The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has been facing an internal and external crisis for some time now, with the Northern Province Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran rebelling against the party stalwart R.Sampanthan, and with the alliance losing its hold on the electorate to a significant extent.
The reasons for the internal rift and the loss of external popular support are many.
There are ideological differences between Wigneswaran and Sampanthan. with the former being more radical in his demands and more confrontationist vis-à-vis the Sri Lankan government, and the latter being more moderate and accommodative vis-à-vis the government at the Center.
There are also personality clashes between Wigneswaran and Sampanthan. Being a former Supreme Court judge and a septuagenarian Wigneswaran feels that he cannot be playing second fiddle to Sampanthan .But party stalwart Sampanthan is used to getting unquestioned obedience from his followers and colleagues. Wigneswaran, who claims to have taught M.A. Sumanthiran in Law College, also resents the influence which the younger man wields over Sampanthan.
Then there is the cleavage brought about by the influential Tamil Diaspora .The Diaspora is keen on seeing that the Tamil question is kept alive in Sri Lanka so that its long term agenda of securing an independent Tamil Eelam is served. The radical section of the Diaspora is backing Wigneswaran and the coterie around him comprising Gajendrakmar Ponnambalam leader of the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) and Suresh Premachandran of the Eelam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). The moderate sections of the Diaspora are however with the Sampanthan and Sumanthiran.
While the Diaspora is a source of funds for political parties, it cannot be assumed that the Tamil electorate in the Northern Province is necessarily swayed by the Diaspora’s agenda.
This is the reason why the masses have almost consistently elected the TNA led by the liberals and moderates rather than the radicals.
The rift between Wigneswaran and Sampanthan is engineered also by the attitude and policies of the Sri Lankan government based in Colombo.
While not saying openly (like Mahinda Rajapaksa) that the government will not give the Tamils what they could not get by taking to arms, the powers-that-be in Colombo have not yielded to the Tamils’ demands, even if these were sanctioned by reputed bodies like the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the 2015 co-sponsored resolution of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
The independent judicial mechanism to go into charges of war crimes is nowhere in sight. The Office of Missing Persons has only now been set up, and all that it is doing is to collect information already collected many times before.
A large part of the land in the former war zone is still occupied by the armed forces. Militants are still languishing in jail without trial for years. Work on the new constitution has got stuck at the level of the Steering Committee headed by the Prime Minister and the new constitution is not likely to see the light of day any time soon.
In the light of these conditions, Wigneswaran has been highlighting the need to take a muscular approach to the government.
But Sampanthan and Sumanthiran feel that confrontation will not pay and that the only way forward is to keep up the engagement with the government, stick to the constitutional path, and with the active cooperation of the Western democracies and India, secure devolution of power going beyond the 13 th.Amendment of the existing constitution.
However, it is true that the Tamil electorate is losing patience. The support base of the TNA has come down from 80% in 2013 to 60 % in 2015 to about 35% now, according to TNA leaders themselves.
This decline has been encouraging the radicals headed by Wigneswaran to break away from the TNA or its dominant group, the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), and form a radical political party.
Wigneswaran’s own “non-political” Tamil Peoples’ Council (TPC) could be the nucleus of a new political party. Other radicals groups could join it and secure funds from the Diaspora.
Efforts have been on to form a political party, but it is said that Wigneswaran himself is not confident that the monopoly of the TNA or the ITAK can be broken or even seriously dented.
He probably knows that the average Tamil voter does not want to go back to disruption and war again after having suffered heavily over 30 years.
Wigneswaran probably also knows that India will not support Tamil radicalism in Sri Lanka again, after having burnt its fingers by supporting the LTTE earlier. The Western democracies too would not like to encourage Tamil radicalism if the government in Colombo is generally friendly to them.
This is the reason why an earlier attempt to sack pro-Sampanthan provincial ministers and the subsequent attempt to pass a No Trust vote against Wigneswaran, failed. An external force saw to it that the unity of the TNA was preserved.
But the rift remains and keeps rearing its head periodically. With provincial council elections likely to be held at the end of 2018 or sometime in 2019, cleavages are coming to the surface now.
But, as stated earlier, there is a reluctance on the part of Wigneswaran and Sampathan to break away just now. Sampanthan has made it a point to stress the need for unity, in all his speeches. He keeps harping on the need to keep up the TNA’s special relationship with India and the West and to struggling within the confines of the constitution and keep up the engagement with the government and the mainstream Sinhalese parties.
Sampanthan wants Wigneswran to close the rift and work under the rubric of the ITAK and the TNA. If Wigneswaran genuinely promises to do that, he could be re-nominated as the candidate of the TNS/ITAK in the next provincial council elections.
On his part, Wignewaran also hopes to contest under the TNA/ITAK label given its overall and proven acceptability among the Tamil electorate.
It is said that this is why Wigneswaran invited Sampanthan to speak at the launch of his book on Saturday. And predictably Sampanthan called for the unity of all Tamil forces.
Sources however say that it is unlikely that Wigneswran, given his rebellious nature, will be nominated by the ITAK/TNA leadership again. And it is unlikely that Wigneswaran will bow to Sampanthan and accept Sumanthiran’s status in the hierarchy.
However, Sampanthan will continue to voice his mantra of unity and leave it to Wigneswaran to take it or chuck it. If Wigneswaran quits and forms his own party, Sampanthan will blame him for breaking Tamil unity.
In the meanwhile, the TNA/ITAK is trying to retrieve lost ground by improving its performance in the local councils. It is also planning to agitate on Tamil issues.