Sri Lanka; Travails still for the TNA!

Sathiya Moorthy      Colombo, 22 April 2018

If someone thought that the post-LG poll travails of the ruling TNA in the North has had a happy ending, it is not to be – or, so it seems. If anything, the Provincial Council elections in the North, due later this year, could open up new wounds, and deepen the existing ones, beginning with the choice of the TNA’s chief ministerial nominee. It may not end there, though.

It all began recently with TNA parliamentarian and international spokesman M. A. Sumanthiran’s reported declaration that incumbent C. V. Wigneswaran would not be their chief minister candidate. Not to be undone, outdone, or outsmarted, Wigneswaran lost no time in going public, too, declaring that he would be ‘a’ chief ministerial candidate himself. This, not to leave out other TNA aspirants like Council Chairman, C. V. K. Sivagnanam, whose legitimate claims, the leadership had unconvincingly jettisoned earlier, and the mercurial Ananthi Sasitharan, a ‘discovery’ of the 2013 polls, whom Wigneswaran elected as a ‘minister’, defying party discipline months ago.

Then, there is also the likes of former PC Minister, D. P. Sathiyalingam, the likes of whom Wigneswaran was expected to ‘mentor’ for a future role but ended up dropping unceremoniously after the former began taking the party line rather than backing the personalised politics and policies of his chief minister. The list, of course, is incomplete – rather, endless.

Larger Tamil cause

Truth be acknowledged, Wigneswaran, a retired Judge of the Supreme Court, was not the one who sought the candidature, when the first post-war PC polls were held in 2013. Instead, the TNA leadership persuaded him to take on the arduous responsibility in the name of the larger Tamil cause and interest. The likes of Sivagnanam, who unlike the Colombo-resident, Wigneswaran, had greater traction locally, but then he too was not the lone claimant from the locals who had toiled with the masses, through the war, before and after.

Of course, the topping the list of locals was then parliamentarian, Maavai Senathiraja, who has since taken over as the chief of the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK), the chief constituent and vote-contributor of the TNA. Maavai even was known to be sulking in public until the leadership brought him around, and gave him a liberal hand in seat-sharing talks within the Alliance and also in candidate-selection within his party.

True to public perception, both in Tamil and Sinhala circles, Justice Wigneswaran, devoutly religious (and a Hindu), was believed to have given himself only six months to a year at the helm, until the post-poll party was able to find a suitable replacement from among the elected members. All of them were as raw to provincial administration as they were to even Council membership – and exposure to parliamentary practices of the kind, as well.

Wigneswaran knew the government as a Judge, bottom up, but he too did not have the kind of expertise, experience and exposure that the chief ministerial task, that too of a post-war people and province demanded. But he had the kind of public image and cross-ethnic political acceptance across the country that his image alone was hoped to do the trick for him, and more so for the TNA, at least in the short term.

The party needed time, and Wigneswaran allowed himself to be persuaded. Maybe because he did not have to grow more than he already had in public standing and personal erudition and image, when others grew with their positions, Wigneswaran’s ambitions, grew instead. If someone wanted to see any ‘justice’ in his political behaviour viz the TNA leadership, which had imposed him on the people in the first place, there was none.

SJV political culture

Today, Justice Wigneswaran is at logger-heads with the TNA leadership. It had started with the declaration that he had not joined the mainstay ITAK or any other constituent of the Alliance (then a four-party affair, since reduced to three, with EPRLF’s exit) – but was a TNA candidate in toto. Later, he would say that he had not joined the TNA either, but was elected by the people for what he was worth.

The high-count that he had registered in ‘preferential votes’ in Elections-2013 may have given Wigneswaran ideas, but to be fair to the TNA’s ITAK-centric leadership, it was clear that they were a moderate force, cultivating a moderate constituency, brought up in the ‘SJV political culture’ of moderation, in moods and methods, but was hijacked by the monolith, militant LTTE.

