Poll nears, campaigners play up India rhetoric in Sri Lanka

Modi is standing behind us, says TNA leader Sampanthan

Updated - July 12, 2020 03:21 am IST

Published - July 11, 2020 10:21 pm IST - Colombo

A Sri Lankan polling officer taking part in a mock election in June.

A Sri Lankan polling officer taking part in a mock election in June.

With the campaign for Sri Lanka’s August general election heating up, India and its role in resolving the lingering national question have begun figuring prominently in the election discourse, especially in the Tamil-majority north and east.

Addressing a recent public meeting, the Tamil National Alliance’s (TNA) former parliamentarian S. Shritharan said: “India is watching us closely, pointing to inadequacies in our campaign, they tell us you should be a formidable force, and work with hill-country Tamil leaders, only then we [India] will be able to pressure Sri Lanka.”

To be such a “force”, the TNA needs to garner at least 20 seats, he said. His remark comes at a time when the alliance is grappling with visible tensions within. India has not commented on Sri Lanka’s general election.

Asked about his remark, Mr. Shritharan said: “I said that in Jaffna. I was making a point about the need for the TNA to stand united and emerge legitimate representatives of the people again, for us to be able to engage with India.”

In the August 2015 parliamentary polls, the TNA secured 16 seats in the 225-member legislature. Its leader R. Sampanthan was the Leader of Opposition until December 2018, when current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa succeeded him, after the then-President Maithripala Sirisena triggered a constitutional crisis by abruptly sacking former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Currently campaigning in the eastern Trincomalee district, Mr. Sampanthan recently told Tamil media that the international community and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are “standing behind us [TNA]”.

Referring to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s visit to Colombo immediately after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s big win in the November 2019 presidential election, and to the President’s and Prime Minister’s respective visits to New Delhi, Mr. Sampanthan said India had, on all three occasions, underscored the need for the Sri Lankan government to resolve the Tamil question, based on “justice, equality and dignity”.

Talks in Delhi

TNA spokesman and former legislator M.A. Sumanthiran has also been referring to India in his pocket meetings — the Election Commission has banned big rallies due to COVID-19 — in the Northern Province, comparing the current poll context with that in 2010. “At that time, the TNA fought the election after the candidate we backed for Presidency [Sarath Fonseka] lost, just like this time. But we won 14 seats and were subsequently invited to New Delhi to hold talks with the then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In that meeting, PM Singh advised us and the Rajapaksa administration to hold discussions and we held at least 18 rounds of talks after that,” he said.

However, rivals and critics of the TNA have criticised the alliance’s contestants for “misleading” the Tamil people that the international community or India would “back them”. The sentiment — shared by some on social media — is in line with a growing view among sections that New Delhi has been less vocal about Tamil concerns, and more preoccupied with its own geopolitical interests in the island.

On the other hand, citing the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution — born out of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 — that remains the only substantive legislation on power devolution to the provinces, the TNA maintains that New Delhi’s role is crucial.

Meanwhile, India also figured in a recent controversy in the south when Colombo port unions and Opposition party JVP objected to Sri Lanka “giving away” the East Container Terminal to India. “Ceding control” of national assets to “foreign countries” has been a recurring concern voiced by nationalist groups in the Sinhala-majority south.

Speaking at campaign meeting, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said his government had conveyed to New Delhi that the southern Mattala Airport will not be jointly developed with India, as had been proposed by the previous government.

“During my recent visit to India (in February) — and also by the President — I told them please do not take it (airport),” PTI quoted him on the airport that adjoins the Chinese-run Hambantota Port.

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