The elections to the Southern Provincial Council have just been concluded, and the people of this country were witness to the same election violence and election violations that prevailed in the elections in the East, Uva, Sabaragamuwa, North Central Province etc., etc.
It was a familiar pattern; the same caravan, the same circus. State vehicles blatantly abused by the ruling party, the law on the display of posters, banners, cut-outs and hoardings brazenly flouted; the Police looking the other way; non-government polls monitors and Opposition parties going to courts to seek redress; the Elections Commissioner threatening to annul polls, and eventually declaring the poll was successfully carried out.
Such are the provincial law-makers who have been elected, some with thumping majorities.
With the announcement this week of an imminent general election, one needs no crystal ball to predict that the same vicious cycle -- the same façade of a free and fair election -- is going to unveil itself at that election as well.
There isn't the remotest possibility that this Government is going to implement the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and thereby introduce an independent Elections Commission. Nor will there be an independent Police Commission.
It is also unlikely that the election law reforms proposed by the Dinesh Gunawardene Parliamentary committee will see the light of day. The only reforms approved recently relate to registration of political parties and gender (women's) representation of office-bearers in these parties.
Crucial powers for the Elections Commissioner - or an Election Commission -- have been kept in cold storage. It has been suggested that the Elections Commission be vested with the power to decide when Presidential and Parliamentary elections should be held. But the recommendation is based on organisational logistics, which is incidental. We have long argued the need to have US-style fixed-terms and definite dates for these elections. Every American knows when the next US Presidential elections will be held. In Sri Lanka, speculating about election dates is a favourite pastime, resulting in continuous instability.
There are recommendations to have Police clearance certificates for candidates, which would, however, be meaningless without the Independent Police Commission. Also to control election expenses, 'money power', the banning of 'promises' like the laying of foundation stones and ad-hoc appointments in Government and public undertakings etc.
Without these - future elections will be just the same caravan that has gone from province to province, and is now readying itself for the national and Presidential circus to elect the next set of law-breakers as the nation's law-makers.
Bridge to TN
The absence of a dialogue at political level with India's southern-most states - Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh - even Maharashtra, has been a major flaw in Sri Lanka's foreign policy.
For years we have in this space urged successive Sri Lankan governments to reach out to these neighbouring Indian states. Back in 1998 we recommended the opening of deputy high commissions in Mumbai and other Indian states. In 2000, we wrote about the national carrier flying to more Indian cities and fostering business links with them. On the eve of state elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly this year, we said, 'Sri Lanka's politicians have been as introspective as those in Tamil Nadu, and one could only hope for a new beginning after next week's elections", and on the eve of the crushing of the LTTE, (May 17), we urged the Rajapaksa Government to reach out to the next crop of Indian leaders, the Rahul Gandhis, the Narendra Modhis and the Ms. Kanimozhis: "They are the future power-brokers of India and they need to be convinced not only that the 'war on terror' is not a racist pogrom but that India's best security in its southern borders is a friendly Sri Lanka".
It is against this backdrop that one can welcome the ground-breaking, almost historic visit of a delegation of prominent politicians from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka.
Interaction between India's southern states and Sri Lanka has been happening since time immemorial, extending to trade, social, cultural, religious, educational, sporting and even culinary spheres. Those were the days when film idol M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) would be brought to Colombo from Ratmalana airport in a motor cavalcade with cheering Lankan fans lining the streets. Saree safaris to Mount Road in Chennai and visits by Indian shoppers to duty free shops in Colombo have all been part and parcel of the people-to-people contact between the two countries.
In the 1960s and thereafter, economic stagnation in India and a burgeoning population saw the influx of illegal immigrants from the southern states to Lanka. The reverse occurred with Sri Lanka's northern insurgency. Both countries faced this criss-crossing of people, each seeking the 'promised land' and a refuge from their miseries.
The 1983 riots in Sri Lanka and the subsequent emergence of Tamil militancy, however, saw Tamil Nadu politicians, including MGR who was by then the State's Chief Minister wilfully jettisoning the broader goodwill that prevailed and embracing the narrow ethnic equation instead.
They competed for the hand of the terrorists waging a bloody 'war' in Sri Lanka, giving bank cheques, offering their soil for hit-and-run strikes and breathing down the neck of their own Central Government in New Delhi to side with the terrorists. Their venomous public utterances against the 'Sinhala State' in Sri Lanka were nothing but xenophobia.
But all this is now passé. The time has come for this new beginning. To the Government of Mahinda Rajapaksa must go the credit for whatever backstage work that was done to bring this Tamil Nadu political delegation to Sri Lanka - even if, they had to give negative reports on the IDP camps in the Wanni.
Already, there are howls from political opponents in that state, from those one would expect to cast aside the now outdated rhetoric that fuelled Tamil Nadu politics for almost quarter of a century.
This then is a small but significant step in normalising good neighbourly relations - restoring them to pre-1983 times with the southern states of India in general, and Tamil Nadu in particular. This platform must be built on by both sides, for the common good of the common people who inhabit both sides of the Palk Straits.