It is not that Wigneswaran’s political culture was any different from the SJP path, which the Sampanthan leadership of the TNA has inherited from the SJP past of the present-day leader, through the intermediary of his political guru, the slain TULF boss, Appapillai Amirthalingam. Nor could anyone blame him if he were to make his political moves as stealthily as they come in film-scripts of whatever language, to capture the top-post, all at once, and keep it too.

All those ‘outsiders’

This has happened in the mainline Sinhala polity, too. The Tamils and the TNA, who have been talking democracy and decentralisation for the inter-ethnic constitutional cohabitation, are weary of sharing power, within. Suffice is to recall how the ‘Jaffna town elite’ still have problems accepting all those ‘outsiders’, especially those non-elite from outside their immediate socio-economic surroundings.

These ‘outsiders’ have come from as far away (!) as Killinochchi, Mannar and Vanni, not to mention the Eastern Province, from where their political and militant foot soldiers had come, all through the post-Independence Tamil politics in the island-nation. But then the ‘Jaffna elite’, like their ‘Kandy-Colombo Seven’ Sinhala counterparts, can seldom share the political leadership space with the less fortunate until LTTE’s Prabhakaran changed it all – but only to lose it, too, once dead.

Having declared that he was not a serious-player and was only a stop-gap by choice, there was yet no justification for Wigneswaran to meddle in the daily running of the Alliance, which too had its own weird rules for the chief minister of their choice. If they had sensed early signs of rebellion of the present sorts by the Wigneswaran, the leadership kept it to itself, rather than thrashing it out at the appropriate party fora, and find a solution.

But then, they would have to accept that they had committed a mistake in the first place. The ‘Tamil pride’ has no place for accepting that they had committed a mistake until it was too late in the day. As Tamil analysts would often say in the context of the larger ethnic negotiations, leading up to past war and present non-negotiations with the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala polity, after having lost everything, including the existing initiative, they would parrot the same old lines: “Meendum pizhai vittutom”. Translated, it means, “We have committed a mistake, all over again.”

New dilemma

It is anybody’s guess why the Sampanthan leadership chose Wigneswaran over the legitimate claims of ITAK-TNA veteran Maavai Senathiraja in 2013. Maybe, it owed to Wigneswaran’s relatively higher public image all-round, and also his higher public standing as a learned person, who could present the Tamils’ case to the international community and fora like the UN and UNHRC better than any other.

In contrast, Maavai has had readily-acceptable leadership qualities, especially in the Tamil political mainstay of Northern Province. He was a militant-turned-moderate with readier acceptance in both sections, in the era after the LTTE. A platform speaker par excellence in native Tamil, he continues to stand tall among all other Tamil leaders, barring of course Sampanthan – whose moderate political past marries with the future, through the present.

According to some reports, Maavai may now be the TNA candidate, as the ‘main candidate’ in NPC Elections-2018 – and thus the chief ministerial nominee of the Alliance. Even ardent critics of the TNA from within the Tamil community and polity – and even of the Sampanthan leadership, at times – may have problems contesting Maavai’s candidancy now as it would have been five years earlier.

Yet, in the politics of the possible, the TNA may face a new dilemma. It will be more for Maavai personally if his political critics and those of the TNA from among the Tamil polity were to field, say, controversial Provincial Minister, Ananthi Sasitharan, as the chief ministerial contestant against him. It is another matter within the Wiggy-centric ‘Diaspora camp’ would be able to talk either him or Ananthi out of the race, if both of them insisted on contesting.

Few Tamils other than her immediate neighbourhood and personal surroundings might have known Ananthi before Maavai himself promoted her as a TNA candidate for a PC seat in Elections-2013, and Wigneswaran, in his desperation to take on the TNA leadership, elevated her minister, more recently. At the time, Maavai was reportedly hurt also over the denial of chief minister’s post for him. But then, Ananthi proved to be a firebrand campaigner, readily identifiable with all those Tamil war-victims, and even more so with those many more that had lost their dear and near ones to the long and ever-expanding list of ‘missing persons’ that the Government was still reluctant to admit.

