Canagasabapathy Viswalingam 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 decision made by the premier political configuration of the Sri Lankan Tamils was welcomed widely by many shades of political opinion as a wise choice that would benefit the community in particular and the country in general. C.V. Wigneswaran as he is generally known is a former Supreme Court Judge who will turn 74 on October 23rd.
The TNA issued a terse press release announcing the selection of Wigneswaran. “It was unanimously resolved that the candidate for the position of Chief Minister at the forthcoming Provincial Council elections for the Northen Province would be Mr. 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 “Mr. C. V. Wigneswaran is a much respected public personality and we appeal to the voters in the Northern Province to wholeheartedly support Mr. C. V. Wigneswaran, the Chief Ministerial candidate of the TNA and all other candidates who will be nominated for election.”
The TNA press release seeks to convey an impression that all is well within the alliance and that the choice of a chief ministerial candidate was unanimous. It does not refer to the hectic infighting and squabbling that preceded the final decision. Furthermore, it does not mention the campaign mounted against Wigneswaran’s perceived candidacy within and outside TNA ranks and the fact that Wigneswaran got nominated only because Jaffna district MP Somasundaram Senathirajah alias “Maavai” stood down in favour of the ex –Judge after protracted discussions. It also does not take note of the protests directed against the selection of Wigneswaran by certain elements in the TNA despite the fact that the party has formally nominated him as its chief ministerial candidate.
"TNA leader Sampanthan wanted to nominate C.V. Wigneswaran as chief minister candidate for a multiplicity of valid reasons"
This glossing over of important developments concerning the chief ministerial candidate choice by the TNA in its media communiqué is quite understandable as no political party can be expected to reveal its internal differences publicly unless it is considered absolutely necessary or utterly important. Moreover, with an election coming up, there is a necessity to present a strong, united image outwardly to impress the public and attract votes. Nevertheless the intriguing display of overt and covert politics that was underway in the guise of choosing a chief ministerial candidate has exposed once again the facade of unity prevailing in the TNA. More seriously the politics of selection has caused a realignment of inter –party and intra-party loyalties leading to a shift in the power equation.
As revealed earlier in these columns the choice of a chief ministerial candidate for the Northern Provincial Council polls became a problematic dispute within the TNA due to competing claims. While former Supreme court judge C.V. Wigneswaran was proposed by TNA parliamentary group leader and veteran Trincomalee district MP Rajavarothayam Sampanthan , several others wanted Jaffna district MP “Maavai” Senathirajah to be the Northern chief minister candidate. This led to several rounds of official and unofficial discussions within TNA circles over a period of five days from July 11th to July 15th. Finally the choice was “unanimous” as Senathirajah withdrew from the race in the interests of greater TNA unity. Pictures were published of the unanimous choice surrounded by representatives of the five constituent parties of the TNA. There were smiles all round. The pictorial image of smiling unity jarred with prevailing reality as far as recent events over the selection issue were concerned.
"The politics of selection has caused a realignment of inter –party and intra-party loyalties leading to a shift in the power equation"
The chain of events leading to the candidate choice clash has been dealt with extensively in these columns a fortnight ago. The crux of the matter was that of TNA leader Sampanthan wanting to nominate C.V. Wigneswaran as chief minister candidate for a multiplicity of valid reasons. Senior TNA parliamentarian Mavai Senathirajah was initially willing to go along with that but Wigneswaran was reluctant to accept and engage in active politics. This led to an interregnum during which Senathirajah was thought of as an alternative. The Septugenarian six footer from Maaviddapuram was not averse to the idea. Sampanthan too preferred Maavai (shortened form of Maaviddapuram) as a second option if Wigneswaran declined.
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). Sampanthan and Sumanthiran were delighted but not Senathirajah. His appetite for the chief minister post had now been whetted considerably. Having set his sights on the crown, Senathirajah played his cards close to his chest. He appeared to go along with Sampanthan’s choice overtly but set in motion a campaign in his favour covertly.
