Turmoil in the North Too? Jeyaraj Clarifies

D. B.S. Jeyaraj, in Daily Mirror,  27 October 2018



Canagasabapathy Visuvalingam Wigneswaran  has announced the launch of a new political formation known as the “Thamizh Makkal Koottani” meaning Tamil People’s Alliance (TPA). The retired Supreme Court judge who was until a few days ago the Northern Province Chief Minister has split from the “Thamizh Thesiya Koottamaippu” or the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and declared his intent to form the TPA which is expected to electorally-target the TNA. Some may even argue that the raison d’etre for the ‘new’ TPA is the objective of politically undermining the ‘old’ TNA.
The Tamil National Alliance is the premier political configuration of Sri Lankan Tamils. The chief constituent of the TNA is the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) referred to in English as the Federal Party (FP). The TNA contests under the House symbol of the ITAK in elections. C.V. Wigneswaran  contested the Northern Provincial Council elections in September 2013 as the chief ministerial candidate of the TNA. He contested as the ITAK candidate in the Jaffna District with the backing of other TNA constituents at that time, namely the TELO, PLOTE, TULF and EPRLF.

Current leader of the opposition and veteran Tamil politician Rajavarothayam Sampanthan  was the President of ITAK and Parliamentary group leader of the TNA in 2013. It was Sampanthan  who was primarily responsible for selecting Wigneswaran as the TNA chief ministerial candidate. This he did against much opposition within party folds. Sampanthan  was aided in this exercise by MP M.A. Sumanthiran. Sampanthan  was at one point even prepared to quit his position if Wigneswaran were not nominated. The NPC election on September  21, 2013 resulted in a massive victory for the TNA which romped home the winners with 30 of 38 seats. Wigneswaran garnered over 132,000 preference votes. The TNA victory was a joint success of Sampanthan  and Wigneswaran. Both were crowned with flowers at victory celebrations.

Much was expected of C.V. Wigneswaran when he was first elected chief minister of the Northern Province. Sadly those hopes turned into dupes very soon. Wigneswaran adopted a confrontational political approach that left much to be desired. Projecting himself as a Tamil hardliner, the ex-chief minister engaged in all types of disruptive politics while the Northern Provincial administration deteriorated. The Northern Provincial Council (NPC) became the worst-run provincial administration in the country.

The provincial councils of  Sri Lanka do enjoy a certain quantum of devolution. They may not have maximum devolution but the powers available are adequate to plan and implement a reasonable amount of development projects. The provincial council representing the war-afflicted people of the war-ravaged North had an extra responsibility and duty to harness all available resources for the betterment of the province. But this was not what happened. Instead of passing necessary statutes, the NPC busied itself with passing hundreds of useless, irrelevant resolutions. Finances allocated by the Treasury for development work in the province were under-utilised resulting in the remainder being returned to the Treasury. When major projects with international aid for the benefit of the North were initiated by the government in Colombo, the NPC did not cooperate and instead obstructed them. When concerned Sri Lankan expatriates came up with blueprints to establish employment-oriented, income-generating schemes, they were rebuffed and rejected. The credo adopted by Wigneswaran and his cohorts was “Abilaashaigalae Mukkiam, Abhiviruthiyalla” (Aspirations are only important not development).

Moreover in a classic exhibition of political backstabbing, C.V. Wigneswaran began working — covertly and at times overtly — against the TNA in general and the ITAK in particular. He floated a rival outfit called the Tamil People’s Council (TPC) in association with a motley group of political elements and said the TPC would not contest elections. Now after the end of his chief minister tenure, Wigneswaran has announced the formation of the TPA to contest elections. It has now become blatantly clear that the arch-disciple of Swami Premananda has kicked away the TNA ladder on which he climbed to reach the top.

Wigneswaran delivered a lengthy address in Nallur the erstwhile capital of the Jaffna Kingdom ruled by the Arya Chakkaravarthy dynasty many centuries ago. The ex-chief minister read out the speech drafted by him personally. The political significance of the speech was not in what was said but in what was left unsaid. One would have expected a retired Supreme Court judge to have the elementary courtesy of acknowledging the TNA/ITAK which elevated him to great heights in politics. One would have expected the former chief minister to have the basic grace of at least thanking Sampanthan  for having selected and nominated him as the TNA chief ministerial candidate. Nothing at all was mentioned. It was as if Canagasabapathy Visuvalingam Wigneswaran had entered politics and become chief minister without any aid or assistance of Rajavarothayam Sampanthan .

