History was in the making as nominations closed on August 1 for the first ever elections to Sri Lanka’s Northern Provincial Council scheduled for September 21. The predominantly Tamil Northern Province comprising five administrative districts will have a Provincial Council of 38 members.
Of the administrative districts, Jaffna and Kilinochchi will form the Jaffna electoral district while Mannar, Vavuniya and Mullaitivu together would be the Wanni electoral district. Of the 38 councillors, 36 will be elected directly while two will be appointed as bonus seats to the party winning the most number of seats in the Jaffna and Wanni electoral districts. Twenty of the elected councillors would be from the Jaffna electoral district and 16 from Wanni. The number of councillors to be elected from each administrative district are Jaffna:16; Kilinochchi: 4; Mannar: 5; Vavuniya: 6; Mullaitivu: 5.Three additional names have to be nominated to the number of elected councillors from each district in compiling the candidates’ list.
Eleven political parties and nine Independent Groups have filed nominations for the Jaffna administrative district. Eleven political parties and two Independent groups are contesting from Kilinochchi. The contestants from Mannar district are 12 political parties and eight Independent groups while Vavuniya will have 12 political parties and seven Independent groups. 11 political parties and two Independent groups will contest from the Mullaithivu district.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) regarded as the premier political configuration representing the Sri Lankan Tamils has fielded candidates in all five districts. The TNA has nominated a total of 51 candidates for the entire province. The administrative district breakdown of candidates is Jaffna: 19; Kilinochchi: 7; Mannar: 8; Vavuniya: 9; Mullaithivu: 8.
The TNA submitted its nomination papers in all five districts on July 29, 2013 during the auspicious time of 12. 05 to 12.36 pm. Incidentally July 29 is the day on which the Indo-Sri Lanka accord was signed by Rajiv Gandhi and JR Jayewardena 26 years ago. The Provincial councils came into being as a result of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. It was the Indo –Lanka accord that paved the way for the enactment of the 13th Amendment.
The TNA strongly tipped to romp home as winners in the Northern provincial stakes made a grand spectacle of filing nomination papers by going in procession. Its star chief ministerial candidate CV Wigneswaran who heads the Jaffna district candidate list filed nominations along with other candidates in “Yaarlpaanam”. He was accompanied by TNA parliamentarians Somasuntharam “Mavai”Senathirajah, Kandiah Premachandran alias Suresh and MA Sumanthiran. The retired Supreme Court judge Wigneswaran clad in silk “verti and Saalvai” with his flowing beard made a striking impression.
In Kilinochchi veteran Tamil politician Veerasingham Aanandasangaree filed nominations. Sangaree as he is known represented the Kilinochchi electorate in Parliament from 1970 – 83 and was greatly responsible for demarcating Kilinochchi as a separate administrative district. TNA Parliamentarian Sivagnanam Shritharan accompanied the candidates but maintained a “distance” with Aanandasangaree.
Mannar saw chief candidate G. Gunaeelan accompanied by Parliamentarian Adaikkalanathan alias Selvam filing nominations. In Vavuniya chief candidate M. Thiyagarajah along with Sivasakthy Anandan MP submitted nominations. Anton Jeyanathan was the chief candidate in Mullaitivu. He was accompanied by MP Vinotharahalingam.
Altogether the TNA exercise of filing nominations was undertaken enthusiastically with the confidence of victory being in sight. Many of the candidates are educated or retired professionals. Apart from retired Supreme Court Judge Wigneswaran there are retired directors of education, several medical doctors, lawyers, teachers, administrators and engineers in the list. Three former MPs -- Anandasangaree, Dharmalingam Siddharthan and MK Sivajilingam are also candidates. Three of the 51 candidates are women. A few youth and student activists are also in the fray.
"It was a fortnight ago that this column wrote about the issue of TNA chief ministerial candidate selection"
The TNA nomination scenes as depicted in the media exude a spirit of bonhomie. This show of unity however does not represent reality fully as there were many tensions, intrigues and undercurrents preceding the actual finalisation and nomination of candidates. Such phenomena are prevalent in almost every political party during the process of candidate selection. In the TNA which is a loose coalition of five political parties such differences could be quite stark. Nevertheless there are two important points to be taken note of when looking at the TNA in relation to the Northern provincial polls.
The first is the hypocrisy factor. It is indeed futile to expect that politics and politicians should be devoid of hypocrisy. Yet in the case of the TNA vis a vis the Provincial poll this element is at a remarkable high. The TNA adopts an ambiguous attitude towards the 13th Amendment and Provincial council system. Tamil leaders in a lamentable lack of political wisdom are publicly dismissive of the 13th Amendment and its creations. They “pooh pooh” it as being inadequate. The words of TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan to the BBC Tamil service some time ago were that the 13th Amendment was a dead stinking corpse which the TNA would not touch.
