By N Sathiya Moorthy
Ahead of the parliamentary polls due later this year, not only is the ‘majority Sinhala-Buddhist’ UNP that is going through convulsions of leadership, and/or leadership-change. The Tamil majority TNA is beginning to face pressures of the kind, where not only the future leadership of the party on the one hand, but also over the choice of the combine’s chief ministerial candidate for the Northern Provincial Council – or, so it seems.
It all began with Tamil social media posts, promoting the all-important TNA spokesman and Jaffna district MP, M A Sumanthiran. The post is not vacant, as an aging Rajavarothiam Sampanthan is still clearly in control. He had relinquished the leadership of the main-stay Ilankai Tamil Aarasu Katchi (ITAK) in favour of leader-in-waiting-chief, Maavai Senathiraja, a couple of years ago. The question however remains if Sampanthan would want to contest the parliamentary elections, thus triggering speculation about his political future.
Sampanthan derives his political strength, not as an MP or just as a good communicator, in Tamil, English and Sinhala – on stage and across-the-table. In the post-LTTE decade, his parliamentary speeches have set the tone for the future course of national politics, going beyond the confines of the Tamil areas and Tamil voters in the country. His prime strength comes from his erstwhile leadership of the ITAK, but his handing it over to Maavai has not taken away his commanding position in the nation’s contemporary Tamil polity.
If nothing else, the Tamil polity has not thrown up a leader as tall as Sampanthan in the past decade, beginning with the end of the LTTE and the community’s unassailable leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. There is no question of the polity finding a taller leader than Sampanthan just now. His sense of political history, astute cunning, and ability to building bridges, whether within the TNA combine, or with the Sinhala parties and the Sri Lankan State, and the continued engagement with foreign Government representatives, who alone keep changing every now and again, are unparalleled. That he cannot continue at this pace for any longer than already is a different question, but then, to think of a replacement during his life-time and active political involvement and engagements is just not on.
All TNA leaders, including Maavai Senathiraja and Sumanthiran, are all for Sampanthan’s continuance at the helm – and not just as a figure-head. After taking over as the ITAK leadership after the LTTE assassinated party boss and his political guru, Appapillai Amirthalingam, full 30 years back in 1989, and as the TNA leader when the LTTE formed and formulated it under the power of popular Tamil appeal and that of the gun in their hands, Sampanthan too many not be able to visualise a day without work – in his case active, direct politics.
Yet, when the Tamil social media began talking about the succession, Sumanthiran, when pressed for his response, reportedly told newsmen that they would then go in for a ‘collective leadership’. All the time, he also continued stressing the point that Sampanthan is at the helm now, and the question of succession did not arise at present.
However, his reference to a ‘collective leadership’ kicked-started social media speculation on that score. As if to put things in perspective, or to end the speculation, or whatever, senior ITAK vice-president C V K Sivagnanam, has since gone to town, declaring that as and when the succession question arose, MaavaiSenathiraja would be their choice. A former civil servant, and at present the Chairman of the Northern Provincial Council, which however was dissolved in October 2018, pending fresh elections that are yet to take place, Sivagnanam too swore by Sampanthan’s leadership.
Twist to the tale
What however has added a new twist to the tale is Sivagnanam’s subsequent declaration that if Senathiraja did not want to contest the Northern chief ministerial position as the TNA’s chief candidate, then he would throw his hat into the ring. The last time, the Sampanthan leadership chose estranged former Supreme Court Justice, C V Wigneswaran, for the chief minister’s job, in the first post-war PC polls of 2013, Sivagnanam was very much in the fray.
It now looks as if Sivagnanam has used the public domain to try and strike a deal with Senathiraja on the one hand and the Sampanthan leadership on the other. He seems wanting to trade off his support for Senathiraja’s leadership of the TNA whenever required against the other’s support for him to become chief minister. Indications are that Senathiraja too would contest the parliamentary polls first and again, and might take his call on the chief minister’s post as and when the PC polls are announced. Or, so is the speculation doing the rounds.
There is no denying Sivagnanam’s greater understanding of public administration better than Wigneswaran and most other front-line TNA leaders, put together. That might include Sampanthan, too. They all were/are stymied by the LTTE’s strong-arm methods that had kept them away from dealing with the Government as people’s representatives even at the best of times.
None of the other TNAS leaders at the top today even had a modicum of administrative experience of the kind that was required to pull a war-ravaged region and people out of the pit into which they had been sunk, through 30 long years. That includes Wigneswaran, whose expertise in law and experience as a Supreme Court Justice, travelling bottom-up, did not make him a good- grassroots-level administrator.
Of the post-war crop of new TNA leaders, Wigneswaran has already left the party to float his own. Barring a few months after his election, his working relations with the party first, and Sampanthan later on, were nothing great to write home about. This also led to murmurs of protest that Sampanthan had made a wrong choice – a great choice he had the occasion, opportunity and need to select.
