It’s sad and shocking that at a time when the Sinhala-majority ‘National Government’ is talking about converting the present Parliament into a Constituent Assembly without any specific reference to a political solution to the ethnic strife and the facilitator of a power-devolution package, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is back to the community leadership’s old game of mutual blame. Ultimately, as is already beginning to happen, they would also blame the Sinhala majority for its ‘conspiracies’ to de-stabilise the Tamil leadership, branding some among the latter as ‘traitors’, as again has been the norm.
Ironically, at the centre of the current phase of intra-Tamil political rivalry are two leaders, who are post-war finds without any known long association with the ‘Tamil ethnic movement’ of any kind. Though again their differences are sought to be highlighted by sections of the vibrant Tamil social media as personality-driven and conferring on it an ideological distinction that may or may not exist, the mere preference in advocated approach has come to divide the vocal Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) ever more than their suffering brethren nearer home.
Though not highlighted by the mainstream national media, or the sympathetic international media, it has been known for long that divisions had emerged between TNA-chosen Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran and the party leadership. What was seen at one stage as an institution-based difference between the political and administrative leaderships, with the former not known or willing to give th required leeway to the elected leadership even in non-political administrative matters, has now blown up into a clash between the former Supreme Court Judge and his one-time law student and party international spokesperson, M. A. Sumanthiran.
Both sides have rubbished each other enough, with Sumanthiran reportedly seeking disciplinary action against the Chief Minister, and the latter holding out a seeming ‘white threat’, not just to his new-found bête noire but the TNA leadership as a whole. That he had begun saying and doing so almost since the conclusion of the 8 January presidential polls, and heightened it by calling upon the Tamils to vote for the ‘better candidate’ in the 17 August parliamentary elections, has to be thus contexualised, too.
Wigneswaran has cited the 130,000-plus votes that he had polled as the TNA’s chief ministerial candidate in 2013 as a measure of his personal popularity, going beyond the traditional vote-share of the party. His supporters, including elected party MPS, have since gone on to argue that it was nearly double the vote-share from a single district, Jaffna, as against the 70,000 that the party’s highest vote-getter in ‘Master’ Sritharan could obtain from the twin revenue districts, which included neighbouring Killinochchi, in this year’s parliamentary polls.
The argument cut both ways. If it was a personality-driven vote for Wigneswaran in 2013, what did he promise his voters that the TNA did not say, explicitly or otherwise? Two, if he made the difference – say, not just in terms of the personality, but also in terms of ideology, which is what seems to be at the centre of the larger internal discourse within the TNA and the Tamil community – how is it that other pan-Tamil political parties and leaders with better claims to ‘Tamil nationalist’ ideals have consistently failed in successive elections? Was it also because the personality made the difference in Wigneswaran’s case?
In context, Wigneswaran continues to indicate that he was an ‘outsider-insider’ to the TNA’s non-structure, yet he cannot escape explaining how he allowed himself to contest the 2013 polls under the mutually-accepted Alliance symbol of ‘House’, otherwise registered in the name of the Ilankkai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), or ‘Federal Party’, as is commonly known.
Most definitely, a section of the non-Federal Party sections of the TNA seems wanting to adopt Wigneswaran as theirs, only that the latter, through his recent statement against Sumanthiran, has sought to put himself above the entire party. The fact is that in the TNA second-line, going beyond the largely-acceptable leader R. Sampanthan and particularly relating to the non-Federal Party constituents, most of them with a ‘militant past’ that the FP detests in the post-LTTE era, are ready to accept Wigneswaran, but have problem acknowledging Sumanthiran. To them, Sumanthiran, at best, is ‘one among many’, not one over many.
The greater irony of the Wigneswaran-Sumanthiran tug-of-war is that both were reluctant entrants into direct politics in the post-war years. Sampanthan and a host of Tamil well-wishers had to convince them to join the electoral fray, and help change the face of war-time militant Tamil politics, otherwise rendered helpless and hapless in its moderate forms. If reluctance at initiation was the justification, then again both stand on the same footing, so to say – Sumanthiran with a political identity, and Wigneswaran with claims to apolitical (?) / non-political aspirations to what essentially is a political leadership.
The cited numbers not withstanding, what thus holds good for Wigneswaran may have become true in the case of Sumanthiran. If accepted, this argument implies that Wigneswaran’s 2013 vote was a vote for the party, not any personality. Alternatively, if the voter had a clue of what he actually stood for in terms of Tamil ethnic political identity and ideology, and considering that the second top-most vote-getter in 2013 was/is a known hard-liner in Ananthi Sasitharan (appx 80,000) votes, it would imply that ‘moderate TNA’ has had no role to play, almost from the post-war, post-LTTE start.
