The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which demonstrated that it was the premier political configuration of the Sri Lankan Tamils by winning 30 out of 38 seats in the Northern Provincial Council is currently undergoing a new experience. After years of functioning outside the realms of power as an opposition political group the TNA is for the first time on the verge of tasting power in the Northern Provincial Council. This urge to taste power in the form of provincial ministries is causing much internal wrangling within the TNA as the aspirants outnumber the posts available
So intense has been the campaigning for ministerial posts that TNA Parliamentary group leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan called for individual applications from prospective candidates for the ministerial posts. Despite perusal of these applications the TNA has been unable to finalise decisions so far.
"There are also particular issues of under representation. There is no Parliamentarian from Mullaithivu district in the TNA. So there is a demand that a Mullaithivu district person be given a provincial ministry post. Another fact is that no person of recent Indian origin or Up Country Tamil has been elected"
The TNA had a number of meetings at a regional level in Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya over the issue of allocating positions in the Board of Ministers and also in deciding upon the chairman and deputy of the Council. Unable to arrive at a consensus at provincial level the matter has now reverted to the central level in Colombo. Senior leaders and representatives of the TNA except Veerasingham Anandasangaree have officially met at least twice at the party office in Bambalapitiya and held in-depth discussions.
Though partial adjustments have been made the TNA is yet to arrive at an all encompassing decision. Even as this column is being written the TNA was scheduled to meet once more on Friday October 4 to discuss the issue again. It is to be hoped that a final decision may be arrived at by the time this column appears in print on Saturday October 5.
The course of Tamil nationalist politics in Sri Lanka has for many years been confined to the opposition realms. Tamil political discourse has generally been that of demanding equality and justice in the Island. This demand has been articulated in many forms but the underlying thread has always been a quest to share power. Former Tamil Parliamentarian and eminent Constitutional lawyer Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam used to say often “We (Tamils) want to share power at the periphery only because we were denied power at the centre”.
Even this yearning to share power at the periphery was never realised for many years despite decades of political struggle both non –violent and violent. The first taste of self –rule within a united Sri Lanka came in 1988 when the North –Eastern Provincial Council came into being. Both the TULF and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) did not participate. The LTTE opposed it bitterly. That Council was short –lived due to reasons that are well known.
In 2008 elections to the Tamil majority Eastern Province were held. Again the LTTE opposed it while the TNA boycotted it. A Tamil Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan of Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) assumed office contesting under the aegis of the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance(UPFA). In 2012 Eastern elections were held again but this time in a situation where the LTTE was no more, the TNA contested and won the most number of seats but failed to form an administration.
Now on September 21st 2013 the TNA contested in the Tamil dominated Northern Province and triumphed magnificiently. The TNA contesting under the ITAK symbol of the house gained 213,907 (84.37%)of the votes polled in Jaffna district and won 14 of the 16 seats allocated to the Jaffna administrative district. It won 37,079(81.57%) in the Kilinochchi administrative district and got 3 out of the 4 seats there. Thus the TNA contesting as ITAK got 16 of the elected 20 seats entitled to the Jaffna Electoral district comprising Jaffna and Kilinochchi districts.
The TNA polled 28,266 (78.56%) of votes in the Mullaithivu district which entitled it to 4 out of 5 seats allocated to that district. In Vavuniya the TNA polled 41,225 votes (66.1%) thus getting 4 of the 6 seats entitled to the district. Mannar saw the TNA fielding candidates under the house symbol getting 33,118 votes (62.22%). This enabled it to get 3 of the 5 seats allocated to the Mannar district.
Together the Mannar, Mullaithivu and Vavuniya districts comprise the Wanni electoral district. The TNA got 11 of the 16 seats allocated to the Wanni electoral district. Thus the Tamil National Alliance contesting under the house symbol of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi polled 353,595 valid votes altogether in the Northern Provincial poll and obtained 30 including 2 bonus seats of the 38 seats in the Council. District wise the TNA break down was Jaffna-14; Kilinochchi-03; Mullaitheevu -04; Vavuniya-04.Mannar-03.
The TNA victory was of historic importance as for the first time Elections to the Northern Province had been held and a chief minister elected. The victory created a situation where the TNA sharing limited power at the peripherywas entitled to form a Provincial Board of Ministers. There was no dispute over the Chief Minister post as retired Supreme Court judge Canagasabapathy Viswalingam Wigneswaran was declared chief ministerial candidate even before the polls.
Wigneswaran won handsomely with 132,255 preference votes and has now been officially “appointed” Chief Minister though he is yet to take oaths. However, the problem for the TNA now is the internal wrangling among contenders for minister posts like the competition for milk when piglets exceed the teats on a sow.
Finalising the provincial minister posts however has turned into a difficult exercise due to demands by the TNA constituent parties on the one hand and the necessity of satisfying various regional, religious, caste and gender-based requests on the other.
The TNA currently consists of five political parties namely the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF), Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF),Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and the Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). All parties contested as the TNA under the house symbol of the ITAK.
Those elected from the five districts are from all four constituent parties except the TULF whose nominees including its leader Veerasingham Anandasangaree lost. The ITAK has returned the most number of winners but the other three party candidates have also won.
