In hindsight, the question now arises if the entire Northern Provincial ministers-sack drama was enacted only to bring in the controversial and even more rebellious Ananthi Sasitharan into the Government, that too over the head of the ruling TNA-ITAK’s moderate leadership? If that was not the case, still the fact remains, Ananthi is now the Minister for Women and Social Welfare, in charge of Rehabilitation and Food, other areas of common concern for all women in the North, though to varying degrees.
Wife of the ‘missing’ LTTE commander, Sinnathurai Sasitharan, better known as ‘major’ Ezhilan, Ananthi was a Government servant who took bold to go on record that she saw her husband surrender to the armed forces at the end of the war in May 2009. But she acquired greater prominence for all the more controversial statements she made nearer home and more so, on the sidelines of UNHRC sessions in Geneva, not only against the Government and the armed forces but also against the TNA leadership of veteran R. Sampanthan.
Lying low for some time now after she was suspended from the party, for targeting senior leaders in public, Ananthi has now sprang back onto the news columns with her current elevation as minister – clearly a decision taken unilaterally by Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran. Obvioulsy, as on earlier occasions, she had been told by whoever were her Diaspora handlers, to lie low until the time was ripe.
Ananthi’s elevation has thrown up two possibilities ahead of the Northern Provincial Council polls, due in September 2017, or about a year from now. One, the hard-liners, both within the local Tamil community and in the Diaspora, where they are stronger still, can ask her to be named the TNA’s chief ministerial candidate. They might then settle for Wigneswaran as a compromise candidate should the TNA-ITAK leadership throw up reservations still to elevating Ananthi as chief ministerial candidate.
It is not as if there are no other chief ministerial aspirants in the party and even in the current TNA legislative group, including the ‘hard-liner faction’, now identified with Chief Minister Wigneswaran. In fact, her elevation may have been aimed at spiking the possible chances of two existing leaders. There are many others, including incumbent NPC Chairman, C. V. K. Sivagnanam.
But definitely, Ananthi’s elevation now as a minister has put paid to the chief ministerial ambitions of her so-called political mentor and ITAK chief, Maavai Senathirajah. Her elevation has also come in the way of the chief ministerial possibilities of Health Minister P. Sathiyalingam, a medical-doctor who at one time was being groomed for the future by the Sampanthan-Wigneswaran duo, but not any more by the latter, it would seem.
Maavai had seemingly propped up Ananthi, then a hot-brick on the rock, to offset the loss of face and position caused by the denial of chief ministerial candidacy to him. By hindsight again, Sampanthan’s decision to keep Maavai free of administrative responsibilities to take over the leadership of the ITAK partner in the TNA, to take over the party reins from him seem to have proved right.
Yet, the question would remain if the TNA-ITAK would have been better off now with Maavai especially holding the twin posts of chief minister and party boss. Whether it had anything to do with the deep-seated and seldom acknowledged North-East divide within the Tamil community and ‘Jaffna politics’ is unclear, but the fact remains that Maavai was/is a stronger political person than Wigneswaran was deemed to be at inception.
Sathiyalingam did not seem to have much political ambitions or role in the affairs of the Tamil people other than as a medical-doctor working for the Government, who walked that extra mile, almost on a daily basis through the long war years, to reach out to the sick and needy. His war-time contributions in his line of work might not have been as ‘great’ as those of many others of his ilk, but then he also did not make himself as controversial as the rest, for the post-war Government and Tamil political leadership to be wary of open association and induction into electoral politics and ministerial positions.
In contrast, Ananthi was her own discovery up to a point, and a further discovery of the Diaspora Tamil groups, NGOs and sections of the international community, including those in the UNHRC, who wanted to paint Sri Lanka and the armed forces in all shades of red and black, with no shades of pink or grey anywhere in between. Once launched, at no point of time did she hide her political ambitions or chief ministerial claims.
Babes in the wood
Minister Wigneswaran did not want to encourage her becoming a minister, and Sampanthan would not have her as a minister, leave alone her becoming chief minister in her right one day. Whoever between the two, or a third one took the initiative, today, Wigneswaran and Ananthi have made political peace between them. Together and separately, they do not care for Sampanthan any more, it would seem – though they too cannot ignore his political reach within the larger Tamil community, and his Machiavellian tactic, which would make them feel like babes in the wood.
The political question before the Tamils is now not about their past, or even the immediate present, but about the extended present, or what it would be early future: Elections-2018. How would the ITAK-TNA take forward their electoral choices and alliances, who would be their chief ministerial nominee, or the ‘first candidate’ in their list of candidates for ‘preferential votes’?