"The simple and easily accessible Senathirajah with an impressive track record of non –violent militant politics enjoyed widespread grass roots support in the North and East"
The TNA consists of five parties namely the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK),Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF),Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). An “Orunginaippuk Kuzhu” or coordinating committee had been set up by the TNA to oversee all matters regarding the forthcoming Northern Province election. The committee consisted of four representatives each from all five constituents. Initially the four TNA representatives on the committee were Jaffna district MP’s Senathirajah and Shritharan, Batticaloa district MP Selvarajah and National district MP Sumanthiran. However all five parties requested that Sampanthan be the committee chair. Thus the coordinating committe had 21 members inclusive of Sampanthan.
The interlude between Wigneswaran’s refusal and acceptance had been utilised to mount a campaign in Senathirajah’s favour. 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.
Much tension has been simmering within the TNA due to inter-party rivalry. The four non – ITAK parties had forged a common front against the the dominant party the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK). They accused the ITAK of being dictatorial and demanded equality among constituents. They wanted the TNA to be registered as a political party with equal partnership for all five constituents. The ITAK was not obliging and was also insisting that the president and secretary of the TNA if registered as a single party should be Sampanthan and Senathirajah respectively. Sampanthan is currently the ITAK president and Senathirajah the secretary –general. The TNA contests elections on the ITAK ticket under the house symbol. The trio comprising Sampanthan, Senathirajah and Sumanthiran are often accused of taking decisions without consulting other TNA constituents.
Despite the resentment over real or imaginary domination by the ITAK and criticising the ITAK publicly, none of the other TNA constituents have dared to break away and form a new outfit. News items are regularly planted in pliable sections of the Tamil media about potential splits and revolts but nothing actually materialises. This is because all these constituents know that their political clout would diminish drastically if they break the fragile TNA unity that prevails. Any breakaway in the current environment would be suspected of being a Govt stooge or “traitor,” Besides any configuration that has the Sampanthan-Senathirajah duo at the helm would be able to garner the most amount of Tamil votes.
"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)"
Thus the non –ITAK parties have remained within the TNA folds despite their avowed dissatisfaction and resentment about ITAK domination. Their goal is that of gradually enhancing their strength on the one hand and progressively reducing the power of the ITAK on the other while subscribing to the notion of TNA unity on a greater level. The impending Northern provincial poll was going to be another inner party theatre of war where the non –ITAK parties were destined to clash with the ITAK for a greater share in candidate nominations and provincial minister portfolios.
The Sampanthan-Senathirajah combination was arguably the greatest strength of the ITAK and by extension the TNA. The better educated, more sophisticated Sampanthan expressed and articulated the party point of view well and was respected by local and foreign political leaders. The simple and easily accessible Senathirajah with an impressive track record of non –violent militant politics enjoyed widespread grass roots support in the North and East. Both complemented each other and enjoyed a cordial and strong personal cum political relationship. The Sampanthan - Senathirajah unity was the sheet anchor of the ITAK.
The major difference of opinion 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.
The differences between Sampanthan and Senathirajah were not serious enough to be described as a rift. It did however provide an opening for other elements in both the ITAK and the TNA to move in and exploit. The exercise was mutually reinforcing where Senathirajah sought to utilise these sections as his instruments while they attempted to manipulate events in their favour and extract greater concessions. In the process some ITAK elements wanted to isolate Sampanthan while non-ITAK parties aimed to drive a wedge between Sampanthan and Senathirajah and weaken the ITAK.
It was against this backdrop that the TNA Coordinating committee first met on July 11th at the ITAK office in Bambalapitiya to select the chief ministerial candidate. Representatives of the five parties in TNA began talking. Sampanthan chairing the meeting let the 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. Surprisingly even the TULF that was expected to nominate its leader Veerasingham Aanandasangaree as a prospective candidate advocated his bête noir Senathirajah’s name instead.
In a further twist the ITAK to which Senathirajah belonged, proposed Wigneswaran’s name instead of their secretary-general. While Shritharan MP was in Canada the others Selvarajah and Sumanthiran spoke in favour of Wigneswaran. 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. 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 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"
The meeting on July 11th 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.
TULF Jaffna Municipal councillor Sangiah surprised the gathering by making a fierce yet illogical speech supportive of Senathirajah. TULF secretary-general Veerasingham Aanandasangaree did not attend the coordinating committee and was in the Eastern province. According to sources close to Sangaree, the TULF leader had expected his name to be proposed and had felt it would be inappropriate for him to be present while his candidature was discussed. But Sangaree’s deputy Sangiah did a minor somersault and opted to support Senathirajah whose political differences with the former Kilinochchi MP are well-known. Anandasangaree whose name was to be proposed by the TULF and supported by the PLOTE never fared in the contest as Sangiah abandoned his leader in favour of Maavai.
