All is well that ends well – or, so goes the old adage. For the ruling Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the Tamil-majority Northern Province, it could well be just that and nothing more. The current truce between TNA leadership of R Sampanthan and Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran has the potential to blow up all over again as the NPC polls, due by September 2018, approaches.
The question is would the TNA re-nominate Wigneswaran as their ‘lead candidate’ for Elections-2018, or would look around for another? Or, would Wigneswaran go away without a fight, which he declared that he would join at the height of the recent party break-down over his sacking of all four ministers, in the place of two, who alone were found to be guilty of corruption and the rest by a panel of his choosing.
Though many senior party leaders have a strong legal background, as a retired Judge of the Supreme Court, Wigneswaran is possibly the only one in the TNA hierarchy so uniquely placed still to ‘judge’ the right and the wrongs of his ministerial colleagues. Having thus acknowledged the guilt of two of them, it’s anybody’s guess why he should go on to equate the other two on the same plane and ask them to ‘go on leave’.
There are two issues here. One, Wigneswaran’s demanding ‘leave letters’ from the two ‘not guilty’ ministers, namely, P Sathyalingam and B Deniswaran, placed a premium on the other two found ‘guilty,’ namely, P. Ayngaranesan and T. Gurukularajah. Two and more importantly, by ‘sacking’ all four ministers at the same time, and seeking to head all ministries in the Provincial Government, Wigneswaran was also seen as behaving like an autocrat.
The question is not if the Chief Minister was acquiring the traits of an ‘autocrat’. Instead, his conduct was tantamount to the Chief Minister acting against the letter, spirit and the very concept of constitutional democracy. If he had reservations about continuing to work with the ‘not guilty’ ministers, too, Wigneswaran should have taken it up with the party leadership and/or the legislature party, and found a way out.
Replacing all four ministers and inducting four new faces would have also given other TNA provincial council members whatever limited exposure that more of them could have acquired in the remaining one year to the election of a new PC. At inception, the Northern PC, unlike the eight others in the country, lacked members who were experienced in political administration and legislature management. But this was not the way to go about it, however.
At the helm, Justice Wigneswaran had the experience of a dispenser of justice, not that of a political administrator. But he had the right credentials of honesty, integrity and popular appeal and acceptance than possibly all other TNA leaders put together. The TNA needed a Wigneswaran at the time than the other way round. Rather, he was a ‘compromise candidate’ of sorts.
The fact that Wigneswaran polled high 132,000 ‘preferential votes’ as the TNA’s lead/chief minister candidate in the first, post-war Elections-2013 was proof of his personal popularity. Ex-LTTE hard-liner, Ananthi Sasitharan came a distant second with 88,000 votes. Among the other candidates, veteran PLOTE leader, D. Sitharthan, a militant-turned-moderate, came way away in the third spot with 40,000 votes.
After blowing hot and cold about the denial of ministerial berth for ‘Tamil women’, Ananthi is lying low since. Sitharthan moved on to Parliament, elected again under the TNA brand that sells among the Tamils. Other Tamil/TNA political veterans like C. V. K. Sivagnanam (27,000), NPC Chairman and current leader of the ‘rebels’, and the irrepressible M. K. Shivajilingam (22,000), even while winning an elected seats (as against ‘nominated’ ones), looked like also-rans.
Through the confrontationist course of the current/recent squabble, Wigneswaran’s backers flagged his ‘personal popularity’ as the cause and justification for his actions and decisions. If anything, he was a ‘reluctant suitor’ to politics and political administration. ‘One-year-and-no-more’ was reportedly his declared decision while allowing himself to be forced into entering politics just weeks ahead of Elections-2013.
Politics thus does strange things to strangers in politics than possibly to the veterans. Today, he is talking more about ‘fighting back’ than the conventional TNA leadership. Those from the TNA being sighted with Wigneswaran just now too were militant fighters in their youthful past.
