA to use phrases like non-cooperation movement, etc, as a bargaining-chip. It is another thing for the leadership to believe in such methods, hoping that the international community would stand by their side, all through. 

If nothing else, both sides need to be aware of the possibilities, which could be beyond the realm and realism of the post-war realities. Even before the TNA leadership could talk in terms of peaceful protests to drive home their point on power-devolution and political solution, the ‘grease devil’ episodes, when they went North-bound, provided an occasion for Tamil resistance. The security forces, eternally suspicious of Tamil intentions, and unsure of the opportunities available to the restless Tamil youth, has reacted only in ways that could have been expected of them – being provocative, at best. 

In a very small way, the security agencies have yielded to the non-moderate and as-yet-unidentifiable sections of the emerging ranks of Tamil youth what President Rajapaksa refused to give the LTTE in the weeks and months ahead of ‘Eelam War IV’. If anything, it was the LTTE that provoked the security forces at the time. The claymore bombings, sea-side targeting of naval assets and terror-strikes on then armed forces commander, Sarath Fonseka and later Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, not to leave out the ill-conceived and ill-timed ‘Maavilaru episode’ justified the limited military reaction on the side of the Government, which was only but a beginning. 

The Government and the TNA should also be aware that beyond them, there could be forces that would only be happy to exploit an emerging situation to explore the possibilities of reviving militancy of some form, now or later. If this trend has to be arrested for good, the two should put their heads together. More so, they should also be putting their hearts together – and should be seen by their constituencies and the rest, as doing so.

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