He was once referred to as ‘rajarshi’, or the wise one. Today, four years into his term as chief minister of the island nation’s Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaran has alienated nearly all with his fickle ways. Sonia Sarkar reports
Four years ago, when Canagasabapathy Visuvalingam Wigneswaran took the plunge into Sri Lankan politics, he was, in his own words, a “reluctant politician”. Today, everyone else – his own party and the alliance it is part of – has turned reluctant about him and his brand of politics. “Nobody really knows what is going on in his head,” says a senior Tamil nationalist politician of Sri Lanka, who does not want to be identified.
In July 2013, Wigneswaran, a former judge of the Sri Lanka Supreme Court, was named the chief ministerial candidate by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – the political alliance that represents the Sri Lankan Tamil minority – for the upcoming election to the Northern Provincial Council.
The north had been the stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or the LTTE, Vellupillai Pirabhakaran’s feared armed formation that once fought for a separate Tamil state, arguing that the community had been discriminated against under successive majority Buddhist Sinhalese parties. The civil war ended in 2009, but not before it had ravaged the Northern Province in every possible way.
The 2013 elections were the first in the region since the end of the 26-year-long civil war. That year, Wigneswaran contested from Jaffna, won, and became the first Tamil chief minister of the Northern Province.
Considered a moderate in his pre-politics avatar, Wigneswaran started to change his spots at the time of campaigning itself. One of the first giveaways of the hardliner stirrings within him surfaced when he hailed the deceased Prabhakaran and likened him to Keppetipola, a Sinhalese rebel at the time of the British rule.
Four years down the line, Wigneswaran’s transformation is complete. Tamil politicians claim he is a complete hardliner. It’s an open secret that the TNA boss, R. Sampanthan, who handpicked Wigneswaran to contest the 2013 polls, isn’t happy with him.
In 2015, when Wigneswaran floated a group called Tamil People’s Council (TPC) including a section of leaders from the TNA, the extremist Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), the academia and civil society members, it was perceived as Wigneswaran’s first open challenge to Sampanthan’s leadership.
Then again, during the 2015 parliamentary elections, Wigneswaran supported the more extremist TNPF. After Maithripala Sirisena took over as Sri Lanka’s President, representatives of the country’s main Tamil party, the TNA, attended the Independence Day function in Colombo, signalling a potentially new era of cooperation between the Sinhalese and Tamil political leadership, but Wigneswaran was against it.
And now, many say, Wigneswaran wants to succeed Sampanthan as TNA chief, upon the latter’s retirement, though the buzz is Sampanthan and others want to hand over the mantle to the younger and more dynamic M.A. Sumanthiran.
Recently, some TNA leaders openly revolted against Wigneswaran when he asked two of his ministers – P. Sathyalingam and B. Deniswaran – to go on leave on charges of corruption without any substantial evidence against them. Twenty-one of the 30 TNA councillors of the Northern Provincial Council demanded his resignation. Even Wigneswaran’s own party, the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), is upset with him. Party chief Mavai Senathirajah is open about it. He says, “Only two ministers were found guilty of corruption related to irregular transfer of teachers and renovation of agricultural wells. But Wigneswaran asked Deniswaran and Sathyalingam to go on leave even before the inquiry was over. This was absolute high-handedness,” ITAK president Senathirajah tells The Telegraph over phone from Jaffna.
Another accusation levelled at Wigneswaran is that he is whimsical. “There is no consistency in his statements. He will say something today and then retract his own statement tomorrow. He is not a mature politician,” Senathirajah adds. In 2014, he had insisted that the word “genocide” be dropped when the National Provincial Council passed a resolution calling for an international probe into human rights violations in the Northern Province. But a year later, he himself moved the “Genocide Resolution” accusing successive Sri Lankan governments of committing genocide against Tamils.
Senathirajah says, “He has fallen prey to the ‘hidden’,” but won’t elaborate on the “hidden”. Political experts, however, say it a reference to the backroom boys – Tamil hardliners of civil society, ultra-nationalist leaders and radical academics of Jaffna – advising him at every step.
In a 2016 TPC rally, Wigneswaran spoke against the erection of Buddhist statues in the Northern Province. A staunch Hindu, he is mostly aggressive at public meetings. He is also anti-Centre and never forgets to point out how the Centre never bothered to rehabilitate LTTE cadres and war widows. The pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora, that pumps in a lot of money for developmental work in Jaffna, love to hear this, a Jaffna-based political expert adds.
The Telegraph’s efforts to contact Wigneswaran via texts, email and phone, did not elicit a response. But Veerasingham Anandasangaree, leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front or TULF, who is openly pro-Wigneswaran and anti-Sampanthan, says, “Wigneswaran has a lot of local support. It’s only a section of TNA leaders who consider him radical.”
Some say, it’s a well-thought political strategy. “A section of Tamils used to see Wigneswaran as the Colombo man. He was born in the capital Colombo and schooled in Kurunegala and Anuradhapura before entering the elite Royal College, where children of Sri Lanka’s ruling class enrol. He wanted to be more accepted by common Tamils, by speaking against the Centre,” says an ITAK official.
India too is not exactly ecstatic about Wigneswaran’s radical views. Top officials at the Indian High Commission in Colombo have apparently urged him to stop all radical posturing that could jeopardise the Lankan government’s bid to find an amicable solution to the long-standing Tamil question. India would rather he focused on the welfare of Tamils instead.
Senathirajah, however, alleges that Wigneswaran, who projects himself as the messiah of Tamils, has done very little for them on the ground. Unemployment, widespread indebtedness, deteriorating social and educational institutions, and rising social violence, remain the concern of the Tamil people. “He is not even allowing industries to come to the Northern Province,” Senathirajah adds.
The Indian Chambers had organised the Jaffna Trade Exhibition in May this year. Many Indian entrepreneurs attended it, but Wigneswaran stayed away.
Even when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Jaffna in 2015, Wigneswaran’s focus was not development. Instead, he requested Modi to release four rape convicts, followers of Swami Premananda, whom he held in high regard. Premananda himself was convicted of multiple rapes and murders in 1997.
“He should have asked for more houses and rehabilitation packages for Tamils from the Indian PM. Or he should have raised the issue of fishermen, where our men suffer because of the south Indian fishing trawlers. Instead, he asked for something which has nothing to do with his chief ministership,” says Douglas Devananda, leader of Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and member of the Sri Lankan Parliament.
Every time fingers are pointed at his poor administration, Wigneswaran blames Colombo for not giving enough powers to the Northern Provincial Council. But according to Devananda, he returned 80 per cent of the funds allocated by Colombo for the development of the Northern Province.
His detractors say that he has done nothing for the sectors he is in charge of as the CM. “Sectors such as health, education, agriculture, fisheries and industries are in his hands. What work has he done?” asks Senathirajah.
Wigneswaran better have the answers before the provincial council elections next year.
THE ‘UNLUCKY’ 13TH
The major bone of contention between the Northern Province and the central government is the 13th Amendment, a product of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord
It establishes provincial councils. Also prescribes devolution of powers related to land, police, health, education, finances, tax collection, housing and construction to the provincial councils
The reality, to date, is different. For instance, the central government continues to formulate policy with regard to land use. All major financial powers and imposition or abolition of tax lie also with the Centre. And so does law and order, and national security
Wigneswaran wants devolution of powers in every sector.