Objection to Rajavarothiam Sampanthan being made Opposition Leader has ranged from rank communalism, justifiable fears given his and his party’s unabashed endorsement of a terrorist outfit, through a questioning of representational power to the machinations that are claimed to have disenfranchised over 4 million voters by the simply and pernicious presidential act of looting the coalition that came second in the General Election by a relatively small 350,000 votes.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and its constituent parties have hardly ever waxed eloquent on matters that concern the entire country. The focus has been consciously, deliberately and understandably, issues of the Tamil community. It is also true that the TNA, Sampanthan included, have indulged in Eelam-speak for years, going as far as to name the LTTE as ‘the sole representative of the Tamils’, and later in reduced circumstances after the LTTE was defeated reverted to federal-speak and other devolution tongues. There’s nothing wrong in all that. Ideological choices and aspirations are not the preserve of any community or any political party, after all.
The more compelling objection has been about the legitimacy to represent ‘The Opposition’. Sampanthan’s party polled a mere 5% of the total vote (515,963). Those who neither voted for the winner, the United National Party (UNP) nor went along with the promise of that party regarding ‘a national government’ (or more correctly a ‘coalition government’ between the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)), returned 95 members to Parliament through the United People’s Freedom Party (UPFA) of which the SLFP was the main constituent. Today, that number has dwindled down to 8.
The objectors (to Sampanthan) argue that the number is higher, pointing out that over 50 wanted Kumar Welgama to be the Opposition Leader. However all SLFP MPs have to be considered part of the ‘government’ for several reasons. First, their party has signed an MoU with the UNP. Second, many have received ministerial portfolios. Thirdly, the leader of the SLFP (whose near-dictatorial powers in the party were amply demonstrated recently) is also a part of the Cabinet. Object as they might to the way things happened, they are nevertheless trapped as lesser-members of the ruling coalition. Ergo they cannot propose any in their ranks for the post of Opposition Leader.
The TNA is, for all these reasons, the party which has the highest number of seats among those groups that are not part of the Coalition Government (misnamed as ‘National Government’ and ‘Unity Government’). The number of votes polled ceases to matter the moment the results are announced. From that point onwards the arithmetic is limited to parliamentary composition. In 1977, one remembers, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) polled a fraction of what the SLFP did and yet returned more MPs to Parliament and thereby secured the Opposition Leader’s post.
In any event, the fact that SLFP MPs are suffering from a debilitating identity crisis (perhaps handed down by their leader), automatically disqualifies any of them from being considered for the post of Opposition Leader. For all intents and purposes, in a multi-party democracy, clarity with respect to status vis-a-vis the ‘government’ is a non-negotiable ‘must’ in the office of Opposition Leader. No one in the SLFP can claim this.
Sampanthan, like all ‘opposition leaders’ will be expected to lead ‘the opposition’, in and out of parliament. That opposition is made of all communities, all parties other than the UNP and SLFP. He has pledged to do so. His ideological preferences aside, Sampanthan is eminently qualified to play this role given his considerable experience as a Parliamentarian and a politician who has at all times, even while supporting the LTTE, acted with decorum and dignity in debate. As a person who first came to Parliament on the Eelam-pledge of the TULF and who has seen first hand where that took the country and especially the Tamil community, one expects him to do much better than A Amirthalingam.
He has, by default, earned the right to represent over 4 million voters. None of them will expect him to articulate all of their political aspirations, but they will hope that he will be as representative of he can be of general citizens’ concerns on all matters. It is not impossible. There was a time, after all, when the sole member of the Communist Party, Sarath Muttetuwegama, was a virtual one-man Opposition to the J R Jayewardene Government. He has his work cut out for him. The Government pledged ‘Good Governance’. If he leads the handful that make the opposition after the UNP-SLFP marriage (made in hell?) to cry ‘foul!’ if and when the Government strays, he will be applauded. Rajavarothiam Sampanthan’s hour of reckoning has arrived. It will last a few years. We must wish him well.