Writing on the Wall

Northern Province Chief Minister Canagasabapathy Viswalingam Wigneswaran is a retired Supreme Court judge. Much was expected of CV Wigneswaran when he was first elected chief minister of the Northern Province on behalf of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in September 2013. 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 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. Today the NPC board of ministers is in a virtual state of paralysis due to Wigneswaran’s obstinate refusal to comply with a court directive. The people of the North who welcomed the advent of the NPC in 2013 are waiting eagerly for its term of office to end in October 2018

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 is 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).

There was a sinister method in this seeming madness. Wigneswaran may have been a Supreme Court judge but he proved to be absolutely incompetent as a chief minister and was thoroughly inefficient as an administrator. His tough political posture helped divert attention away from his inadequacies and failures. More importantly his conduct seemed to be part of a calculated design, endorsed and encouraged by hawkish elements in the global Tamil Diaspora.

Hardliners in the Tamil Diaspora and their fellow-travellers in Sri Lanka have a three-fold objective. Firstly they want to sabotage the working of the Northern Provincial Council and depict it as a worthless white elephant incapable of delivering the goods to the Tamil people. Secondly they want to prevent economic, educational, social and cultural upliftment of the Tamil people and keep them in a state of perpetual want and despair. Thirdly they don’t want normalcy to prevail in the Northern and Eastern provinces and try as much as possible to foment violence and strife in the Tamil- speaking regions. The various attempts to trigger violence in the North-East have been contained and checked by the law-enforcement authorities in the past. However the goals of making the Northern Provincial Council dysfunctional and preventing a socio-economic renaissance through development activities have succeeded to some extent due to Chief minister Wigneswaran and a few provincial councillors, some officials and sections of the Tamil media.

Premier Political Configuration 

This sad state of affairs does not mean that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which is the premier political configuration of the Sri Lankan Tamils, approves of all what Wigneswaran has been doing. The chief constituent of the TNA is the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK). The TNA contests elections under the House symbol of the ITAK. The ITAK president and senior Jaffna district MP Somasundaram “Maavai” Senathirajah and TNA spokesperson and Jaffna district parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran have been openly critical of Wigneswaran. Sumanthiran in fact called for disciplinary action against Wigneswaran for allegedly violating party discipline. There is little love lost between NPC Chairman C.V.K. Sivagnanam and Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran who are often at loggerheads with each other. Three out of four in the original board of ministers were opposed to the chief minister. One has successfully filed legal action against the chief minister. Most of the ITAK representatives in the NPC are hostile to Wigneswaran and estranged from him. On another level the NPC Opposition Leader Sinnathurai Thavarajah exposes the alleged lies, half truths, contradictions and shortcomings of chief minister Wigneswaran both within and outside the provincial council. Wigneswaran has been unable to get along with the present Northern Governor Reginald Coorayas well as past Governors H.M.G.S. Palihakkara and Maj-Gen (Retd) G. A. Chandrasiri.

In spite of all this opposition towards him within the ITAK which nominated him as chief ministerial candidate, Wigneswaran has been able to carry on as chief minister so far due to the strength and support of TNA parliamentary group leader and Leader of the Opposition Rajavarothayam Sampanthan. For reasons which shall be discussed in detail later, Sampanthan has been mollycoddling, shielding and protecting Wigneswaran from the “slings and arrows” of disgruntled ITAK party members in the past. In 2015 Sampanthan restrained efforts by TNA provincial councillors to present a no-confidence motion against Wigneswaran. In 2017 Sampanthan was taken unawares when a “sudden” no-confidence motion against Wigneswaran was put to the vote. Sampanthan however intervened and prevented further follow-up action against the chief minister. According to Hindu mythology the snake around Lord Shiva’s neck (Paramasivan Kazhuthup Paambu)feels secure enough to tauntingly greet its sworn enemy the brahmini kite bird (Karudan). Likewise Wigneswaran protected by Sampanthan has been able to cock a snook at his critics within the TNA so far.

The silver lining in this dark cloud seems to be the prospect of “change” looming on the horizon. In spite of the octogenarian Sampanthan’s authoritative hold on the party there are increasing signs of assertive independence within the parliamentary folds of the party. Parliamentarians of the TNA are no longer ready, able and willing to follow Sampanthan blindly. This was vividly illustrated at the time of the deputy-speaker’s election a few months ago

The deputy-speaker’s post fell vacant after Thilanga Sumathipala along with 16 SLFP parliamentarians quit Government ranks in the aftermath of the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Sumathipala resigned as deputy-speaker on May 25, 2018. Since the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya is from the UNP the Deputy-speaker post was allocated to the SLFP. Therefore the vacancy should have been filled by that party.

