TNA Leader R. Sampanthan
ITAK President Somasuntharam Senathirajah
The Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) known in English as the Federal Party (FP) is in the grip of two problems. The premier political party of the Northern and Eastern Sri Lankan Tamils is presently facing an inter-party crisis as well as an intra-party crisis. The inter-party crisis relates to the recent split in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) of which the ITAK was the chief constituent. The intra-party crisis is over leadership stakes in the party. This article will primarily focus on the break up of the TNA and its implications for the ITAK.
The ITAK/FP was formed on 18 December 1949. The 75th birth anniversary will be celebrated next year. The ITAK was the leading political party of the Sri Lankan Tamils before the advent of the Tamil armed struggle. Though the ITAK has diminished in size and influence over the years, it is still “Primus Inter Pares” (First among equals) in comparison with other Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist parties.
It is indeed noteworthy that the ITAK/FP is the only Sri Lankan Tamil political party that has parliamentary representatives from all five electoral districts in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Currently the party has six seats in Parliament including one on the national list. Of these two were elected from the Jaffna electoral district and one each from the Wanni, Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts. The national list MP is from the Digamadulla/Amparai electoral district. It could be seen therefore that the ITAK represents Tamils from all electoral districts of the North-East in Parliament.
The ITAK has had from its inception in 1949 a colourful history with many ups and downs. In the new millennium the party became the dominant entity in the premier Sri Lankan Tamil political configuration known as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The TNA contested Parliamentary, Provincial and local authority elections under the ITAK symbol of House from 2004 onwards. The split in the TNA early this year has resulted in two of the three constituent parties of the TNA ganging up against the chief constituent ITAK.
The composition of the TNA itself has undergone various changes in the past with some parties dropping out and others joining it. At the 2020 Parliamentary election the TNA comprised three parties. These were the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), the Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the ITAK. The TNA won 10 seats in August 2020 and became the third largest party in Parliament behind the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). The TNA 10 MP breakdown was ITAK-6, TELO-3 and PLOTE-1.
The TNA has not been registered officially as a political party. There is no party constitution or leadership structure. Veteran ITAK politician and Trincomalee district MP Rajavarothayam Sampanthan has been functioning as the accredited TNA parliamentary group leader. Thereby Sampanthan was in effect the De-facto TNA leader. The TNA whip in Parliament has been Jaffna district MP Sivagnanam Shritharan. The spokesman is another Jaffna district MP Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran. Both are from the ITAK.
The ITAK President is Somasuntharam Senathirajah alias “Maavai” Senathirajah. Though Senathirajah has decades of experience as an MP, he was unsuccessful at the 2020 polls, contesting from Jaffna. Thus Maavai is presently a party leader without MP status. The TELO and PLOTE leaders are Selvam Adaikkalanathan and Dharmalingam Siddharthan respectively. Both are MPs having been elected from the Wanni and Jaffna electoral districts.
The ITAK has for many years been the dominant partner in the TNA. It has won the bulk of seats in the parliamentary, provincial and local authority polls. The ITAK also exercised greater control over the TNA. This dominance or domination of the ITAK has been long resented by the other TNA constituents. These parties have been frequently raising the demand for a bigger role in the TNA. It has been the usual practice to escalate such demands prior to an election. The issue is then resolved by a compromise in which the non-ITAK parties get enhanced representation in the selection of TNA candidates.
This “Valamaiyaana Vilaiyaattu” (routine game) changed after the 2020 polls. The TELO began directly challenging what it perceived as ITAK hegemony over the TNA. This transformation was mainly due to the changed electoral equation. The TNA tally of MPs was reduced to 10 from 16 at the previous 2015 parliamentary elections. The Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) a founder member of the TNA was also within TNA folds at the 2015 hustings. The EPRLF quit the TNA after the polls.
The TNA contesting under the ITAK house symbol got 16 seats in 2015 consisting of 14 elected and 2 appointed MPs on the national list. The ITAK appointed both national list MPs from their ranks. The TNA party-wise breakdown of MPs was – ITAK – 10, EPRLF – 2, TELO – 2 and PLOTE – 2. When the EPRLF pulled out of the TNA, one of its MPs, Dr. S. Sivamohan from Wanni joined the ITAK. Likewise K. Kodeeswaran of the TELO who was elected from Amparai district also shifted to the ITAK later. S. Viyalendran elected from the PLOTE in Batticaloa, crossed over to the short lived Maithripala-Mahinda Government of October 2018 and was expelled.