Not only did they lose their militancy fight in the years gone by, they have also lost their credibility. Wigneswaran has lost only his political innocence and ignorance. His credibility is intact. So has been the relative credibility of the larger TNA leadership. That is the problem facing the Tamils and the TNA ahead of Elections-2018. They need the two to tango.
The internal TNA differences relate not just to personality distinctions but more to ideology. Though not necessarily wedded to the LTTE’s idea of ‘separatism’, Vigneswaran, in his years after retirement as a Justice of the Supreme Court, was known as an ideological hard-liner. He differed from the youthful militants of the LTTE and other extinguished kinds only in terms of ‘methodology’ to achieve what looked like a common goal.
It’s here that the TNA leadership of Sampanthan erred. They wanted a pliable chief minister who could be sold to the international community as an elitist moderate removed from the war-mongering traits of the Jaffna populace, and yet acceptable to the Diaspora hard-liners. Wigneswaran was their choice, not that of the TNA. But they were the ones made to persuade Wigneswaran, market him to the domestic Tamil voters as much as to the international community.
In a way, Wigneswaran’s choice of his ministerial colleagues reportedly had the greater approval of the Diaspora hard-liners than the ‘moderate TNA leadership’. Red-herrings of the Ananthi Sasitharan types were flagged by some only to withdraw them, lest her fiery speeches could make the Colombo Government and embarrass the international backers of the TNA.
High’s and low’s
All that has happened in the Tamil politics of the nation and of the North since Wigneswaran becoming Chief Minister were not at all unpredictable. If anything, there is a pattern of high’s and low’s in terms of issues and positions that the Chief Minister has flagged and asserted, periodically. Either his was a reflection of the Diaspora hard-liner’s position on issues in discourse, or a flagging of a related ‘concern’ when all became quiet on the Northern front.
After publicly becoming hostile to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the past, Vigneswaran has since attributed his current problems to ‘Colombo conspiracies.’ In this context, he has also referred to a recent statement of Central Government Minister and Field Marshal, Sarath Fonseka, known better for his foot-in-the-mouth disease, especially in the post-war era.
By extension and given his current/recent travails, Wigneswaran has made the TNA leadership a part of his ‘conspiracy’ theory. Rather, the TNA leadership is at the tail-end of any such ‘conspiracy,’ as the executing agency, and possibly nothing more. In the same vein, he also needs to explain why he had taken in people less credible than his standards as Ministers in his team in the first place, or why he should want all four ministers sacked when two alone were found guilty of corruption and other irregularities.
Control freaks, all
It is not as if the Sampanthan leadership of the TNA has been playing fair by the party, nor were all those alliance partners of the ITAK leader in the Alliance. Like all leaders Sri Lankan, which includes the Tamils as well, since Independence, Sampanthan too is a ‘control freak’, so is Wigneswaran, and so are others in their respective, non-existent alliance parties. So was Prabhakaran before them, and also moderate Tamil leaders from the past.
If Sampanthan wanted Wigneswaran, the ‘outsider’ as chief minister against a fuming Maavai Senthairajah, a ‘political’ ITAK insider with protesting supporters on the streets of Jaffna, it also owed to this trait of his. Yet, he has long since given up the ITAK leadership to Maavai, remaining only as the titular head of the amorphous, four-party TNA combine with no electoral identity to call its own, still.
One unwritten job assigned to Wigneswaran, for which he was better equipped than most others including Maavi S, was to train future-generation leaders for futuristic jobs, starting with his own. Names from his own ministerial team were doing the rounds in the early days, but not anymore. What he might have encouraged and entertained, if not designed and trained, is a group of storm-troopers inside a TNA-dominated Provincial Council, where might alone was right, Constitution or no Constitution, democracy or no democracy.
Banner of revolt
It is anybody’s guess when the three other ITAK partners would raise their customary banner of revolt against Sampanthan, or when they would ebb. Ahead of every election of every kind, they would ‘conspire’ instead and make noises against the ‘dictatorial ways’ of ITAK leadership and the ‘autocracy’ of Sampanthan in particular. Around the time of poll-announcement, they would also settle for a ‘few crumbs’ in terms of seat-shares and electorates of their choice(s), leaving even their cadres as confused as before.
