In this country, it is a rarity to witness really smart politics on strategic issues. We have just done so and got two breakthrough moves on the same issue. The first was by President Rajapaksa who chose to go ahead with the election to the Northern Provincial Council and have a meeting with Mr Sampanthan, the TNA leader. The second was by Mr Sampanthan who worked hard to persuade his coalition to field Justice Wigneswaran as the Chief Ministerial candidate. The choice of Justice Wigneswaran illustrates the kind of strategic thinking that is needed in politics when fundamental issues are at stake; strategic thinking that is willing to stand up to and sacrifice more obvious ethno-populist passions and pressures for the defence of vital interests of the entirety of the people and place one represents. The choice further shows a capacity on the part of Mr Sampanthan (and his able young supporter Mr Sumanthiran) to think through those strategic interests in a manner that transcends baser ethno-populist sentiment. In short, Mr Sampanthan and Mr Sumanthiran have accurately understood strategic Tamil interests which they have not confused with the lowest common denominator of Tamil sentiments.
Justice Wigneswaran is a symbol of Tamil ‘soft power’, which is being depleted in the Sinhala society and most certainly the State. If handled correctly he can become a symbol of the soft power of Sri Lanka as a society and a country. The Sinhala Establishment has to get its head around the fact that though the Tigers were utterly defeated, the Tamil community has not been cowed and has bounced back politically. One of the reasons for this resilience and recovery is the continued availability of an educated elite, literate in an international language (English)—a sociological resource which has been depleted on the Sinhala side by and driven into alienation or exile by the state of suffocation imposed by the State. On the Tamil side the English educated elite is still available for politics and public service and is welcomed by Tamil society while on the Sinhala side, the public welcomes the incorporation of the elite but the dominant monolingual petty bourgeoisie which monopolises the state apparatus, does not. The choice of Justice Wigneswaran as Chief Ministerial candidate shows firstly, that the Tamil professional elite is still intact and willing to engage in politics and secondly, that the Sinhala state which has shed the equivalent human resources will find it difficult to compete in the regional and international arena.
The Northern Council with him as Chief Minister will not be the answer to Sri Lanka’s needs but will constitute a counterpoint which will in turn help us discover a middle path, a golden mean between the nationalisms of the South and North. He is a challenge but the challenge he will constitute could be a positive one; just the benign shock therapy that the Sri Lankan state and Sinhala society need to accommodate and integrate if they are to catch up with the 21st century world.
If both sides get it wrong though, it could mark the end of the road for a united Sri Lanka.