It is against this backdrop therefore that this column will focus on how and why C.V. Wigneswaran was picked and backed by R. Sampanthan  to be the TNA chief ministerial candidate in 2013. When it became known that elections to the Northern Provincial Council would be held in 2013, it became clear that the Tamil National Alliance would fare best at the polls. The immediate questions were how many seats would the TNA win and who would be the first Northern chief minister. Initially the latter question had many contenders vying to be the answer.

Among the names being bandied or talked about as potential chief ministerial candidates were retired Jaffna University ProfessorS.K. Sittambalam, ex-Jaffna Municipal Commissioner C.V.K. Sivagnanam, Colombo University Law Professor V.T. Thamilmaran, retired Jaffna High Court Judge E.T. Vicknarajah and newspaper Editor N. Vithiyatharan. If these were spoken of as contenders outside active politics, there were aspirants from within political parties too. Somasuntharam Senathirajah alias “Maavai” of ITAK, Kandiah Premachandran alias Suresh of EPRLF, MK Sivajilingam of TELO also evinced interest in the chief ministerial stakes at one point of time. Other possibilities for the chief ministerial post were veteran politician Veerasingham Aanandasangaree of the TULF and Dharmalingam Siddharthan of the PLOTE. Two other names spoken about were former Mannar MP Philip Soosaithasan (who has since passed away) and S.C. Chandrahasan, the son of respected Tamil leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagam or “Thanthai Selva.”

It appeared that the prevalent fragile unity of the TNA might shatter over the huge competition to be chief minister. It was in this situation that TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan  thought of bringing in a complete outsider with exemplary qualifications and unimpeachable credentials as chief ministerial candidate. His choice was retired Supreme Court Judge C.V. Wigneswaran whose name had been proposed to the TNA leadership by members of the Tamil elite in Sri  Lanka and abroad.

Justice Wigneswaran though of Jaffna origin had grown up in Colombo studying at Royal College. He had a distinguished record at the bar before mounting the bench. Essentially a cosmopolitan, Wigneswaran also retained strong Hindu links.

Sampanthan  felt that Wigneswaran was the ideal choice for a number of reasons. Given his qualifications and experience and his track record while on the bench and afterwards, Wigneswaran was sure to attract votes immensely in the North.

It was also felt it was necessary to have a man of eminence like Wigneswaran as Northern chief minister at that historic juncture. The new chief minister would have to meet with the Colombo Government on a number of matters. He needed to negotiate with the government for more powers, resources and functions for the council. He should have the ability to interact on equal terms with the governor and military hierarchy in the North. He must also be able to deal with international leaders, diplomats and media personnel. These required extraordinary attributes and ideally, Wigneswaran seemed to fit the bill. Besides, Wigneswaran possessed legal acumen and expertise that could be of crucial importance.

More importantly, Sampanthan  also felt that the quibbling over chief ministerial stakes in the TNA would end once Wigneswaran was picked. He expected the other contenders to bow out gracefully when a man of Wigneswaran’s mercurial stature became available. Thus, internal dissension on this account could be avoided.

When approached Wigneswaran himself was reluctant to get into active politics. He preferred to be in the background and be an adviser rather than face hustings. Also he was fully aware of the internal differences in the TNA and did not want to get enmeshed in a political web. He wanted a united invitation from all five TNA constituents. Wigneswaran also entertained the notion that he could lead an independent united list of Tamils rather than that of a political party. With such options being ruled out, Wigneswaran respectfully declined the offer.

Other currents too were flowing across the Elephant  Pass isthmus even as Sampanthan  was wooing Wigneswaran. While the Jaffna elite was delighted with the choice of  Wigneswaran, other political elements in the ITAK were not greatly enamoured of the ex-Supreme Court judge. The party machinery was doubtful whether the independent Wigneswaran would fit into the Jaffna political scene and abide by the decisions of the TNA. He was seen as an uncontrollable personality (ultimately these fears were proved true). 

Sampanthan however did not give up on Wigneswaran. Sampanthan apparently believed in not taking “no” for an answer. The octogenarian Tamil leader aided by TNA National List MP M.A. Sumanthiran persistently wooed C.V. Wigneswaran and finally the Hulftsdorp born Wigneswaran whose parents hail from Maanipaai in Jaffna said “Om” (yes).