Like casteism and corruption in Tamil politics, this pattern too has out-lived the LTTE hegemony, with a high premium still on personal integrity, commitment to the cause and focussed attention to the organisation’s ‘separatist’ goal. This time round they have got in Wigneswaran a credible leader that they had lacked all along, but whether they would stick on with him would be known only when they begin re-evaluating the Chief Minister’s electoral popularity, compared to that of ITAK’s election symbol, ‘House.’
It also remains to be seen if the non-ITAK partners, always screaming for registering the TNA as a ‘political party’ with an election symbol of its own, would flag the question all over again, now that elections are due in a year’s time. The practice has been for Sampanthan to talk them out of it until the annual January deadline for registering new political parties with the Election Commission expired, and then talk them into accepting a seat-sharing formula that’s his and that of the ITAK but the others are made to feel it was theirs (too).
Unlike in the past, the non-ITAK partners in the TNA have Wigneswaran for a figure-head, but as a Colombo-based ‘old Jaffnaiite’, he too might have pangs splitting the parent party, of which he however claims not being a member, still. Unlike in the past, students of Jaffna University, the eternal hot-bed of Tamil student/youth politics in the North and the rest of the country, have identified with Wigneswaran, as they had done during the parliamentary polls of 2015.
At the time, those that the students had supported and Wigneswaran had empathised and openly sympathised with at the time, lost – and lost very, very badly. Against this, Wigneswaran still looks larger-than-life in terms of political credibility and personal integrity. But then the same cannot be said of his possible future allies of the non-ITAK kind from within the present-day TNA, including those continuing to live on and off the side-lines in the Jaffna-centric Tamil politics of the country.
The larger issue(s) remain(s). They are all for the Tamil people, as different from the self-appointed ‘Tamil civil society’ of Jaffna and the rest of the North to dabble with and decide about. In this, they are bound by history and geography, and not just of the ‘separatist’ and militant LTTE variety.
Of course, the first and foremost is if they desire to stay on in a united and unified Sri Lanka – from which there is no real escape, despite the LTTE’s aspirations and continuing Diaspora ‘inspirations’ (?). The next is about being more realistic than at present and look for a political solution within the larger Sri Lankan Constitution, as the latter is being discussed and debated, nowhere by nobody as such.
The immediate other question relates to ‘war-time accountability issues,’ which is ‘no issue’ any more for those in the international community that had egged on the TNA to abort the political negotiations with the earlier Rajapaksa regime, post-war but without a real and realistic solution still in the larger Sri Lankan context. Should they leave it there and proceed with political solution and people’s rehabilitation in socio-economic terms is the question that the TNA itself should place before their people, if the leadership wants to be realistic and be seen as being so.
In all these, the Tamil people need to be as realistic as they want others to be. Either they will have to live with a divided leadership of Sampanthan and Wigneswaran, or united as they might pretend to be. Neither is growing younger, nor any other war-time leaders of the TNA or any of the other Tamil outfits, with the credibility of most still in question just as it was when they were fighting the LTTE or when the LTTE was fighting the Government.
The year between now and Elections-2018 is a good time for the Tamil people, if not their leaders, to contemplate the past, think about the present and decide for the future – starting with their own future generations. A people who took pride in their better education standards and employability has neither, and no one elsewhere too wants them any more either as refugees or as ‘immigrant employees’ or as political asylum-seekers.
The future of their future generations is here in Sri Lanka, and Jaffna alone cannot be Sri Lanka for them. Jaffna cannot also be the North for the rest of the North. There are people and communities, who could not run away to the West or even to the refugee camps in neighbouring India. They got stuck here, they were the ones who lost their lives in the ‘Last Battle’ as Jaffnaiites were witnessing the war from a vantage-point, but not a single shot fired in their direction by mistake.
The rest, as they say, is history. Amen!
The article appeared in The Sunday Leader, Colombo, 25 June 2017