Thus the TNA which had 16 MPs after the 2015 poll had only 14 sitting MPs when the 2020 parliamentary elections were held. Of these 12 were from ITAK and one each from TELO and PLOTE. The 2020 hustings saw the ITAK tally being reduced to half from 12 to 6. The PLOTE retained its single MP status. Party leader Suddharthan was re-elected from Jaffna. The TELO however had a three-fold increase from one to three MPs. TELO leader Selvam Adaikkalanathan and S. Noharathalingam were elected from the Wanni district while TELO Secretary Govindan Karunakaram won in Batticaloa.
TELO assertive role
The 2020 poll results saw the TELO playing an assertive role. The TELO was elated by its increase of MPs from one to three. On the other hand the ITAK was somewhat deflated due to its MPs being halved from 12 to 6. The TELO interpreted the poll verdict as a triumph for itself and defeat for the ITAK. The TELO reiterated the earlier demand to register the TNA as a separate political party with a party constitution.
This demand had been consistently rejected by the ITAK. The TELO also wanted a change in the TNA parliamentary group positions. While Sampanthan could continue as the TNA parliamentary group leader, the TNA whip and spokesman positions should be given to the TELO and PLOTE. The PLOTE too endorsed this demand.
The TELO-PLOTE demand was for Selvam Adaikkalanathan and Dharmalingam Siddharthan to replace Shritharan and Sumanthiran as whip and spokesperson respectively. Since his position as TNA parliamentary group leader was not under immediate threat, Sampanthan was seemingly amenable to this change. So too was ITAK president Somasuntharam “Maavai” Senathirajah. There were reasons for Maavai adopting this position.
Jaffna district poll
ITAK party leader Senathirajah had been continuously elected to Parliament from Jaffna since 2000. However he had lost in 2020. The election campaign itself had been bitterly acrimonious. There was much intra-party tension within the ITAK due to competition for preference votes. The Jaffna district poll saw two “partnerships” tussling within TNA/ITAK folds. ITAK leader Senathirajah teamed up with fellow MP and “Udhayan” newspaper proprietor Erambu Saravanabavan to vie for “viruppu vaakkugal” (preference votes) against another partnership comprising M.A. Sumanthiran and S. Shritharan.
Shritharan and Sumanthiran got elected while Senathirajah and Saravanabavan tasted defeat. Shritharan got the highest number of votes in Jaffna from the TNA while Sumanthiran came second. The Jaffna electoral district comprises the administrative districts of Kilinochchi and Jaffna. Sumanthiran topped the TNA preference votes in the Jaffna administrative district while Shritharan came first in Kilinochchi.
National List MP
Despite the electoral defeat, Senathirajah hankered after an MP seat. He eyed the solitary national list MP position awarded to the TNA. Since the Amparai district had failed to elect a Tamil MP, there was pressure on the TNA to appoint the national list MP from that district. In a bid to counter that move, some of Senathirajah’s supporters tried to exert pressure on Sampanthan to nominate the ITAK leader. These pro-Senathirajah moves were foiled by the then ITAK secretary K. Thurairajasingham. He nominated former Naavithanveli divisional council chairman and Amparai district candidate Thavaraja Kalaiarasan as MP.
Though several ITAK MPs and office-bearers including Sampanthan and Sumanthiran were responsible for this “coup”, Thurairajasingham accepted all responsibility for the decision thereby incurring the wrath of Senathirajah. Consequently Senathirajah accused Thurairajasingham publicly of conspiring against him and berated him at the ITAK Central working committee meeting. Thurairajasingham had done the right thing in providing parliamentary representation to the politically deprived Amparai district Tamils by nominating Kalaiarasan at the expense of Senathirajah’s greed to be an MP. However Senathirajah’s hectoring caused the former Batticaloa district MP and ex-provincial council minister to resign as ITAK secretary. The post is yet to be filled. Assistant Secretary Dr. P. Sathiyalingam functions as Acting Secretary now.