Deputy Speaker’s Election  

President Maithripala Sirisena wanted to nominate national list MP Angajan Ramanathan as the SLFP deputy-speaker. But Sampanthan objected to Ramanathan who was the SLFP chief organizer in Jaffna being appointed deputy speaker. President Sirisena then gave in and the UNP nominated Moneragala district MP Ananda Kumarasiri for the deputy speaker. The “SLFP group of 16 MP’s” who had quit the government nominated Gampaha district MP Dr. Sudharshini Fernandopulle for the post and canvassed with both the SLFP in government and within the joint opposition. The 16 MP’s also had discussions with Sampanthan at which meeting no other MP from TNA was present. It was reported then that the” SLFP sixteen” had assured Sampanthan that they had no objection to him continuing to remain opposition leader.

When the deputy speaker election was to be held, Sampanthan spoke out against the UNP candidate and extolled the virtues of Dr. Sudharshini Fernandopulle who would have made history as the first woman deputy speaker if elected. Furthermore Sampanthan said that the deputy  speaker post should go to the SLFP and faulted the UNP for contesting. A chagrined Ranil Wickremesinghe retorted by pointing out that it was Sampanthan who had vetoed the earlier SLFP nominee Angajan Ramanathan. When it came to voting time, Sampanthan indicated that the TNA would vote in favour of Sudharshani Fernandopulle.

This was an arbitrary decision of Sampanthan who had not consulted the TNA parliamentary group. Most of the TNA parliamentarians spontaneously revolted against Sampanthan by telling TNA spokesman Sumanthiran that they will not vote for Sudharshini. The TNA parliamentarians voted with their feet by walking out en masse. Sampanthan too was compelled to save face by following his fellow MP’s reluctantly.

A seemingly similar situation of TNA parliamentarians defying Sampanthan on crucial issues may have developed on Thursday August 23 too. Fortunately it was averted by Sampanthan himself who fell in line with the opinion of his fellow MP’s instead of trying to impose his will upon them. Again the controversial bone of contention was Wigneswaran. The issue was about the Task force appointed by President Maithripala Sirisena to oversee development work in the Northern and Eastern provinces.

Presidential Task Force  

President Maithripala Sirisena had earlier appointed a high-level 48-member task force to direct, coordinate and monitor development activities in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The task force, chaired by the President, would review the development projects so far launched in the Northern and Eastern Provinces since the end of the conflict and accelerate the development process.The task force members included Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, 15 Cabinet ministers, the Governors of the two provinces, the Chief Ministers of the two provinces, secretaries to several ministries and Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

The task force is expected to review the status of progress of various sectoral plans, programmes and projects now being implemented in the two Provinces. It would also initiate and formulate new plans, programmes and subjects targeting sectors and groups that need priority attention. It will facilitate finances for projects and programmes and encourage and enlist the support and participation of the private sector, bilateral and multilateral development institutions, for investing and implementing development projects and programmes in the two Provinces.

The task force will also coordinate work between the Government and provincial administrations and among Public and private sectors and non-governmental and civil society sections and carry out overall monitoring of the implementation of the development activities in the regions.It will also identify any constraints which impede expeditious implementation of development programmes in the regions and advise the relevant authorities on speedy solutions to overcome them. Former Rehabilitation Ministry Secretary V. Sivagnanasothy has been appointed as the task force secretary.

A singular defect in constituting the Task force was the apparent exclusion of Parliamentarians. No elected or appointed MP from the Northern and Eastern provinces was appointed to the Task force. It is uncertain as to whether this omission was deliberate or merely an inadvertent oversight. The two chief ministers and Governors were included. There was a hitch in this too as the Eastern Provincial council is now dissolved and there is no chief minister. The Northern Provincial council’s term of office too is scheduled to end in October this year. Thus Wigneswaran as chief minister was entitled to participate in the task force.

Track Record of Non-Cooperation 

Any responsible chief minister of a war-battered province and war-shattered people would have jumped at the chance to be part of a Presidential task force overseeing development activity. But Wigneswaran with a track record of non – cooperation said he would boycott it. He cited the exclusion of TNA parliamentarians and inclusion of defence services chiefs in the Task Force as reasons for his decision. He also reiterated that a political settlement was necessary before economic development. It was apparent that the Northern Province chief minister was all out to undermine the Presidential Task force charged with Provincial development.