It’s thus time for the TNA to look at the mirror, for more reasons than one. To begin at the current beginning, the larger question is if as the International Spokesperson of what is essentially the elected voice of the global Tamils, Sumanthiran should have called for disciplinary action against Wigneswaran, and in public – reportedly in an interview to an Australia-based TV channel.
The question also remains why and how the TNA – all constituents and leaders included – chose not the co-opt the popularly-elected Chief Minister, who also represents the party’s interest at the Government levels, squarely, as a membr of the Alliance’s Coordination/Central Committee. Even while taking Wigneswaran’s side in the latter’s war-of-words with Sumanthiran, not one of them has broached the subject of making the party chief minister a co-opted and voting member of the central committee.
The third and a recurring issue in the TNA related to the so-called the structural deficiencies that the non-ITAK partners claim that exists. They all want the TNA registered as a separate political party with the Election Commission and a common symbol that is not that of any constituent. They also want the equiable representation among the member-parties converted into equal membership, as much in spirit as it is in letter now.
The uncontested and unconceded idea of these challengers to the status quo is to try and end the ITAK-hold over the TNA structure, but other constituents still may not have the numbers to contest the former’s dominance, across the board, both in terms of policy and implementation. Yet, the fact remains that they all suddenly become ‘reformist zealots’ only on the eve of elections, when there are party seats to be distributed, over which the ITAK in general and Sampanthan as the uncontested supreme leader continues to have the full hold.
It is true that the Wiggy-Suma spat might not have been avoided, as it involves ideology, approaches and also personality (the last one to a greater or lesser extent), but whether all of those that support the former just now may have been backing him if their electoral fortunes had not nose-dived in more recent times. Yet, the need for a structural approach to the TNA affairs (whatever be the same) cannot be, and should not be delayed further.
Sampanthan did himself and the ITAK a gret service by passing on the party mantle to Maavai Senathiraja, in his time. He had begun with talking Maavai into conceding the chief minister’s post to Wigneswaran in the first place. It is thus anybody’s guess if Maavai as the party’s chief minister candidate would have fared better – or, poorer – in 2013, if nominated.
The days of ad hocism in the affairs of the TNA are over – or, should be over, for its own reasons. Sampanthan needs to look into the larger affairs of the TNA, which does not have a clear-headed mechanism as the ITAK. If nothing else, he has to end this habit of constituent-leaders running with the hare and huting with the hound, at will – again in his time – if the current legacy has to have greater relevance in the years and decades to come.
There also has to be a disciplinary mechanism for elected members of the party, be it in national Parliament or in the Provincial Councils in the North and the East, or at the lower levels of elected governance, down to the villages.
Gone should be – and could be – the days when the TNA Chairman of the Northern Provincial Council could tell the House that he would not permit a party member to present a draft resolution without prior leadership approval. It’s neither an autocratic system, nor could such a scheme sustained in the contemporary context of Tamil politics in the country.
As has been fashionable for pan-Tamil nationalists, bordering on separatiists, already some Diaspora groups have labelled Sumanthiran ‘traitor’ and ‘usurper’, and have also organised protests against him in countries such as Australia. It’s the political equivalent of what the Tamils have excelled in, particularly under the gruesomely militant LTTE.
It’s not as if the Tamil leaderships of each phase and time-span needed external factors to fight their internal battles. The answer to the question as to what if the Northern voters had elected the late S J V Chelvanayagam, the later-day founder of the Federal Party, as a parliamentarian, against the status quo Tamil leadership of the post-Independence times, is till to be found. Would he have then gone also to the step-brother of an East, sounding the ‘merger’ bugle – just as he had gone to the Upcountry Tamil leadership of the time, which refused to make common cause with him – is another question for which no answers could be found in the remnants of whatever ‘Tamil archives’ that remain.
Today, when the Tamils are at sixes and seven, not knowing what to prioritise as among their causes, near, medium and far, and how, the TNA is busy fighting itself, as has been the case with Tamil moderates all through. Having branded predecessor President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the ‘killer of Tamil innocents’, there seems to be a reluctant and indirect acceptance that his government had ‘rehabilitated’ 12,000 war-time LTTE cadres, after all.
Today, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has become the shared villain of the piece for Diaspora hard-liners, who favoured the Tamils voting for Maithripala Sirisena, who had his backing in the 8 January presidential polls. In the name of belittling Sumanthiran – who may have a lot to explain in terms of his positions on issues, positions that might not have been discussed and decided upon in the party fora – they have begun targeting PM Ranil, caling him a ‘Ranil stooge’.
