Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The TNA storm in a tea cup

By Harim Peiris- 

The Northern Provincial Council (NPC), its activities and politics, attracts far more national and even international level political attention than its counterparts in the other eight provinces, due to several reasons. Firstly, devolution of power is a core aspect of Tamil politics. Secondly the Northern Provincial Council is and will continue to be Sri Lanka’s consistently opposition-controlled provincial council and thirdly the post war, international pressure that led to the holding of the Northern Provincial Council.

Therefore, the recent saga in Tamil politics, where Northern Chief Minister, retired Justice Wigneswaren was almost removed by a motion of no confidence moved by a majority of the Northern Provincial Council, riveted political attention up North and to the chief protagonists in the crisis, namely the Chief Minister and Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) leader and former general secretary Mavai Senathirajah.

It took the wisdom and sagacity of TNA leader Rajavarothian Sambanthan, ably assisted by his trusted assistant, President’s Counsel M.A. Sumanthiran, to defuse the crisis and restore a semblance of unity between the dominant ITAK and some of its smaller partners, affiliates and fellow travelers.

Chief Minister refuses to support TNA at general election

Now, it is not for the first time that there has been sharp divergence in policies and politics between the Chief Minister and the ITAK. The first instance was during the general elections of 2015, when Chief Minister Wigneswaren made an amazing public statement and took the political stand, that he would not be supporting the TNA at the general elections since he must be above, or as a provincial leader, was beneath the parliamentary political fray. Such a stance was unheard of either in Sri Lanka or abroad. You would not for instance have a Governor in the US refusing to campaign for his party at congressional elections. The result of this act of political ingratitude to the TNA, which had brought him out from the cold and installed as Chief Minster through the Party’s block vote, was that the TNA, which secured five (5) of the seven (7) seats in the Jaffna district lost out on getting the sixth seat by just six votes and the beneficiary of that close call was, of course, Vijeykala Maheswaren of the UNP, which secured the sixth seat and the EPDP’s Douglas Devananda, who came in seventh.

However, Chief Minister Wigneswaren did not strictly stay neutral in the general election fray. Three days before the polls he issued a statement calling upon the Tamil people to vote for Tamil parties that would support the Tamil struggle rather than a compromise. This was both a break from his position of being supposedly recused from the process and left the Tamil polity in doubt as to whether he criticising the TNA and recommending the political alliance of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) led by the intransigent and anti-engagement Gajan Ponnambalam. But, the Chief Minister learnt a lesson he seems to have since forgotten that when he goes and acts against the ITAK/TNA, (the parliamentary elections were contested as ITAK since TNA is not a registered political party or alliance), he has no electoral currency, credibility or clout. The general elections of August 2015, were a rout for the Chief Minister’s preferred ACTC-led non-engagers. For all Gajan Ponnambalam’ s rather extreme Tamil nationalist rhetoric, his group secured just a little over five thousand votes in the entire Jaffna District getting less than one third of the over seventeen thousand votes secured by young Angajan Ramanathan, leading the UPFA unsuccessful effort under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sinhala nationalism. The reality of the Jaffna District general election of August 2015 is that the Sinhala nationalism of Rajapaksa as represented by young Ramanathan on the UPFA ticket had three times more attraction than the Tamil nationalism of the variety sprouted by Galen Ponnambalam. This, despite the Chief Minister’s misguided endorsement! Following the general election as well, many ITAK Northern Provincial Councilors wished to remove Chief Minister and once again TNA and the then newly minted Leader of the Opposition Sambanthan, demonstrated that he wanted to repay evil with good by letting the Chief Minister remain.

The next action by the Chief Minister, against the ITAK was the formation of the Tamil People’s Forum (TPF) essentially the political refuge of those who were unsuccessful at the general elections of 2015. The Chief Minister instead of focusing on dealing with and ameliorating the effects of the conflict in the North, was busy trying to create and be an alternative voice to the TNA / ITAK in Tamil politics. Again, ITAK provincial councilors wanted to remove the Chief Minister, but TNA leader Sambanthan demonstrated how much Tamil politics had changed by letting him remain in that position.

The new democratic Tamil political leadership of the TNA/ITAK leadership of Sambanthan, Senathiraja and Sumanthiran are not even willing to take action against their internal critics. One hopes their political accommodation and graciousness, which turns Machiavelli’s theories on its head, would be electorally rewarded in time to come, not least because reconciliation in Sri Lanka requires the moderation and democratic credentials of the ITAK’s leadership.