Though CV Wigneswaran is of the ITAK all other constituents also endorsed him as the common chief ministerial candidate. The other constituents are now clamouring for one representative each to be accommodated on the four member Board of Ministers.
EPRLF leader Kandiah Premachandran alias Suresh is demanding a ministerial portfolio for his brother and university lecturer Kandiah Sarveswaran who contested and won from Jaffna in addition to the other EPRLF nominee P. Ainkaranesan, an environmentalist who also won from Jaffna. Observers feel that Suresh’s real intention is to secure a ministerial berth for his brother Sarweswaran alone but is constrained to make an additional demand for Ainkaranesan also, as the latter got more preferential votes than the former. Besides, there is the need to avoid the charges of nepotism too. Since the EPRLF cannot realistically hope for more than one minister post, people are able to see through Suresh’s ruse notwithstanding the optics.
Former Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) Parliamentarian MK Sivajilingam who also won from Jaffna is staking a claim for a ministerial berth. Sivajilingam is a cantankerous personality who excelled in making himself an intolerable nuisance in Parliament as an MP. He broke away from the TNA and the TELO and contested the 2010 Presidential and Parliamentary polls after floating his own political party and lost very badly. He was taken back into the TNA by Somasundaram Senathirajah alias “Mavai” and subsequently by Adaikkalanathan into the TELO too. While Sivajilingam wants to be the TELO’s ministerial nominee the TELO leader Adaikkalanathan alias Selvam is keen that a medical doctor who won from Mannar district Dr. Gunaseelan be made minister.
'Even this yearning to share power at the periphery was never realised for many years despite decades of political struggle both non –violent and violent. The first taste of self –rule within a united Sri Lanka came in 1988 when the North –Eastern Provincial Council came into being'
ITAK secretary-general and TNA strong man “Mavai” Senathirajah wants his loyalist and former Jaffna Municipal Commissioner CVK Sivagnanam as the ITAK sponsored nominee. Sivagnanam is the man who spearheaded the campaign within the ITAK to nominate Senathirajah as the chief ministerial candidate instead of Wigneswaran. Though Senathirajah relented due to Sampanthan’s insistence and stood down in favour of Wigneswaran and was lauded for his “magnanimity” the man from Maavittapuram manipulated selection of candidates with the help of Sivagnanam and two others.
Interestingly Sivagnanam was nominated as a candidate and strongly backed by Senathirajah against the wishes of Sampanthan. Senathirajah’s aim in installing Sivagnanam as a minister is to ensure that Wigneswaran is monitored and kept in check within the provincial administration.
Former Wanni district MP and PLOTE leader Dharmalingam Siddharthan who came third in Jaffna on the preference vote count with over 35,000 preferences is also a ministerial contender. Siddharthan, the son of former Federal Party and TULF MP for Manipay (formerly Uduvil) V.Dharmalingam surprised many by garnering a huge proportion of votes in the “Sembaattu mann” (reddish soil) areas of the Valigaamam zone that is very conducive to agriculture.
The affable Dharmalingam was a very popular MP who was brutally assassinated by the TELO in 1985. The PLOTE itself was quite strong at one time in the Valigaamam area and had the highest number of recruits from the Vellaala community there.
There are many who view the balanced and moderate Siddharthan as a potential future leader of the TNA.This fact is resented by many in the ITAK and so Siddharthan’s ministerial hopes are strongly resisted. Siddharthan apparently is eyeing a ministerial portfolio that would handle agriculture and industry related matters. He has been offered the Provincial Council Chairman post which he has turned down.
Ananthi Sasitharan the sole woman candidate elected at the polls with the second highest number of preferences is also being promoted as a ministerial hopeful by the pro- tiger lobby in Sri Lanka and Diaspora elements abroad. This lobby’s efforts are strengthened by feminist activists in the Diaspora and some women’s organisations in Sri Lanka.
Ananthi is the wife of Sinnathurai Sasitharan alias Ezhilan the former Trincomalee political commissar of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)who reportedly went missing after surrendering to the military in May 2009 at Mullaithivu.
Ananthi who referred to herself as LTTE leader Ezhilan’s wife at election meetings had evoked much sympathy by bursting into tears while speaking. Those promoting Ananthi for a ministerial post are cleverly using the “gender” claim by arguing very correctly that women outnumber men in the North and that as the only woman councillor elected with over 84,000 votes, Ananthi should be accommodated on the ministerial board.
Ananthi herself has issued a statement saying she did not want any posts and only wanted to serve but as was the case in these matters hectic lobbying continued on her behalf .
In addition to these tussles there is the less talked about “caste” dimension too. The single largest majority of those elected in the polls are from the dominant Vellala community but other caste groups too have won. A few of those elected in Jaffna are from the so called depressed castes referred to as minority Tamils or Dalits. Some of those elected have worthwhile educational qualifications.
Since these five castes (panchamar) together comprise more than one-third of the total population and have been subjected to social oppression for many, many centuries the demand for ministerial representation is nothing but just and fair. However, the party hierarchy which fielded these candidates to garner votes from the community concerned intend to utilise them as “tokens” only - it seems.