The interlude between Wigneswaran’s refusal and acceptance had been utilised to mount a campaign promoting the then ITAK General-Secretary and senior Jaffna District MP Somasundaram Senathirajah known as “Maavai” Senathirajah as chief ministerial candidate. He is now the ITAK President. Senathirajah who maintained silence as the campaign gathered momentum announced after a while that he was prepared to contest to serve the people if the people wanted it. However, he qualified his willingness by saying it depended on approval from the party. After Wigneswaran consented to contest, Sampanthan expected Senathirajah to bow out from the race gracefully and wind up his candidacy campaign. Senathirajah kept a discreet silence on this without committing himself either way. While not asserting his claim to Sampanthan, “Maavai” also did not announce a withdrawal.

Sampanthan felt Wigneswaran was the ideal choice for a number of reasons …..TNA victory a joint success of Sampanthan and Wigneswaran”

The major difference of opinion that emerged between Sampanthan and Senathirajah over the Northern chief ministerial post was one that could have been averted. Had both leaders met in private beforehand and engaged in an honest discussion the potential crisis may have been resolved through a mutually acceptable compromise. This did not happen. So here was Sampanthan expecting Senathirajah to bow out from a race that had not begun and also convince his backers to back out and there was Senathirajah determined to stake what he regarded as his rightful claim to be the first chief minister of the Northern Provincial Council. However, the differences between Sampanthan and Senathirajah were not serious enough to be described as a rift.

It was against this backdrop that the TNA Coordinating Committee first met on July 11, 2013 at the ITAK office in Bambalapitiya to select the chief ministerial candidate. Representatives of the five parties in TNA began discussing. Sampanthan chairing the meeting let others talk first. In a complicated reversal of roles the non — ITAK parties, namely the EPRLF, TELO, PLOTE and TULF — proposed the name of the ITAK’s “Mavai” Senathirajah and spoke in support of his candidacy.

In a further twist, the ITAK to which Senathirajah belonged proposed Wigneswaran’s name instead of their Secretary-General. While MP Shritharan was in Canada, the others, Selvarajah (ex-Batticaloa MP) and Sumanthiran spoke in favour of Wigneswaran. Somasuntharam “Maavai” Senathirajah adopted a conspicuous silence letting his non–ITAK colleagues of the TNA do all the talking in his favour. Sampanthan as chair remained silent throughout the proceedings until his turn came at the last. Thereafter, Sampanthan waxed eloquent in support of Wigneswaran. Instead of being critical of Senathirajah explicitly, Sampanthan chose to espouse the merits of Wigneswaran and how the ex-judge would prove ideal to meet the challenge of being chief minister of the North at this critical juncture (how wrong Sampanthan was). Sampanthan also stated unambiguously that Wigneswaran himself had not wanted to be Northern chief minister and that it was he (Sampanthan) who wanted Wigneswaran to be chief minister.

The meeting ended inconclusively as Sampanthan wound up his address. Thereafter, it was arranged to reconvene the following day and finalise the issue. Heated discussions continued on the second day too without any visible shift in previous positions. At one point of time, the ITAK’s Sumanthiran appealed to Senathirajah directly and appraised the senior MP of the problems likely to be faced by the new chief minister. Sumanthiran explained in detail as to why Wigneswaran was better equipped than Senathirajah to face such challenges in the present context (again how wrong Sumanthiran was).

The discussions at the TNA office in Bambalapitiya established a clear demarcation of battle lines. The EPRLF, TELO, TULF and PLOTE were on one side espousing the name of Senathirajah. While Senathirajah remained silent, his colleagues from ITAK were supportive of  Justice Wigneswaran. Despite Sampanthan and Sumanthiran making powerful, intellectually convincing arguments in favour of Wigneswaran, the supporters of Senathirajah would not budge. They were adamant that Senathirajah should be the choice regardless of merit.

The essence of their argument however was that Wigneswaran though of Jaffna origin was now a Tamil resident in Colombo who was born and bred there.Senathirajah on the other hand was a son of the Jaffna soil. Furthermore, Wigneswaran was not a member of the ITAK and had no political experience. Senathirajah however was involved from his youthful days in the Tamil political struggle. He was also a founding member of the TNA. In a nutshell the argument was that the “insider” Senathirajah should be preferred over the “outsider” Wigneswaran regardless of the individual merits of both. Parachutists from outside were to be debarred.

These points were well articulated by former TELO Parliamentarian N. Srikantha who is also a lawyer. While arguing that the Northern chief minister should be a member of the TNA and not an outsider, Srikantha deftly promoted himself also as a potential contender. Srikantha said if Senathirajah was deemed inappropriate because he was not a lawyer then the TNA should turn to those in the alliance before resorting to outside nominations.

