Chennai, 18 May 2020
As has become a habit with him, TNA’s official spokesman and member of the dissolved Parliament, M A Sumanthiran, is caught once again in a web of his own making. Or, so it seems at first look. Now that he too has come up with a detailed clarification, his veteran colleagues in the Alliance, most of whom at their levels knew mainline Sinhala as much or even more than Sumanthiran could have listened to his television interview in that channel, before pouncing on him.
Even before Sumanthiran joined the TNA, rather the main-stay ITAK leader-partner of the combine, smaller allies had developed the knack of seeking out fresh issues, at times when none existed, in the long run-up to whatever election may have been due. Whatever their public posturing and private concessions, their single aim was the use that issue to bargain for more seats from the otherwise affable alliance boss in R Sampanthan.
Sumanthiran joined active politics after the end of the war in 2009, and so many, if not all pre-poll controversies, centred on him. It had begun through a whisper campaign about Sampathan identifying him, convincing him to join politics, expecting to promote him above the legitimate or not-so-legitimate claims and aspirations of existing second-line, which was long and self-important.
To critics at the time, Sumanthiran was not one of them, who had rubbed shoulders with militant groups through the previous decades. Nor had he spent time in the war-zone in the North and the East, living a cushy life of an up and coming lawyer in distant Colombo.
Some whisper-campaigns even referred to his Christian religious background. According to them, Tamil politics had to be controlled only by ‘Jaffna Vellalars’. They forgot the ITAK, the fountainhead of ‘Tamil identify politics’ post-Independence, was founded by S J V Chelvanayagam, a Christian. They did not resent it, yes, but they resented a possible repeat.
The most uncharitable of such whispers pertained to Sampanthan promoting a ‘weak’ Northerner if only to retain his complete ‘Eastern’ hold over post-war Tamil politics in the country. That Sampanthan’s choice for Northern Province TNA Chief Minister was another ‘Colombo-based’ non-politician in retired Supreme Court Justice, C V Wigneswaran, only added additional grit to the mill.
Also, the suddenness of the 2013 elections and the surprise disclosure of the TNA’s ‘lead candidate’, did not leave them with much choice. Anyway, they were all more concerned about the number of seats that they could get for their individual parties in the seat-haring talks, and so looked the other way.
Those that aspired to be Chief Minister, barring a lone eligible candidate, wanted to be a parliamentarian and chief minister at the same time. They would not even condescend to suggest another name from their own loyalists for either of the posts. That meant that Wiggy had a natural walk-over, as those that were set on the choice of seats and districts got theirs and were not interested in pursuing the other man’s case, which anyway was flawed from the beginning.
Today, for Tamil critics of the TNA, more so of Sumanthiran from within the TNA, the 11th anniversary of the LTTE war has provided the occasion to whip up sentiments that are fading – but only slowly. They have questioned, challenged and condemned Sumanthiran on his purported denunciation of the LTTE and its violent methods. Reportedly twisting his Sinhala interview, selectively picked up and partly translated by some Tamil channel, they have challenged him on this very score.
Possibly anxious to avoid further mix-up of his statements by other (Tamil) channels, Sumanthiran put out a video statement himself, clarifying what exactly he said – and did not say. He also asked TNA worthies who have rung down him, why they did not care to watch the original interview, or eve call him for a clarification before going public against him.
“I do not approve of violence,” was the sum of what Sumanthiran had told his TV interviewer, carefully avoiding to take the LTTE’s name, which the questioner had done. Since then, he has reportedly issued another statement, declaring that those that believed in ‘violent ways’ to win over Tamil rights, “need not vote for me”.
Sumanthiran, as is known, is a TNA/ITAK candidate from Jaffna district in the postponed Parliament polls. His boss Sampanthan has since issued a long-winding statement, almost as always, sort of defending the other. That should put a stop to the intra-TNA tangles over the issue, but that is not going to be let off that way by non-TNA, non-EPDP Tamil parties in the parliamentary poll campaign, whenever it became possible.
By taking on Sumanthiran around the war anniversary and on the LTTE question, some of these TNA leaders seem to have concluded that they could retain or wrest back some of the ‘LTTE sympathetic’ voters who may be looking for choices outside the Alliance, this time round. Anyway, the TNA brand, and the ITAK’s ‘House’ symbl should bring them the traditional votes of Jaffna moderates in particular. This way, they can have the cake and eat it, too.
For the anti-TNA Tamil parties, it provides a twin-opportunity. One, by promoting Sumanthiran as the new face of TNA, they can hope to appeal to the pro-LTTE Tamil voters who are otherwise unhappy with the Alliance. There are those among the Tamil voters who are genuinely upset with the TNA, for not doing enough to win over their rights every time a bargaining opportunity came their way through the years of the predecessor Government.
Now, by wanting to reopen political negotiations with the incumbent Rajapaksa diepensation, the TNA, to this section, is seeking to lock the staple after the horses had bolted. In this context, Sumanthiran’s recent late evening meeting with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, when he handed over the list of ‘Tamil political prisoners’, demanding their early release too has become a fodder for the rumour mill.
Otherwise, too, the non-TNA parties, which saw the TNA’s vote-share go down drastically in the local government polls of February 2028, they now see a hope of winning the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), if only they had the right issue. With a ‘failed’ ex-Chief Minister in Wigneswaran leading a section of the pack, they cannot hope to bringing in the non-performance argument against the TNA, at least on the administrative score.
For those other groups that could hope to target the TNA and Wigneswaran for their collective failure while in office in the NPC, they are too weak and too ideological to make an impression on the new voters, especially. For the TNA, the game over Chief Minister may have already begun, what with each and everyone of them pouncing on Sumanthiran, not that he is seen as a contender, but their own shrill/shriller voice could be a dangler.
But they are all fighting a future battle too early, and also expending too much of ammunition. Some of it could take them, too, with it, now and/or later.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headqurtered in New Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)