Maavai Senathiraja was said to be the cadre-choice at the time for the chief minister’s job, though the claims too were unverified. It was known that Senathiraja was hurt and upset, and settled under protest only when he was left to choose candidates for a few PC seats. Of his reported choice, fire-brand ex-LTTE woman-leader, Aananthi Sasidharan, proved too hot for anyone, including the otherwise-estranged Wigneswaran, to handle. Today, all three are in three different politico-electoral camps.
With Sumanthiran from among the post-war entrants into active politics remaining at the top rung of the TNA leadership thus, Sivagnanam has also referred to the crop of leaders who joined the party/alliance after the war. In a way, he seems wanting to represent the war-time second-line from within the moderate camp, who have not joined internal fulminations thus far.
The post-war leadership tussle of the kind in the ITAK and TNA are yet to be joined. It is no secret that one-time militants are fuming under their breadth that their militant past is being held against them, still. Senathiraja is a leading light among ex-militants who took to the moderate path very early on. Though he is not known to have made any leadership claims on that basis – or, even took others’ names in contrast – there are enough within the ITAK/TNA camp, who are happy to fire from his shoulders.
If however, nothing has gone wrong for the ITAK-TNA and the Sampanthan leadership on the electoral front, one, it owes to the latter’s all-round acceptance within the TNA combine’s discussion and discourse forums, with most decisions left for him to take. Given conflicting claims over seat-sharing and the rest in terms of power-politics within the ITAK and TNA, they all have yielded to Sampanthan at the end, though only after settling their own claims on relative favourable terms.
It was more of a pull of the ITAK’s ‘House’ electoral symbol that still has a great pull for the Tamil voter. The TNA rests more on it as a combine than anything else. Whether the same situation would remain under a new TNA leadership is a question that the current crop should be asking itself. Else, it should lead to another split in the combine, which otherwise is actually weakening itself from the end-of-the-war era.
Waiting on the wings
It is not as if the ITAK-TNA leaders/leadership(s) are not unaware of the Sinhala-Buddhist majors – and minors – waiting their turn for the TNA, and possibly ITAK, or the Federal Party, as the rest of the world has known it, to split and splinter away. Going by the continuing post-war anti-Rajapaksa mood of the Tamil voter, the UNP Opposition is convinced that a weakened/broken TNA would lead to a swell in its ranks, vote and seat-share from the Tamil areas. They are ready to wait, after having lost three full decades of productive politics in Tamil areas to the war and LTTE terrorism.
It is not as if the Rajapaksas, or their SLPP or the parent SLFP, first under their care and later under successor-President Maithripala Sirisena, have given up on the Tamils, ‘post-TNA’. The SLPP/SLFP strategists still hang on to the 1982 presidential polls, in which UNP’s sweeping-winner J R Jayewardene coming a distant third in Tamil-majority Jaffna district, with just around 20 per cent vote-share after undivided SLFP’s Hector Kobbekaduwa (35 per cent) and ACTS’s Kumar Ponnambalam (44 per cent).
That was when JRJ had got SLFP leader and former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike dis-enfranchised by a ‘majority/majoritarian’ Parliament. The Rajapaksa clan seems to be convinced that if a lesser-known Kobbekaduwa could beat the otherwise invincible JRJ for the Tamil votes, even if coming second after Tamil leader Ponnambalam-II, that too (only) in the Tamil-majority North, it owed to the farm sector reforms, especially, initiative earlier by the undivided SLFP Government of Prime Minister Sirimavo B.
It also seems to be the reason and justification for the Rajapaksas especially, and the present-day SLPP-SLFP combining laying their greater stress on development over democracy and decentralisation for post-war Tamil areas – as if it were a sure-fire to reach the hearts of the Tamil masses, if only over time. If the TNA were to front for them, fine. If not, like the UNP rival at the national level, they are ready to wait until after the anticipated weakening and splintering of the TNA, and possibly the ITAK, too, with it.
It is not as if only the Sinhala-Buddhist ‘Big Two’ alone are in the fray for the Tamil votes, even granting that the non-TNA sections of the Tamil polity too would fall apart even more, before long. It is for the TNA and/or the Tamil voters to decide the fate of the other Tamil parties before turning their attention to the ‘Big Two’ Sinhala parties, seeking their electoral favour.
But the JVP, if not the traditional Sinhala-Buddhist Red, too, is on the side-lines occasionally knocking at unopened Tamil doors. They are encouraged by their own limited yet chosen memories of the forgotten Left-leanings of the LTTE and many other Tamil militant youth groups from a distant past. Some of them also hope that the Tamil background of breakaway JVP, namely, Premakumar Gunaratnam of the already-forgotten Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) – now known also as Kumar Mudalige.
It is questionable if such hopes of the JVP or the latter’s splinter groups too have any validity – as with those of the SLPP-SLFP combine, or the UNP — now or in the foreseeable future, as far as the Tamil votes are concerned. But then it is also for the ITAK-TNA on the one hand and the non-TNA polity on the other hand to facilitate the process, through continued infighting and ego-clashes, for which they are known even more, almost since Independence!
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: email@example.com)