"The better educated, more sophisticated Sampanthan expressed and articulated the party point of view well and was respected by local and foreign political leaders"
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 the 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.
It was blatantly obvious that the Senathirajah lobby was working according to a well-set plan. They had not entered discussions with an open mind prepared to select the best candidate possible for the task lying ahead. They were rooting for Senathirajah regardless of his suitability or otherwise. While being supportive of Maavai they were in no way critical of Wigneswaran. They spoke of him respectfully and praised his track record on the bench.
The essence of their argument however was that Wigneswaran though of Jaffna origin was now a Tamil resident of 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 that 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. He then pointed out that Anandasangaree and himself were also lawyers.
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 Amparai districts as candidates. Sampanthan made it crystal clear that his choice was Wigneswaran only. Though 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.
As time progressed it appeared that leaders Suresh Premachandran of the EPRLF, Selvam Adaikkalanathan of TELO and Dharmalingam Siddharthan of PLOTE were slowly veering around to Sampanthan’s point of view. The discussion shifted to focussing on the possibility of Wigneswaran and Senathirajah working together if necessary in the Northern Council.
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 that 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 13th.
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 Adaikkalanathan 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 Adaikkalanatham 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.” Wigneswaran maintained a sense of detachment to the entire exercise as a true “Karmayogi” of the “Bhagavad Gita” would.
Selvam Adaikkalanathan 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 five TNA constituent parties to agree to his candidacy.
During talks Wigneswaran outlined the problems he anticipated in making the Provincial council work satisfactorily and how he proposed to cope with them. A highlight of the meeting was the cordial rapport established between Wigneswaran and Senathirajah. The Jaffna district MP explained that a tussle of sorts had ensued only because Justice Wigneswaran had been reluctant to accept the offer initially. This had led to many persons pushing him (Senathirajah) into the fray. However a satisfactory decision would be reached soon. Wigneswaran responded by saying he understood the situation and that everything would work out positively in the end.
The third round of talks scheduled for July 13th evening was put off for the morning of Monday July 15th. Once again during the interregnum, unofficial discussions continued at multiple levels. By Monday morning it was apparent that the pendulum had swung in favour of Wigneswaran but there was marked reluctance on the part of TNA constituents to convey news of that “swing” to Senathirajah. The Jaffna district MP too began telling colleagues that he was ready to accept Wigneswaran if the TNA wanted him. However, Senathirajah hesitated to pull out on his own due to perhaps a question of “prestige”.
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.
This state of affairs created an uncertain situation where the TNA seemed to want both the proverbial “Koozh” (stew) and the “Meesai” (moustache). 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 that 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.
It is rather tempting to conclude this article with the ending “and they all lived happily ever after”. Alas! such endings are possible only in fairy tales and the TNA chief ministerial candidate search is no fairy tale. As stated in the preliminary paragraphs of this article the whole exercise has exposed the facade of unity prevailing in the TNA. There has been a realignment of forces and shifts in loyalty that do not augur well for the configuration. The non –ITAK parties have been strengthened at the expense of the ITAK and this is clearly visible in the reduction of nominees from ITAK on the candidate list. The powerful clique controlling the ITAK in Jaffna is revolting against Wigneswaran and Sampanthan. The Sampanthan - Senathirajah duo’s harmony has cracked. The media campaign unleashed against Wigneswaran in support of Senathirajah has reached extremely low depths. Spearheading it are the newspapers controlled by TNA MP Saravanabavan. Extremist sections in the Tamil Diaspora are attacking Wigneswaran viciously. Also despite Senathirajah’s perceived magnanimity it remains to be seen as to how Kautilyan intrigues will manifest themselves in the future. One wonders whether voting patterns would be engineered to make some other candidate or candidates gain more preference votes than Wigneswaran.
A veritable Pandora’s box of the “Eelam” variety seems to have been opened and one does feel that the Sitar strumming Wigneswaran may not be able to play the melody of his choice in the days to come. He may even find the strings on his instrument snapping if the current trend continues. All these developments and more will be scrutinised in greater detail in a forthcoming article.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com