The LG elections: Empathetic and pragmatic reflections on the Jaffna polls



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By Rajan Philips


After four years I was able to spend a few days in Jaffna. I was in Jaffna after the local government polls closed and the results of the elections were released. The general peninsular view was that the top heavy campaign of the government spectacularly backfired. The sole beneficiary was the TNA, by whichever name it contested the election. The TNA is organizationally very weak and it ran a lackluster counter to the ‘shock and awe’ blockbuster of a campaign launched by the UPFA governing party with all the power and the resources of the state behind it. It was the insensitive arrogance and the crassness of the government campaign that many said drove the people to vote against the government and for the TNA.


Otherwise, large numbers of them might have ignored the elections and stayed home. After all, it was only a village and town councils election. According to sources in Jaffna, the EPDP, in an internal postmortem of the results, is said to have acknowledged that it was a mistake to contest under the UPFA banner rather than contest under their own (EPDP) identity. A bigger mistake, according to the same postmortem, was the top heavy campaign – led by the President himself, surrounded by ministers and minions, and distributing goodies, allegedly from shoes to cash. Many recipients of the gifts ended up voting for the TNA.


The biggest mistake, which may not have been discussed at the EPDP postmortem, was the use of thuggery and intimidation to scare people from contesting on the TNA ticket and from canvassing for TNA candidates. No political organization should expect to win support or votes by throwing a dead dog in the private well of a respected Jaffna citizen and leader, or by impaling a dog’s head on the gate of a TNA candidate’s house.


Now that the elections are over, the results have become the property of everyone else who did not vote at the election or have anything to do with Jaffna, but who have the ability to market their interpretations. In a sense I am doing the same thing, but I will consciously try to do it differently out of respect for and in deference to the people of Jaffna and other parts of the North and East who are struggling to reconstruct their lives in harrowing circumstances.


The smell of democracy


The basic fact about the elections according to some pompous pontifications is that the government enabled the elections to happen and that it gives the lie to those who criticized the government for enacting the 18th Amendment. As arguments go, this is half nuts and half nonsense. The democratic deficiencies created by 18 A cannot be compensated by holding local elections in Jaffna or anywhere else. Those who insist otherwise are obviously not unintelligent but are shamefully dishonest. I will leave it at that.


The question pertinent to this article is that if the government was so committed to ministering democracy in Tamil areas, why did it play the monkey part by fielding candidates who had no credibility with the people and running an overkill campaign that ordinary people saw as insensitive at best and sinister at worst. These are still traumatic times in the North and the East. The LTTE did its mighty mite to create these circumstances. But it should be common sense, even if not sympathetic consideration, not to expect the people living in these areas to hop with joy at the first smell of democracy. You don’t organize a ball to bring closure soon after a funeral.


Politically, too, those with memories will recall that in 1981 the late Thondaman pleaded with President J. R. Jayewardene not to allow the UNP to contest the District Development Councils elections in the North and, to a lesser extent, in the East. He pleaded with JR to let the regional Tamil and Muslim Parties, for starters, to compete among them and for the government to simply ensure the conduct of a free and fair election. But the plea fell on deaf ears and the UNP adventure ended in disaster with the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. Thirty years later, circumstances have changed but state thinking remains the same.


As with the previous set of local elections, last week’s elections have brought into relief the two electoral solitudes of the island’s polity. The UPFA is the dominant winner in the South and the TNA is the winning counterpart in the North. The situation is comparable to the fault line in the 1977 parliament, but only so far as comparisons can go. It was the UNP that led the South in 1977, trouncing the SLFP. The TULF came to parliament brandishing its Vaddukoddai Resolution but with the definite backroom understanding with Prime Minster elect JR about a viable alternative resolution. But that resolution did not materialize as it could have and as it should have. The rest is history.


A peek into the last part of that history was eloquently given and so coincidentally with the July 23 election by former president Chandrika Kumaratunga. Using the occasion of a memorial lecture, Kumaratunga laid out the parameters within which a future resolution can still be achieved. She may have failed to achieve that resolution herself, and she might be a politically spent force now or for the future, but her articulation of the parameters to deal with Sri Lanka’s postwar crises – internally and internationally – is bound to resonate with many Sri Lankans both within and outside the government. It certainly did resonate in Jaffna.


It resonated to the extent that the TNA’s post-election claims on Tamil nationalism and political devolution cannot be dismissed as outlandish in the context of what is now being downgraded by government ministers as only ‘local government’ elections. It was the government and its ministers who raised the bar and campaigned as if these local elections were a Tamil national referendum. They thought they would score a spectacular victory but reaped a chastising defeat. One can imagine the claims the government would have made if it had captured even one local body outside the islets of Leyden (Kayts, Velanai) and Delft.