Srikantha evoked a strong response from Sampanthan who posed the question whether the TNA was to remain stagnant without any infusion of fresh new talent for ever and ever if the policy was to be “no outsiders”? This meant that the party could not even register any ordinary new members. Sampanthan also pointed out that Srikantha and Senathirajah from Jaffna had at one time parachuted into Trincomalee and Ampara Districts as candidates. Sampanthan made it crystal clear that his choice was Wigneswaran only. Although he did not express it openly, it appeared that the veteran politician was even ready to quit the TNA leadership if his choice was rebuffed.

It was then that Senathirajah broke his silence and spoke out aloud. In a bid to show that he was not a seeker of office for the sake of power the man from Maaviddapuram reiterated that he was seeking nomination only because many people within and outside Sri Lanka were pressing him to contest. “Not even one person who spoke to me said I should not contest,” said Senathirajah. He then said that he valued Wigneswaran very highly and suggested that it was possible for both of them to work together in the future. The second day meeting ended on this positive note by Senathirajah. It was decided that the discussions should continue in the afternoon of Saturday, July 13, 2013.

The concluding remarks of  Senathirajah gave room for optimism that a satisfactory compromise could be worked out. Quiet unofficial discussions among individuals and groups within the alliance began at different levels. TNA national list MP Sumanthiran began working out a scheme where Wigneswaran could be chief minister for the first half of the term and Senathirajah for the second. Sampanthan however was not in favour of such an adjustment saying it would convey contrary impressions to the voter and could be counterproductive. Senathirajah too was not very receptive to the idea saying it would be practically difficult to implement such an arrangement. Senathirajah being a Parliamentarian was not comfortable with the idea of going into the Provincial Council and waiting patiently till Wigneswaran’s tenure was over. Unofficial discussions continued.

Sampanthan and Sumanthiran continued with their efforts in promoting the candidature of Wigneswaran. Sampanthan spoke to Suresh Premachandran of EPRLF and Adaikalanathan of TELO. Both agreed in principle to Wigneswaran being the chief ministerial candidate but wanted Senathirajah’s concurrence. Sumanthiran began engaging Senathirajah in talks over the subject. As a result of these unpublicised discussions a new move was initiated.

A meeting was arranged where Sampanthan, Senathirajah, Sumanthiran, Suresh Premachandran and Selvam Adaikalanathan were to visit Justice Wigneswaran  at his residence and discuss pertinent issues concerning the nomination. It is noteworthy that the former Supreme Court judge had not in anyway participated in the TNA discussions tasked with selecting a chief ministerial candidate. Although he had agreed to be the candidate if the TNA chose him, Wigneswaran had not tried in any way to press his claim. When people spoke to him about the protracted discussions within the TNA the ex-judge had simply laughed it off saying “let them give it to anybody.”

Selvam Adaikalanathan was not able to attend the meeting on Saturday morning with Wigneswaran but the other four did so as planned. The meeting with Wigneswaran went off very well with some doubts being cleared. Wigneswaran stated clearly that he was prepared to contest as the TNA candidate under the ITAK symbol and not as head of an independent list of candidates. He also said that his only request was for all TNA constituent parties to agree to his candidacy.

The third round of talks scheduled for July 13 evening was put off for the morning of Monday, July 15. When the meeting began the representatives from the EPRLF, TELO, TULF and PLOTE spoke in favour of  Wigneswaran as being the most suitable candidate at this juncture. Yet they did not ask Senathirajah to withdraw from the contest. Each one who spoke added a rider after praising Wigneswaran as the more suitable choice. The rider was that Wigneswaran could be the choice provided Senathirajah was amenable. Senathirajah himself resolved the dilemma by speaking out formally.

Explaining the reasons behind his intent to contest, Senathirajah emphasised that he had done so only because of requests by the people. He then thanked his TNA colleagues for their support and announced that he was standing down in favour of Wigneswaran because he did not want to disrupt the unity and strength of the party. Senathirajah also praised Wigneswaran and said he was endorsing the ex-judge’s candidature. With Senathirajah’s “magnanimous withdrawal” the problem ended. Wigneswaran became the “unanimous choice.”

Thereafter representatives from all five parties of the TNA led by Senathirajah went to Wigneswaran’s residence and conveyed the “glad tidings of great joy” to him. Wigneswaran was happy that the choice had been approved by all five parties who had come together to formally inform him of it. He was particularly thankful to Senathirajah for his magnanimous conduct and stated that he was expecting his cooperation and support in the future. And then they all smilingly posed for the camera!