When elections to the Eastern Provincial Council were held in 2008 the TNA kept out of it saying it would not contest a divided council citing the de-merging of the North and East. This was when the LTTE was active. Yet the TNA had no qualms about contesting in the East last year when the LTTE was no more in Sri Lanka. Now the TNA is gearing up to contest the North. It has now modified its stance on the 13th Amendment as “full implementation of 13-A and going beyond”.
Nevertheless the TNA is always lukewarm on the 13 Amendment. It does not defend it forcefully or assert that it wants full implementation. When extremist diaspora organisations and their fellow travellers in Sri Lanka criticise the 13th Amendment and provincial councils, the TNA does not refute those arguments. By its silence the TNA conveys the message that it is not for the 13th Amendment. The TNA conduct is akin to that of a husband ashamed to be seen in public with his wife. Despite this feeling of shame the husband is not averse to enjoying the wealth brought by the wife in the form of dowry.
The TNA is reluctant to extend strong support to the 13th Amendment but is not reluctant at all to enjoy the benefits of participating in the provincial council system. More importantly and interestingly the TNA constituent parties and members engage in a sordid game of canvassing for slots on the candidate list that contrasts sharply with the avowed profession of detachment adopted towards the councils. This was clearly seen in the East last year. Now it is visible in the North.
The lure of political office is extremely alluring for a certain category of persons and there is nothing to be faulted in this. It is however amusing at best and irritating at worst to see a bunch of politicians scrambling for nomination to a council which they are reluctant to endorse or support wholeheartedly. This contradictory stance smacks of sheer hypocrisy. But then frankness like consistency is not necessarily a virtue in politics.
The second factor is rivalry. It is acknowledged that rivalry and competition are the building blocks of practical politics. The TNA too is entitled to its share in this. The difference here is the layered nature of inner rivalry in the TNA. Inter-party competition among TNA constituents and intra-party rivalry within each constituent is widely prevalent. Also the current Northern poll phase has a fresh dimension to it.
It was a fortnight ago that this column wrote about the issue of TNA chief ministerial candidate selection. The claim made by Senior Jaffna district MP Somasundaram Senathirajah known as “Mavai”Senathirajah, the support extended to him by four constituent parties, TNA leader Sampanthan nominating ex-judge Wigneswaran and sticking to his position, the eye ball to eyeball confrontation between Sampanthan the President of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) and its secretary Senathirajah and how the latter blinked, Senathirajah backing off despite having the bulk of support for his candidacy, the “unanimous” choice of Wigneswaran and the smiling postures for the camera belying reality etc were all dealt with exhaustively in that article.
As stated in these columns the facade of unity presented by the TNA after the selection of Wigneswaran as chief ministerial candidate contrasted sharply with the prevailing reality of intrigue and bitterness within party folds on the question. Optically the crisis seemed to have blown away when scenes of TNA candidates unitedly filing nominations flashed across TV screens and images of smiling candidates were splashed in newspapers and websites. But then appearances can be rather deceptive.
Although Senathirajah stood down in favour of Wigneswaran due to Sampanthan’s tenacity the septuagenarian six footer hailing from Maaviddapuram in Jaffna was not ready to submit totally to the veteran Trincomalee Parliamentarian’s diktat. Being a crafty politician who rose up from the ranks , Senathirajah continued to extend his political machinations at a different level in the sphere of selecting candidates. It was in a sense a case of Senathirajah striking back.
Before candidate selection began in earnest there was another minor theatre of conflict within Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi(ITAK)ranks. 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.
The stage seemed to be set for an internal clash within the ITAK over chief ministerial selection issue. Senathirajah had utilised the ITAK party machinery for his candidacy when he got the party’s Jaffna branch to pass a resolution promoting his candidacy. Likewise some other ITAK party branches in the Wanni and Batticaloa had expressed support but not adopted formal resolutions. It appeared that there was overwhelming support for Senathirajah within the ITAK party structure and that Sampanthan and other MP’s did not reflect actuality.
Fuelling this feeling further was the orchestrated campaign by media organs in the Global Tamil media. Sampanthan and to a lesser extent Wigneswaran were attacked viciously. It was alleged that Sampanthan was acting under the instructions of New Delhi and that Senathirajah had backed out of the race due to pressure exerted by Indian espionage agency Research and Analysis wing (RAW).It was insinuated that RAW had threatened to harm Senathirajah’s family residing in Tamil Nadu if he did not comply. It is noteworthy that Senathirajah did not refute these allegations or condemn the media that was vilifying Sampanthan.