In doing so, the Tamil hard-liners have begun drawing parallel to what they continue to claim was the latter’s uncanny way of wooing ‘Col’ Karuna away from the LTTE fold in the peacetime past of the Norway-facilitated ceasefire. It’s the typical Tamil hardliner way of giving a dog a bad name, and hanging it. It is true of any outfit with a militant past and posturing, where a second or a parallel view cannot be allowed to emerge, leave alone hold.
The inherent, internal problems for the TNA and the larger Tamil polity and community have re-emerged at a time when the majority Sinhala polity has begun showing signs of post-polls nervousness, that too ahead of the local government polls, due and promised for March 2016. Having faced off each other in the parliamentary polls on principles accepted ahead of the presidential elections, President Sirisena’s SLFP and ‘majoritarian’ UNP of Prime Minister Ranil, would have to take a call that would impact on the grassroots-level worker from both the parties and other constituents of their ‘National Government’.
The sincerity and seriousness, with which President Sirisena has now piloted the Cabinet paper on the abolition of the Executive Presidency, as promised in his electon manifesto, cannot be questioned. Nor could the Government’s combined commitment at electoral reforms, which however could have adverse consequences for the SLT, Muslim, and more so, the Upcountry Tamil populations – as also the ‘minority’ parties within the Sinhala majority.
The TNA holds the Leader of the Opposition post in Pariament. It has shared the Opposition responsibility with the one-time militant-Left Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), by graciously offering the post of ‘Opposition Whip’. But there is nothing to suggest that the two have made any attempts at pooling their intellectual, if not numerical resources – the latter especially at the grass-roots levels – to initiate any effort at proposing common solutions to the nation’s problem, including the ‘national problem’, which the ‘ethnic issue’ still is.
Today, when the non-representative ‘transnational government of Tamil eelam’ (TGTE) has named a five-member international ‘Monitoring Accountability Panel’ (MAP) to keep an eye on the UNHRC-promised ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability’ investigations, the TNA is busy fighting itself out, and in the context of post-war leaders, who seem to be at each other, over competitive identification with the victims from the past.
That the TGTE panel does not have a Tamil representative may be justified, though in a convoluted way. It has among its members, an Indian jurist, A P Shah, former Chief Justice of the Madras High Court (2005-08), who later went on to become the CJ in Delhi High Court, and the Chairman of the Law Commission, and also the self-regulating Media Ombudsman.
It’s not that the TNA can replicate what the TGTE has done now – or, could do any time – but the fact that they are busy fighting for supremacy among themselves after the Diaspora claiming to have won the war victims’ battle in the international arena, is what could end up becoming a contestable point, in the near and distant future. It is not necessarily what the TNA achieves for the victims that matters, but how and when it does would also decide the party’s continued relevance in the SLT scheme of things.
For now, belatedly and hesitantly, senior TNA leader and ITAK chief, Maavai, has urged the warring colleagues not to go public with their charges and grievances. The bug has stopped there, just now. Maavai has also talked about Wigneswaran writing to Sampanthan, calling for an internal meeting to sort out the differences. In effect, it could mean that the inability and/or unwillingness of the leadership to have an inclusive mechanism to hear out the chief minister – and also other representatives of the party at different levels – might have been among the inevitable causes for the current impasse, to put it mildly.
‘Big Two’ unsure
At a time when the ‘Big Two’ in majority Sinhala polity is unsure of their own respective/collective future course in the near-future and beyond, any posturing (or, calculated non-posturing by Rajapaksa) could bring them head-on ahead of the local government polls. Combined with their individual and at times conflicting agendas for a Constituent Assembly – which is what Rajapaksa too had indicated while talking about a ‘national consensus’, achieved through a parliamentary panel on ethnic resolution – the Sinhala majority could then well tell the international community how they had been weighed down by their own collective weight that they did not have time or energies for addressing the ethnic issue, starting with the UNHRC resolution and follow-up.
The signs are already there in the horizon. Rajapksa has said that he has not decided on backing his SLFP in local government polls, indicating that he is weighing the options and that he still may have options to weigh. A Presidential Advisor, Shiral Lakthilake, has told a TV interviewer that just because Sirisena had committed to not contesting future presidential polls it did not mean that he would not contest for prime minister’s office, which under the proposed scheme is where all powers would reside.
There are those within Sirisena-Rajapaksa duo’s SLFP, who have started talking about the failure of the leadership and ‘national government’, and challenged the party leadership that 50 of its MPs are ranked against the incumbent President, who is also the party chief. Inclouded in the list is the mild-mannered and deeply-calculative Nimal Siripala de Silva, who may not be a vote-getter in his right but could still be representative of views that others may share from within the party – and government.
(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)