Canagasabapathy Visuvalingam Wigneswaran was named by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on the ides of July as its chief ministerial candidate for the forthcoming Northern Provincial Council election. The TNA issued a terse press release announcing the selection of Wigneswaran. “It was unanimously resolved that the candidate for the post of chief minister at the forthcoming Provincial Council elections for the Northern Province would be C.V. Wigneswaran, a retired judge of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. Other nominations will be finalised in due course by the TNA,” the communiqué stated. It further said “C. V. Wigneswaran is a much respected public personality and we appeal to the voters in the Northern Province to wholeheartedly support C. V. Wigneswaran, the chief ministerial candidate of the TNA and all other candidates who will be nominated for election.”

However there was another minor theatre of conflict within Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi(ITAK) ranks over Wigneswaran being selected as chief ministerial candidate. The selection of Wigneswaran was done by the coordinating committee of the TNA where all four non-ITAK constituents had been in favour of Senathirajah. But parliamentarians from the ITAK – Sampanthan, Sumanthiran and Selvarajah had been supportive of Wigneswaran. This was rather ironic with Senathirajah being supported by other parties but not his own the ITAK. Thus the stage seemed to be set for an internal clash within the ITAK over the chief ministerial selection issue. It appeared that a showdown was on the cards when the working committee of the ITAK met in Vavuniya. So it was expected that the sparks would fly in Vavuniya. Some felt that the chief ministerial candidacy issue would be reopened and that the ITAK would demand that Wigneswaran be jettisoned and Senathirajah crowned.

This however did not happen but the sparks did fly! While Senathirajah maintained poignant silence the big gun that boomed against Sampanthan was Emeritus Professor S.K. Sittampalam. Sittampalam harshly disapproved of the decision to designate Wigneswaran as chief candidate. He was followed on the same lines but with more restraint by C.V.K. Sivagnanam. Others too followed suit but were not too critical of Sampanthan. Some tried to balance their views and a few spoke in support of Sampanthan. It was however apparent that the party disapproved of the TNA’s “unanimous” choice (how right the ITAK was). The essence of the anti-Sampanthan viewpoint was that party loyalists were being ignored or overlooked and that outsiders and other party members were being given prominence at the expense of ITAK. If this trend continued the ITAK would cease to exist was the widespread lament.

Sampanthan listened to all these views and then responded. It was a masterly exhibition of powerful oratory by the legal eagle turned politico. Sampanthan demolished the arguments outlined against him. He explained very clearly the reasons for Wigneswaran being chosen. He also pointed out that Senathirajah had stood down in favour of Wigneswaran thus compelling Senathirajah to openly acknowledge the fact that Wigneswaran was the better candidate in the current context.

Finally Sampanthan quelled critical opinion by a meaningful statement. He said in Tamil that the Tamil people in Sri  Lanka were in dire straits facing extinction but the gathering here was not talking of that. “I did not hear even one person talking of the Tamil people. All I heard was talk about “party, party” and nothing else,” Sampanthan said. Speaking further, he pointed out that the party was for the people and that the future of the people mattered more than the party. If the people diminish can the party flourish,” he queried rhetorically.

Having transformed the mood in his favour, Sampanthan went on to suggest that two resolutions be passed. The first was to approve the selection of C.V. Wigneswaran as the chief ministerial candidate for the Northern Provincial Council and extend full support. The second was to commend the magnanimity of Senathirajah in withdrawing from contesting for the chief ministerial candidacy. Both resolutions were passed unanimously. Sampanthan had not only weathered another inner-party crisis but also enlisted unanimous party support for Wigneswaran his choice and confined Senathirajah firmly to non-contestant status. This then is the tale of how C.V. Wigneswaran got nomination as the chief ministerial candidate of the TNA. Contesting under the ITAK house symbol, the ex-judge won handsomely and became chief minister. After enjoying the perks and privileges of the powerful chief minister post for five years, Wigneswaran has now ditched the TNA and opted to launch the TPA. In the unkindest cut of all, he has let down his one time political benefactor Sampanthan badly. Gratitude is a virtue that is greatly valued in Tamil society and culture. The “Thirukkural” written by Thiruvalluvar is regarded as a great Tamil literary work on ethics and morality. The Thirukkural emphasizes the importance of gratitude and warns in a couplet that there is no redemption for those who display ingratitude. The political fate of Wigneswaran and the TPA remains to be seen.

D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com 

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