Against this backdrop there was much speculation that a showdown was on the cards when the working committee of the ITAK met in Vavuniya. Earlier former Jaffna municipal commissioner and Jaffna branch bigwig CVK Sivagnanam had sent a letter to Sampanthan asking that the ITAK working committee meeting be held. 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. The senior vice president of the ITAK is said to be retaining a huge chip on his shoulder ever since Lawyer MA Sumanthiran was appointed national list MP by Sampanthan instead of the learned professor of history. Sittampalam has been extremely critical of the TNA in the public domain. Utilising his qualifications to project himself as an authority on the history of the ITAK also known as the Federal party, Sittampalam portrays the current phase of the ITAK as decrepit and decadent when compared to the allegedly golden ages of the fifties and sixties of the 20th century.
Predictably Sittampalam harshly disapproved of the decision to designate Wigneswaran as chief candidate. He was followed on the same lines but with more restraint by CVK 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. 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 master 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 CV 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
Even if these developments could be deemed as setbacks for Senathirajah’s ambitious hopes the doughty political fighter who has spent many years in jail for his espousal of the Tamil cause had not given up the fight entirely. He had backed out of the chief ministerial candidate hustings but was not prepared to back off from the political game of chess. His next move was to consolidate his hold on the party and control the process of selection of candidates for the Northern poll.
Senathirajah’s trump card was the requirement that the party secretary sign nomination papers. Since the TNA contests under the House symbol of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi and Senathirajah is the ITAK secretary this endows the man from Maaviddapuram with a certain quantum of power and influence. It is this fact that has impelled many leaders of Tamil political parties to function as secretaries or secretary-generals of their respective outfits.
Apart from this other reasons also helped increase Senathirajah’s clout within the TNA in candidate selection. Firstly there was the structural and functional process of candidate selection. The TNA has set up a 21-member coordinating committee to oversee and coordinate all aspects of the Northern provincial poll. It was this committee known as the “Orunginaippukkuzhu” that finalised the unanimous choice of Wigneswaran as chief ministerial candidate after much wrangling.
Among lesser committees coming under the purview of the coordinating committee are the “nidhikkuzhu”(finance committee)”Pirachaarakkuzhu”(propaganda committee)and “Niyamanakkuzhu”(Nomination committee). The nomination committee was responsible for finalising selection of TNA candidates for all the districts. The ten- member committee consists of two representatives each from the five constituent parties of the TNA.
The ITAK representatives on this committee are Senathirajah and David Naganathan from Vavuniya. Senathirajah being the most senior MP on the committee was appointed chair of this nomination committee. Besides the fact that Senathirajah is from the “Vadakku” (North) and Sampanthan from the “Kizhakku”(East) provided the Jaffna district MP a greater say in affairs of the Northern poll.
"How this state of affairs came into being and the tactics adopted by Senathirajah would be examined in greater detail in a forthcoming article"
An important fall –out of the TNA chief ministerial stakes was that of Senathirajah becoming a “consensus contender”. This effectively proved that he was acceptable broadly to TNA constituents as well as the rank and file of the ITAK. Sampanthan may be the leader but if it came down to a popularity tussle it was apparent that Senathirajah could get the better of the former. Thus Senathirajah had snatched a victory of sorts from the jaws of defeat. This increased his stature overnight.
Adding to this was the prevalent feeling that Senathirajah should be appeased and compensated politically for his “magnanimous withdrawal”. This feeling led to a situation where Senathirajah was able to gain greater control of the candidate selection process. He was allowed to have the final say in such matters. What helped Senathirajah greatly was the “abdication” by Wigneswaran in this respect. The ex-judge being a novice in political intricacies had openly stated that he was depending on the experienced Senathirajah to handle the selection process. Seizing upon this statement by Wigneswaran the wily Senathirajah was able to exert greater influence in this exercise.
It was in this context that Senathirajah aided by a loyalist cabal within the ITAK and abetted by cronies from the EPRLF and TELO manipulated and controlled the choice of TNA candidates for the Northern poll. While there was a limited amount of give and take by all sides the overall outcome was one where Senathirajah loyalists within the ITAK and candidates of the EPRLF and TELO amenable to him have gained nomination. Sampanthan has been snubbed and Wigneswaran sidelined in the process. How this state of affairs came into being and the tactics adopted by Senathirajah would be examined in greater detail in a forthcoming article.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org