There are also several caste groups linked to traditional maritime occupations who are quite powerful politically and want a portfolio. Another aspect to this issue is religion as the bulk of these maritime caste groups are Catholics.
There are Christians both Catholic and protestants in the Vellala community too. The Christians are about 20 % of the Northern population and dispersed in all five districts. Thus there is a need to accommodate a Christian also in the Board of Ministers.
There is also the question of Muslims. The TNA is keen to reach out to the Muslims of the North and signed a memorandum of understanding with the Peoples Movement for Good Goverance (PMGG) headquartered in Kattankudi. The TNA fielded a PMGG nominee from Jafffna district in Mannar district, who lost.
However in terms of the understanding with PMGG the defeated candidate Al Shaikh Abu Asmin was appointed to one of the two bonus seats entitled to the TNA. It is expected that Abu Asmin may be made Deputy Chairman of the Council.
Three other Muslims were elected from the North. Two including the brother of Cabinet Minister Rishad Badhiyutheen were elected on the UPFA betel symbol. Another won from the Muslim Congress under the tree symbol.
The TNA leadership is very keen on reaching out to the Tamil speaking Muslims of the North and East. The decision to award a bonus seat to Abu Asmin is to inspire confidence among Muslims and build bridges.
The other bonus seat was given to a woman candidate Mary Kamala Gunaseelan who failed to get elected in Mullaithivu district by 54 votes. Ms Gunaseelan who is the Vice Principal of a school contested as a nominee of the TULF on the TNA ticket in Mullaitheevu. Ironically she was given the bonus seat to deprive TULF leader Veerasingam Anandasangaree of it.
What happened was that after Anandasangaree was defeated in Kilinochchi due to the overt machinations of TNA Parliamentarian Sivagnanam Shritharan with the covert sanction of ITAK leaders ,representatives from the PLOTE,TELO and EPRLF requested that Sangaree be given the bonus seat as he was a veteran politician and also because the TULF had no Councillor elected.
In a bid to deny that request the subterfuge of accommodating another woman was proposed. While the concept of more representation to women is praiseworthy it must be noted that it was adopted in this instance to thwart moves of nominating Sangaree.
However the bonus seat to Ms. Gunaseelan would be for a period of one year only. Thereafter it would be rotated on a yearly basis to four others from the other four Northern districts. When selecting candidates weightage would be given to underprivileged groups deprived of representation.
There are also particular issues of under-representation. There is no Parliamentarian from Mullaithivu district in the TNA. So there is a demand that a Mullaithivu district person be given a Provincial Ministry post. Another fact is that no person of recent Indian origin or Up Country Tamil has been elected. The existential reality is that Up Country Tamils who migrated to the North from the highlands form 15 % to 20% of the population in Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu, Vavuniya and Mannar districts. There is also the fact that Hindus from Mannar district require adequate representation in that Catholic majority district.
In view of the above mentioned, conflicting and contending demands and claims one device being tried out by sections of the TNA hierarchy is to adopt the strategy of nominating one each from the five different districts to the Board of Ministers and as Chairman of Council. While Chief Minister Wigneswaran would be regarded as common to the entire province the four ministers and chairman would be representing the five districts. It is felt that Jaffna domination of the Board should be avoided.
It is opined that such a landscape-based formula would be better than catering specifically to party, religion, caste and gender interests. While nominating on the basis of district the other different interests would also be reflected as far as possible in the appointments it is felt.
There is however another problem too, in decision making in this regard. The TNA fielded many retired administrators, educationists and professionals and almost all have been elected. This has created difficulties in deciding as several are perceived as potential ministers with equal qualifications and status. The TNA has at least three medical doctors to be considered for a health minister portfolio. Likewise it has at least four retired education directors who can be education ministers.
Complicating matters further is the arrogance of the dominant party in the TNA. The ITAK wants two ministry posts in addition to Wigneswaran as Chief Minister. The TNA wants medical doctor Dr. Sathialingam from Vavuniya as Health minister. Sathiyalingam is the son of veteran communist Pathmanathan who contested in Vavuniya. The TNA also wants retired education director Kurukularajah from Kilinochchi as Education minister. Kurukularajah is the son of Rev. A.C. Thambirajah the protestant Christian pastor who founded “Navajeevanam”in Murasumottai-Paranthan. The ITAK demands are being strongly resisted by the others.
"Finalising the provincial minister posts however has turned into a difficult exercise due to demands by the TNA constituent parties on the one hand and the necessity of satisfying various regional, religious, caste and gender-based requests on the other"
As stated earlier the Tamil political parties have for many decades been out of the corridors of power and so the task of sharing power in the form of a provincial administration is an unfamiliar one. It is against this backdrop that the TNA hierarchy is struggling to finalise decisions about appointing provincial ministers.
Whatever the decisions arrived at, the results would certainly disappoint many as the posts are few and contenders many. It is to be hoped that the inevitable reactions to the decisions would turn out to be tempests in a teacup and not threaten the fragile unity of an alliance that is on the threshold of sharing power at a provincial level for the first time.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org