COLOMBO: Voters in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-dominated Northern Province will be driven primarily by a desire to defeat Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) rather than by hope that his principal rival, Sajith Premadasa of the United National Pary (UNP), will deliver the promises he had made in his election manifesto.

In other words, it will be a vote to negate Gotabaya and not a positive one for Sajith.

In the earlier stages of the campaign for the November 16 Presidential election, the Tamils of the North were indifferent to all the three principal candidates, including Anura Kumara Disanayaka of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

As the former chairman of the Northern Provincial Council C.V.Sivagnanam put it, Northern Tamils were inclined to unofficially boycott the polls because none of the candidates had said that he will meet the long standing demands of the Tamils such as devolution of power in a new constitution, accountability for war crimes or tracing the missing.

While Gotabaya denied the demands explicitly, Sajith was non-committal. In fact, Sajith never once spoke about the Tamils’ plight or their demands. All his speeches were directed at the Sinhala majority and his understanding of what they needed and what he planned to do to meet those needs. There was nary a word about the Tamil question.

As regards the JVP candidate Anura Kumara, there was never any illusion that he would address the Tamil ethnic issue per se.

While the issue of boycotting the polls was being discussed in muted terms, student leaders in the highly Tamil nationalistic Jaffna University drafted a 13-point charter of demands which included the Tamils’ right to self dtermination.

This was done against the advice of senior Tamil leaders who argued that it would be pointless putting forward demands which the Sinhala-majority or the leaders of the Sinhala majority would not accept. Political action should be practical and meaningful and wantonly destructive, they argued.

But the saner voices were ignored and the students put forward their 13-point charter before all the Tamil parties and Tamil organizations in Jaffna.

Realizing that the Tamil people had come a long way after militant separatism was militarily defeated in 2009, boycotting the election would not be the right thing, and that it would be too much to foist the radical 13 demands on the people, the Tamil Peoples’ Council or the Tamil Makkal Koottani led by former Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran, advised Tamils to vote according to their conscience but keeping in mind the 13 demands.

This rather vague advice was of little use to the voters, who by then had begun to consider Sajith as a possible choice. This was because of his manifesto which said that he would finish the parliamentary part of the work on the new constitution which had been stalled in October 2018 because of some key political developments affecting the country as a whole. Prime Minister Ranil Wikckremesinghe of the UNP was suddenly substituted by Mahinda Rajapaksa of the SLPP throwing the country into turmoil.

Although Sajith made it cleat that any constitution that is drafted by parliament would be put through a referendum (where it is most likely to be rejected), the Tamils believed that Sajith would do what he could, that is, push the new constitution through parliament.

It was the contrast between Sajith’s promise on the constitution and Gotabaya’s non-reference to the Tamil political demands, that made the Tamils consider Sajith as a decent, if not an ideal, option.

And it was the promise to go the farthest in delivering the new constitution which made fence-sitting Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to issue a statement openly backing Sajith. However, the TNA only reinforced an already developing pro-Sajith mindset among Northern Tamils.

While the majority of Northern Tamils will not boycott and will vote for Sajith, a significantly large number will vote for Gotabaya. Sources in the North said that an increasing number of younger Tamils want to get ahead in life and are looking for economic rather than political gains. For the latter, they think, Gotabaya will be an ideal choice.

While most Tamils fear Gotabaya, given their experience during the war which he led as Defence Secretary, there are others in the community who see him as a developer. He amply demonstrated his creativity and efficiency as an administrator when he was Urban Development Secretary. In the view of these young Tamil men and women, Gotabaya has changed as his priority has changed. It is now economic development not war, although he would put down the Jehadist menace with a heavy hand.

This section of young Tamils feel that the main issue facing young Tamils is lack of employment and not lack of devolution of power to the Northern Province. Gotabaya finds resonance when he and his campaigners say that all problems, including ethnic issues, arise from inadequate and uneven economic development and uneven economic opportunities. Gotabaya has promised to spread development to all parts of Sri Lanka irrespective of the ethnic composition of the various parts.

Sources in the North say that Douglas Devananda, who was thought to have influence only in the islands of Jaffna, has now expanded his base and his supporters are to be found in all parts of the province. Devananda has been working on the Rajapaksa-Gotabaya politico-economic model for long, but with little or no success. But his line is now finding traction, sources say.

All in all, Tamil polity in the Northern Province is not a monolith. But on balance, the sentiment is pro-Sajith and anti-Gotabaya. But the pro-Sajith sentiment is not out of love for Sajith or out of confidence that he will deliver the goods but is out of the need to keep “heavy handed” and “anti-Tamil” Gotabaya out.

The level of enthusiasm for or against a candidate will be seen in the polling percentage. Low polling will mean that neither Gotabaya nor Sajith has been able to make an impression. High polling will mean a high level of feeling for or against a candidate.