Saner counsel prevailed within the upper echelons of the TNA who did not take umbrage at being kept out of the Task Force. Instead of confronting, the president and Prime Minister were informed by the TNA that parliamentarians from the North – East had to be accommodated in the Task Force as the Eastern Provincial council stood dissolved and the Northern Provincial council term of office would end in October. Thus participation of elected Parliamentary representatives from the two provinces was essential for the smooth functioning of the Task Force. This was accepted and the composition of the Task Force was enlarged to accommodate MP’s also. Invitation letters were sent out to the 16 MP’s elected from the TNA to participate in the Task Force meetings.( Wanni district MP Sivasakthi Ananthan has dropped out of the TNA).

The main reason cited by Wigneswran in refusing to attend the Task Force meetings was the non-inclusion of TNA parliamentarians in it. Now the matter had been rectified. Even though his stated raison d’etre for spurning the Task Force was now removed, Wigneswaran remained adamant. He wrote a letter to President Sirisena saying he would not participate in the Task Force and released it to the media. He also called upon the TNA not to attend Task Force meetings. Wigneswaran began exerting pressure on TNA leader Sampanthan to comply with his call for a boycott.

“Politics First;Economics Next”

An official from the chief minister’s office in Jaffna contacted Leader of the opposition Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and informed him that Wigneswaran would be in Colombo on Sunday August 26th. It was suggested that Sampanthan and Wigneswaran should meet in Colombo on Aug 26th and discuss issues including the Economic Task Force matter. Wigneswaran also wrote a personal letter to Sampanthan on August 22nd. Wigneswaran informed Sampanthan that he was boycotting the Presidential Task Force and wanted Sampanthan and other TNA parliamentarians to do the same. He said that the quest for a political settlement should receive priority over economic upliftment activity. Wigneswaran urged Sampanthan to adopt the principle of “Arasiyal Theervu Mudhalil; Porulaathaara Munnetram Adhan Pinnar” (Political Solution First;Economic Progress Next).

It was against this backdrop that the TNA parliamentary group met in Colombo on Thursday August 23. The meeting was held in the morning at the opposition leaders office in Parliament with Sampanthan presiding. Eleven of sixteen TNA Parliamentarians were present. The five absentee MP’s were Dharmalingam Siddharthan, Sivasakthi Ananthan, E.Saravanabavaan, Dr. S. Sivamohan and Ms. Shanthy Sriskandarajah. When the Economic Task Force issue was taken up Sampanthan informed the MP’s of Wigneswaran’s call for a boycott and read out portions of his letter. Sampanthan also said that a meeting with Wigneswaran on Sunday was on the cards.

Sampanthan was somewhat taken aback by the vehement reaction of his party MP’s to Wigneswaran’s boycott call. Almost every MP present condemned Wigneswaran’s boycott call and emphasised that TNA parliamentarians should participate fully in the Task Force and ensure the speedy economic upliftment of the people. They pointed out that the people were facing much economic hardship and that the economic task force provided a very good opportunity for the MP’s to remove bottlenecks and enact positive measures. Some Northern MP’s pointed out that the Provincial council with chief minister Wigneswaran was elected to work out schemes and projects for the economic emancipation of the people but Wigneswaran had neglected his duties and engaged in disruptive politics.

They said that because of this, they as MP’s had a duty to cooperate with the Govt and ensure the economic needs of the people were met. Wigneswaran was also criticised for interfering with the political duties of TNA parliamentarians. One MP quipped that Wigneswaran like the fox in the fable was asking them to cut their tails because he had lost his own tail.

Politically Isolated Within Party 

The rising tide of discontent and criticism displayed against Wigneswaran demonstrated clearly that the TNA parliamentarians were in an angry mood. It also showed that Wigneswaran was becoming politically isolated within the party that elected him as chief minister. After each MP had his say, Sampanthan addressed the parliamentary group. The veteran Trincomalee district MP said that he too was of the opinion that the TNA should participate in the Task force instead of boycotting and cooperate with the govt to develop the North and East. Thereafter the TNA parliamentary group passed a unanimous resolution rejecting Wigneswaran’s boycott call and emphasising that all MP’s should participate whole-heartedly in the Task Force to expedite the economic progress of the people in the Northern and Eastern provinces.