In case, the party has the numbers, either within the leadership or in the NPC or both, and if it decides to deny Wigneswaran and Ananthi, or any other ‘hard-liner’ the chief ministerial chance, who would be their ‘first candidate’? Would it be Maavai or Sivagnanam from the old-guard, or Sathiyalingam or M. A. Sumanthiran, the party’s international spokesman, who like Wigneswaran, had entered Tamil politics, only post-war, again at the instance of Sampanthan?
Or, will it be another compromise candidate from the ‘moderates’ group, or someone acceptable to both the moderates and the hard-liners, alike? If the last possibility does not work, what would the hard-liner group, headed by Wigneswaran and even more identified with Ananthi, do about it? Would they split the party and the alliance, and found a new party or combine?
For now, Ananthi is among the very few ITAK members of the provincial council who have rebelled against the leadership and has been identified as such. Wigneswaran, post-poll, has claimed that he was not a member of the TNA partners but a direct member of the TNA itself. As long as the issue does not go to the court, it may be alright. But in legal and electoral terms, TNA is non-existent, ITAK and ITAK’s ‘House’ symbol alone are recognised by the Election Commission Department, and so are the other partners in the TNA, with their own names and election symbols.
Compromise, or not?
On the face of it, by retaining the two ministers whom he had directed to go on ‘long leave’ and who had the ITAK-TNA’s backing and confidence, Chief Minister Wigneswaran has compromised on his earlier position. But by choosing ministerial nominees of his own, to replace the two ‘corrupt’ colleagues he could not but sack under the circumstances, he has had his way. Or, through him, his handlers have had their way.
In doing so, Wigneswaran retained Health Minister Sathiyalingam and Fisheries Minister Deniswaran. In bringing in Ananthi, he has also ensured that Tamil women are heard in the State Ministry while they are yet to hear a fair deal in the ITAK-TNA hierarchy. His choice for Education Minister, Dr. K. Sarveswaran, too did not seem to have gone down whole-heartedly well with the ITAK and TNA leaderships.
In a way, the Sampanthan leadership might have met its match in political cunning in the Wigneswaran camp or those that are behind it. In another way, the latter would still have to prove themselves as vote-getters. In the parliamentary polls, Wigneswaran lost very badly after betting on the wrong horse. His camp thus has a longer way to go than it might believe.
Likewise, Ananthi, despite winning the second highest number of preferential votes (88,000) after Wigneswaran’s high 132,000 in the NPC polls of 2013, got those votes not only because he represented the plight of women in the post-war Tamil community. After a point, she also had the backing of the TNA-ITAK leadership, and was nominated to contest on ITAK’s ‘House’ symbol, the lucky mascot of the combine.
Between now and Elections-2018, Ananthi would be judged not by being what she has been so far, including being the hapless wife and mother of three, in search of her ‘missing husband’. Tamil voters, including women, would not be judging her by grit and determination alone, or by her fiery speeches. Instead, she would have to prove to them that she is worthy of their trust as a provincial councillor and minister, before they cast their vote in her favour the next time round.
In between, the ITAK leadership and the TNA as a combine would have to address issues and concerns about staying united as they are in electoral terms. Post-war and before presidential polls, efforts were made to expand the LTTE-knit TNA, to include other Tamil parties and groups, and they even attended a couple of combined meetings at the TNA’s Colombo headquarters, on invitation.
If it did not go farther, it owed to two main factors. One, the pro-LTTE elements would not have the EPDP under then Minister Douglas Devananda. Two, the Suresh Premandran-led official faction of the EPRLF, would not have the other factions of the party.
There were also others like S. C. Chandrahasan, son of the late S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, also sought to do his bit for ‘larger Tamil unity’ at the time and also attended some of these ‘unity talks’. They were positively discouraged from doing so. Yet, it was also among the reasons why President Mahinda Rajapaksa sought to advance the presidential polls though this factor is seldom acknowledged.
The question is if Ananthi could give a new face-lift to the cause, not of the Tamils or of the ‘Tamil women’ who have suffered during the war, but if she could do it for and within the non-ITAK group within the TNA, to begin with. In particular, as Rehabilitation Minister and as a champion of the cause of ‘missing persons’, she would also be called upon try and fast-track those cases, including all those that owed to the forced recruitment or conscription of Tamil youth and children, in which her ‘missing’ husband Ezhilan had reportedly played a cruel and gruesome role.
Independent of the explanations that the armed forces would be called upon to give in her own case, she might also be called upon to produce independent witnesses to prove that Ezhilan had actually surrendered to the armed forces as she alone has claimed thus far – something that any judicial or quasi-judicial investigation, or any probe deriving from instruments of ‘Natural Justice’ would dictate. The question is whether she would want to help other Tamil women find their ‘missing’ kin as Minister for Women Affairs and Rehabilitation, or if she would want to stall some of those registration, recording and investigations (even if only ministerial/administrative) under the new and relevant law, would also determine her greater credibility – as much with the international community as with her own clan and class.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)