Comment

A big departure from the past

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (centre) interacts with supports during an election rally in Colombo. File   | Photo Credit: AP

Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election, scheduled for August 5, is unique for three reasons. One, there is no festive atmosphere associated with campaigning due to COVID-19-related safety protocols. On the bright side, the restrictions have meant fewer hate speeches, according to the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, a Colombo-based non-governmental body.

Two, this is perhaps the first time in nearly 70 years that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) are no longer considered the principal forces. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a four-year-old party headed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, has occupied the space vacated by the SLFP. The UNP, which was in power mostly between January 2015 and November 2019, has suffered a split with large sections of the party rallying around the party’s candidate for the 2019 presidential election, Sajith Premadasa, under the banner of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (United People’s Front). This seems to have given the SLPP an advantage, despite the dissatisfaction among some people over the management of the COVID-19 crisis.

Also read: TNA faces biggest test in post-war decade as Sri Lanka gears up for election

Three, importance is being accorded to the economic agenda in the manifestos of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), led by veteran parliamentarian R. Sampanthan, and the Tamil Makkal Thesiya Koottani (TMTK, Tamil People’s National Alliance), led by former Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaran.

There are candidates from other parties in the fray too. In the Northern Province, Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda, and chief of the Tamil National People’s Front, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, are seeking re-entry into Parliament through Jaffna. In the Eastern Province, commander-turned-rebel of the LTTE, Vinayagamoorthi Muraleetharan (Karuna Amman), and former Chief Minister of the Province, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan (Pillayan), are trying their luck in Ampara and Batticaloa, respectively.

Political empowerment first

At stake in the North and the East are 29 seats of the 196 electable berths in the 225 member-strong Parliament. For long, major parties representing Sri Lankan Tamils preferred to focus on political empowerment of the Tamils instead of socio-economic development of the two Provinces, regardless of the impact of the civil war and its aftermath on livelihoods. Despite reports of rampant drug addiction and alcoholism among Tamil youth in the post-war years, they turned a blind eye to the problem. Though included in the 2015 TNA manifesto, economic issues did not figure prominently. Now, in a significant departure from the past, the TNA and the TMTK have dealt with the economic agenda substantively in their manifestos, without diluting the importance of a political settlement to the ethnic issue. The TNA promises creation of an alternative economic order in the region, revival of cooperative societies, access to India through the Palaly airport and the Kankesanthurai harbour, and FDI from the Tamil diaspora and the international community. It has underscored the need for tackling drug and alcohol abuse. Apart from proposing the formation of two policy think-tanks and an action plan on education, the TMTK has stated the need to seek Tamil Nadu’s help in establishing handlooms and technology parks and conducting industrial innovation skill training.

Also read: Can’t hold parliamentary polls in June, says Sri Lankan Election Commission

Pursuing the economic agenda

The TNA and Mr. Wigneswaran, who was with the Alliance till the end of his term in October 2018, have rightly been at the receiving end for their failure on the economic front. When Mr. Wigneswaran was elected Chief Minister of the Northern Province in October 2013, expectations were high that the TNA-led Northern Provincial Council would herald a new beginning. But except for the completion of the first phase of the Palaly airport, renamed the Jaffna International Airport, before the 2019 presidential election, no major project took off in the region. The TNA and Mr. Wigneswaran’s priority was on political settlement, Constitution-making, justice and accountability. And in all these areas, progress was extremely modest.

Perhaps, the criticism has forced them to take economic issues seriously. Though the campaign has not seen any major discussion on these issues, all those who get elected as representatives of the Tamils will have to ensure that the development agenda is pursued seriously. After all, the President is, in his own words, willing to be judged by his record on development. It is also up to the representatives to ensure that he honours his words. India too would be interested in participating in major development projects in the region. The Tamil parties should realise that their political bargaining power is tied to the economic progress of the Tamils. Otherwise, the goal of achieving dignity, equality and justice for Tamils will remain elusive.

ramakrishnan.t@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 2:44:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-big-departure-from-the-past/article32262180.ece

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