The antipathy of the TNA parliamentarians towards the politics of Wigneswaran was so great that some of them even asked Sampanthan not to communicate with the chief minister about the TNA parliamentary group decision. They told the TNA leader respectfully that if Wigneswaran approached Sampanthan then the chief minister could be informed about what had happened but it was not necessary for him to inform Wigneswaran first. They also requested Sampanthan not to reply Wigneswaran’s letter in writing and to simply ignore it. When some MP’s raised the matter of an envisaged meeting between Sampanthan and Wigneswaran, the TNA leader was quick to respond “He has only requested that we meet. I have said I will only consider it. I have not agreed yet”. It appears therefore that the chances of a one to one meeting between Sampanthan – Wigneswaran meeting are very slim.

The TNA parliamentary group hullabaloo over Wigneswaran’s political conduct and the unanimous rejection of his boycott call illustrates clearly that the Northern chief minister is increasingly becoming politically isolated within the TNA in general and ITAK in particular. Wigneswaran’s sheet anchor within the party and benefactor -protector has been TNA leader Sampanthan. Although Wigneswaran has bitten the hand that fed him on more than one occasion, the diplomatic Sampanthan has been extremely patient and tolerant about the chief minister’s antics. There are two reasons for this stance. One is that Wigneswaran was brought into politics and crowned chief minister by Sampanthan. Though Wigneswaran runs amok at times, Sampanthan does not find fault publicly because he does not want to acknowledge the fact that he had erred grievously in his choice of a chief minister. The second reason is Sampanthan’s concern that Wigneswaran may break away and align with other forces thereby endangering and fracturing overall Tamil political unity.

Three Options Before Wigneswaran 

Wigneswaran too has been relying on Sampanthan in this respect. The chief minister has made it clear that he intends repeating his dismal performance by becoming chief minister for a second time too. Wigneswaran has said that he has three options before him. The first is to be nominated by the TNA/ITAK as chief ministerial candidate again. The second is to align with like minded parties and individuals and form a new political front and contest. The third is to form his own political party and contest. Notwithstanding the triple choices outlined by Wigeswaran, his preference is to be the TNA/ITAK chief ministerial candidate. His references to the second and third options is only a calculated ruse to intimidate and compel Sampanthan into giving him the chief minister nomination again. That is why he has not engaged in any spadework to form a new party or shown signs of aligning with other parties. He has been pointedly ignoring the public pleas of Tamil Congress leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam that Wigneswaran should take a firm decision and team up with him.

Recent events however show that the political isolation of Wigneswaran within the party is so great that even Sampanthan may not be able to help him out in this regard. The anger and resentment towards Wigneswaran within party circles is of gigantic proportions. Hence Sampanthan may very likely face an internal revolt if he dares to nominate Wigneswaran as chief ministerial candidate again. Besides ITAK leader and senior Jaffna district MP “Maavai” Senathirajah has staked his rightful claim to be the Chief ministerial candidate at the next elections. In 2013 the overwhelming desire in the TNA was for Senathirajah to be the chief minister candidate. Sampanthan however insisted that Wigneswaran should be the candidate. Senathiraja gracefully stepped down in deference to Sampanthan’s wishes. This time Senathirajah is determined to contest and even Sampanthan cannot replace Maavai with Wigneswaran even if he wants to. But there is little chances of Sampanthan backing Wigneswaran this time because the veteran politician will not support what appears to be a lost cause.

In such a situation it is obvious that Wigneswaran has fallen from grace politically within party folds. He has his coterie of supporters in Sri Lanka and abroad and also the backing of sections of the Tamil media. These elements have succeeded in projecting a larger than life image of Wigneswaran. An illusion has been created that Wigneswaran is widely popular and that any party or political front supported by him would be victorious. This however is a myth. The ex – Judge who got more than 130,000 preferences when he contested Provincial polls on the ITAK ticket in 2013 will find his vote tally drastically reduced if he dares to go against the TNA/ITAK. Of course he and his supporters can win a few seats but it will not be adequate to make him chief minister. The majority of people in the North are so disappointed and disgusted with Wigneswaran’s performance as chief minister that they are unwilling for a repeat performance again. The bloated balloon blown up by Wigneswaran’s acolytes will burst in such a trial of strength. It is a moot point as to whether Wigneswaran will have the political courage to venture on such a risky political course despite his verbal bravado.The ITAK however seems ready to call his bluff this time

Writing is on the Wall 

It appears therefore that the days of CV Wigneswaran as Northern Province chief minister are numbered. Politically isolated within his party, the chief minister appears to be on his way out permanently. The TNA parliamentary group reaction to the chief minister’s boycott call shows that the writing is on the wall for Wigneswaran. A political downfall seems inevitable unless of course something unexpected happens. (D.B.S. Jeyaraj)

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