Wife of Velayuthan Sasitharan alias Elilan, the LTTE political head of eastern Trincomalee who went ‘missing’, that too after the war, Ananthi became the ‘international face’ of the post-war Tamil women whose plight had gone mostly unrecorded and/or unacknowledged until then. She lost no time in staking and taking a place in the centre-stage of Tamil politics, and developed chief ministerial ambitions even faster.

It is another matter that the ITAK could not but keep her under suspension for not playing ball with the accepted ITAK-TNA line on political issues, both inside the Province and elsewhere in the country. Chief Minister Wigneswaran, controversial as he had already become in Tamil politics especially, chose to make her a Minister in the Provincial Government, as a part of his continuing ‘shadow-boxing’ with the larger TNA leadership, almost from day one.

Suffice is to point out that Ananthi thus could embarrass the ITAK-TNA leadership, especially Maavai, whether or not he accepts to become the chief ministerial candidate, now. She is the kind of new dilemma that Maavai especially may have to face in election debates, especially in terms of his ability to pick and choose the right man for the right job as chief minister. It would just be like Sampanthan being called upon to answer embarrassing political queries about Wigneswaran’s choice, too.

Done deal, or not?

This apart, ahead of the recent no-trust vote against in Parliament, Selvam Adaikalanathan, a senior Alliance MP and leader of the TELO constituent of the TNA, had claimed the existence of a 10-point deal with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, for their 16-vote support for his Government. Post-vote, which PM Ranil very comfortably cleared, TNA spokesperson Sumanthiran is reported to have claimed that no such deal existed, and theirs was an unconditional support for the former.

In the normal course, the TNA leadership could explain away such contradictions as a political tactic, so as not to embarrass PM Ranil within his divided ruling coalition and the larger Sinhala polity. It would have been the same way as MP Adaikalanathan had to talk about such a deal, so as to address the concerns and aspirations of TELO’s own constituency, both within and outside the country.

Post-war, smaller partners like the TELO and also PLOTE – the EPRLF also used to be there – had made it a practice to pressure the ITAK leadership of the TNA to get their ‘pound of flesh’ in seat-sharing talks for every election. This time round, the TELO may have another pressure-point to apply on the ITAK, especially since the collective TNA vote-share across much of the ‘Tamil country’ has fallen in the nation-wide LG polls of 10 February.

If the TNA, especially the ITAK, could win indirect mayoral polls in many local after the election of councillors, it owed to cooperation from such other parties as the EPDP. The other non-TNA, anti-ITAK part/combine in Gajan Ponnambalam’s CTC-TNPF, would not budge, where they had the deciding seats/votes, other than keeping those LGs that they had won.

That some party or Alliance other than the TNA and the EPDP should at all be able to win councillors and councils should be a shocking eye-opener for the TNA, whose unspoken trump-card, post-poll, happened to be the upcoming PC elections. But then, EPDP’s one-time national Minister and present-day parliamentarian, Douglas Devananda, has already thrown his hat into the chief ministerial ring.

Devananda had shown an interest in the chief ministerial job even when being a member of the Rajapaksa Government, in Elections-2013. He could now well press the TNA leadership for the job, with their support – though hardcore ‘Tamil moderates’ as also ex-LTTE supporters in the Alliance would love to hate him, still, for their own perceptions of his ‘para-militaries’.

If the TNA could justifiably argue this point with the EPDP and Devenanda for not wanting to give him the job – fearing equally legitimately that there could well be a further drain of the Alliance vote to the ‘Gajan camp’, the other two may have no such compunctions to do business, instead. How the non-TNA Diaspora backer-groups of the Gajan camp and Wiggy-Ananthi duo patch them up viz Douglas D, who is their ‘enemy’ as well may be a different thing.

But then, if there is a deal among them all outside of the TNA for the PC polls, then the EPDP may love to upset the TNA apple-cart in LG bodies where they are now working together, if that could help! It could still be a storm in the tea-cup for the TNA, but unlike in the past, the Alliance may feel rattled, if not really threatened, by such ‘non-developments’ (?) on the PC-poll eve!

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