That said, both the government and the TNA should have the common sense not to make disproportionate claims and counterclaims on the basis of the July 23 elections. On the contrary, they should have the courage to cooperate with each other to translate the verdict of the people into practically dealing with the real issues facing the people in Jaffna and other districts in the Northern Province. The TNA should realize that its vehicle of Tamil nationalism would become a vacuous and costly distraction if it is not grounded on institutionally and programmatically dealing with the basic life-issues of the people. Equally, the government should appreciate it would be unproductive and even counterproductive to proceed on the basis of a development agenda without taking into account the political imperatives at local level as well as at the provincial level.


I will conclude with a few comments on the local political priorities based on my observations in Jaffna. These observations are also relevant to the jurisdictional tasks of the newly elected local bodies.


Local political priorities


There is no point in pretending that building roads, providing water and sanitary, and doing a host of other hard and soft aspects of government work are not ‘political’. The ‘political’ dimension comes into play in bringing the elected representatives of the people into the decision making process and in making sure that people’s views are directly consulted especially in regard to matters affecting their property and livelihood. The local bodies provide the forum for doing that and the newly elected bodies must be used for that purpose. The situation in Jaffna specifically demands such a bottoms-up political approach.


What must be avoided is the ‘politicization’ of the implementation process, i.e., inappropriate interference by ‘political middlemen’ in the day-to-day work of professionals and other civil servants after the policy framework and program goals have been established through proper political processes. The academics and professionals living in Jaffna are positively satisfied that central and local government institutions are appropriately located in Jaffna. But the functioning of these institutions is rated quite differently, and those that perform poorly are invariably those affected by political interference.


There is satisfaction with the ongoing road works. It was remarkable to see road construction work being carried out on a Sunday. Engineers working in the areas of water supply and sanitary servicing also came in for praise. Water scarcity is a huge problem in specific areas, especially the islands. Other areas, especially Jaffna town, face the real threat of groundwater contamination by the proliferation of septic tanks by domestic, institutional (hospitals, universities, schools etc) and the growing commercial (hotel) uses. Fortunately, the National Water Supply and Drainage Board has multiple plans ready for implementation. These issues were identified several decades ago but plans to address them have been idling on the drawing board initially due to government indifference and inaction and later as result of the war. I heard positive comments about Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s commitment to proceed with the implementation of these plans.


While I hope that the government will consistently provide the necessary funding for these works, I must also urge the government and the TNA to coordinate with the newly elected local bodies in mediating the provision of roads, water and sanitary services, on the one hand, and the specific needs of local populations, on the other. It is in the provision and use of these services that politics comes to life at the local level. And politics at this level is best practiced by mutual institutional respect, sharing of experiences and, most of all, by listening systematically (not patronizingly) to the people.


The biggest need for listening and helping is in the rebuilding of people’s properties and their livelihoods. Every district affected by war has its own tallies of devastation, some more severe or worse than the other. I can only speak to what I saw and heard about in Jaffna. The origin of Jaffna’s devastation goes beyond the last stages of the war and it began with the establishment of high security zones in several parts of the district. I saw the extent of this devastation on both sides of the KKS Road from Tellipalai to Keerimalai. It was a heart rending drive. Lands that were once meticulously fenced and preciously cultivated with a range of cash crops and home gardens are now a wasteland overgrown with wild shrubs. Properties where families had built homes and lived for generations do not even have rubble as evidence of past human habitation.


Some of the people from these and other high security zones left Sri Lanka. They are callously referred to as economic migrants by other people who should know better and probably should empathize more. But many of the people who left their lands are now part of a statistic called internally displaced people and are consigned to one or the other peninsular purgatory. These people are now looking forward to reenter their properties and start rebuilding their lives. What arrangements will the government, the TNA and the newly elected bodies working in concert have for these people?


They need a process to demonstrate their right to their properties even without legal titles or documents. They need financial support and there should be no limitation on the amount of grants they can receive from agencies that are willing to provide such grants. There should be mechanisms for them to obtain bank loans with expatriate family members as co-borrowers, or even primary borrowers. If the government handles this matter with sensitivity and empathy it can ensure significant spin-off benefits to the overall economy. For the rest, as one academic insightfully told me, leave the rebuilding to the people and the local market and they both will be on their firm feet much sooner than anyone can imagine.


I cannot conclude this piece without referring to the presence of the army in Jaffna and other northern districts. There is manifestly no tension or hostility in the way individual soldiers deal with the people. But the institutional presence of the army is disturbingly intrusive. Local estimates are that there is a soldier for every person in Mullaithivu and there is more than one soldier for every household in Jaffna. More than the numbers, the physical layouts of the camps dominate the landscape and diminish the civilian universe. I know it is not practical to ask of the government to significantly reduce the military presence in a short period of time. But I also know that it cannot be moral for a government to ignore this matter indefinitely in the future.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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