Walking the political tightrope

wigneswaren 6Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran caused ripples in political circles this week twice over – first, he was hospitalised for a heart ailment, then his name was proposed as a potential candidate at the next presidential election.

Wigneswaran has recovered from his heart ailment and is now back at work, much to the relief of not only those in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) but also the powers that be in Colombo, and that is a measure of value of this Supreme Court Justice-turned-politician.

As for speculation about being a presidential candidate, Wigneswaran himself has rubbished the idea. “Making any suggestions to make me a presidential candidate is meaningless and I am not for it,” Wigneswaran said categorically, adding, “I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry”.

In any event such a candidacy would have been doomed to failure in an electorate sharply divided on communal lines, as the recent provincial polls have shown. Its only beneficiary would have been incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who would defeat the political novice with ease.

Wigneswaran went so far as to say that he had a good working relationship with President Rajapaksa. “In our discussions he expressed many positive undertakings; unfortunately there appears to be difficulties in delivering on those undertakings,” Wigneswaran said.

In fact, Chief Minister Wigneswaran has been walking a political tightrope ever since he assumed office in October last year after the first ever provincial polls in the Northern Province. He has to contend with dealing with the government in Colombo as well as hardliners in his party, the TNA.

In dealing with the government for example, Wigneswaran has been struggling to have the Governor of the Northern Province, retired Army officer G.A. Chandrasiri removed. Wigneswaran is again quick to say that it is nothing personal but he would rather have a civilian serve in the ceremonial post.

On the other hand, there have been rumblings of dissent within the TNA too. Provincial Councillor Ananthi Sasitharan, wife of missing Tamil Tiger cadre Ezhilan has been critical of both Wigneswaran and the Northern Provincial Council and had to be cautioned by the TNA.

Such challenges are not new to Canagasabapathy Visuvalingam Vigneswaran who was born in Colombo, in Hulftsdorp, the seat of all legal activity, although his parents hailed from Manipay. Perhaps this was why he was called a ‘southerner’ by his opponents during his election campaign.

As his father, a public officer, was transferred frequently, Wigneswaran schooled in Kurunegala and  Anuradhapura before attending Royal College, Colombo where he was a senior prefect, cadet, boxer, athlete and leader of the English and Tamil debating teams as well as editor of the school magazine.

Then he entered the Colombo University and the Law College. When he ended his academic career he had earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of London, a LLB from the University of Ceylon and passed his Proctors and Advocates exams at Law College.

The story has been told of how Vasudeva Nanayakkara, President of the Law Students Union in 1961, had to persuade a reluctant Wigneswaran to contest the union elections the following year. Wigneswaran did, and won. Decades later, Nanayakkara’s daughter was to marry Wigneswaran’s son.

Out of law school, a promising career in law beckoned Wigneswaran. He practiced law for over fifteen years before deciding to take up a career as a judge. Joining the judicial service in 1979, he initially served as a magistrate and District Judge in Batticaloa, Chavakachcheri and Mallakam.

Justice Wigneswaran was appointed to the High Court in 1988 and served in the Northern, Eastern, North Central, Uva and Western provinces. He was appointed to the Court of Appeal in 1995. He was elevated to the Supreme Court in March 2001. Justice Wigneswaran retired in October 2004.

He had by then acquired a reputation as an impartial judge whose opinions and judgments were well-respected. He was also quite outspoken. Freed from \the shackles of being a judge, Wigneswaran gave vent to his feelings even more after retirement. He was a much sought-after speaker at legal events.

Vigneswaran was known to be fond of the lower courts. “I preferred the drama of the original courts despite the hard work I had to put in rather than what takes place today in this rarefied atmosphere,” Justice Vigneswaran was to say later, on the eve of his retirement from the Supreme Court.

Wigneswaran was one of the few retired judges who lent their voices against the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. This was in keeping with the high profile he maintained after retirement, often commenting on social and political issues and earning regular headlines.

When elections for the Northern Provincial Council were announced, Wigneswaran was not the first choice for Chief Minister: Mavai Senathirajah, a veteran politician in the TNA was staking a strong claim. TNA leader R. Sampanthan however mooted Wigneswaran’s candidacy. His decision prevailed.

Being a career judge all his life, Wigneswaran’s transformation from the judiciary to politics was not easy and at times he blundered. Saying that he saw no reason why Velupillai Prabhakaran couldn’t be called a hero touched a raw nerve and provided ammunition for hardliners to label him as a separatist.

However, after overcoming the initial teething problems in politics, Wigneswaran has been successful in keeping opposing political ideologies – those in Colombo and in the North – at bay. That both sides see him as a moderate is a distinct advantage.

For instance, Wigneswaran was able to host British Prime Minister David Cameron when the latter visited the North on a tour that was deemed undiplomatic and arrogant by Colombo. Cameron took a lot of flak for that but Wigneswaran escaped the wrath of the South.

C. V. Wigneswaran remains a valuable asset for both the government and the TNA. Colombo has a man they could talk to and the TNA can showcase a moderate and erudite gentleman as their leader. If there is to be any rapprochement between them, Wigneswaran’s role could become even greater.