Hell hath no fury as an ITAK leader scorned! The then octogenarian “Maavai” Senathirajah (now a nonagenarian) continued to indulge in puerile party politics after his debacle. While being at loggerheads with his ITAK party MPs on a number of matters, Senathirajah cultivated good relations with the TELO and PLOTE. This was an attempt by Senathirajah to counterbalance his growing unpopularity within the ITAK by winning over the TELO and PLOTE. These parties too seemingly played ball with the ITAK President in what was perceived as a stratagem to divide the ITAK further.
Five ITAK MPs
So when the TELO and PLOTE like Oliver Twist wanted “more” within the TNA, Senathirajah endorsed it. Sampanthan too was amenable as long as his TNA parliamentary group leader position was not in danger. But the ITAK parliamentarians opposed the TELO demand. In a show of solidarity five ITAK MPs refused to oblige the TELO. The ITAK Parliamentarians were prepared for a reshuffle where Shritharan would replace Sumanthiran as TNA spokesman and Charles Nirmalanathan would replace Shritharan as whip but giving the posts up to the TELO and PLOTE was ruled out.
There was much support for the stand taken by the five ITAK MPs among the rank and file of the party. Thus Sampanthan too was compelled to support their position. Senathirajah not being an MP was powerless in the matter. However Senathirajah continued to play a different political game. Under the guise of promoting greater Tamil unity, Senathirajah began interacting closely with non-ITAK parties like the TELO, PLOTE, EPRLF and the new parties headed by C.V. Wigneswaran and N. Srikantha. He seemed to interact more closely with non-ITAK parties than with party stalwarts. This in turn fuelled Senathirajah’s rising unpopularity within the ITAK.
After being denied positions within the TNA by the ITAK, the TELO embarked on a more independent course of action. Instead of letting the ITAK play the lead role within the TNA, the TELO began to assert itself conspicuously. Its leader Selvam Adaikkalanathan was projected as an alternative leader. The TELO started initiating inter-party discussions among Tamil parties on its own; letters to important persons including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former UN Human Rights Chief Michele Bachelet were drafted and despatched with the approval of other parties; separate meetings between the TELO and distinguished diplomats in Colombo were arranged. The hitherto prominent role played by the ITAK was being challenged in practice by the TELO.
As stated earlier the TNA was not a registered political party with a constitution. The ITAK had resisted all demands by TNA constituents to have the party registered. This state of affairs provided an opening for constituent parties to act autonomously if necessary. The TELO began to do so. The TELO began issuing statements on behalf of the TNA. It also attempted to bring other Tamil parties into the TNA in the name of greater Tamil unity. ITAK party members suspected that the TELO and PLOTE were trying to undermine them by inducting more parties into the TNA.
There was mutual dislike between the ITAK and TELO-PLOTE duo because of historical reasons. The ITAK is a democratic party that believes in non-violence whereas the TELO and PLOTE had their roots in armed Tamil militancy. These parties had entered the democratic mainstream after the Indo-Lanka accord. Besides the ITAK regarded these parties as parasites who latched on to the TNA only to win elections. It was felt that without the ITAK, these parties would fare poorly at polls. The TELO and PLOTE disagreed and opined that their contribution to the TNA was equal to that of the ITAK.
Several observers of the Tamil political scene including this columnist realised that the fragile unity of the TNA was not durable. It appeared that both sides were ready to break up the TNA at the appropriate time. The only thing holding the parties back was the fear of Tamil public opinion turning against them if they split the TNA and shattered Tamil unity. However matters came to a head with the advent of local authority elections.
Several members of the ITAK felt that the three TNA constituents should contest the local polls separately and then join together to form a common administration if victorious at the hustings. A strong case was made out that this electoral strategy would yield greater dividends than contesting as one entity. It was argued that this approach would be better to garner more seats in the peculiar local authority election system combining wards and proportionate representation. This potential electoral strategy was explained by ITAK and TNA Spokesperson M.A. Sumanthiran at a media briefing in December 2022. He said that the ITAK would discuss this proposed strategy with fellow constituents.
The TELO and PLOTE reacted strongly. A letter was written to the ITAK with two key demands. One was for the TNA to be registered as a separate political party immediately. The other was to accommodate other Tamil parties also into the TNA. The TELO-PLOTE response brought about a closing of ranks within the ITAK. Most ITAK members felt that the party should contest the local polls as the ITAK and not the TNA.
To go it alone
The ITAK central working committee met in early January this year at the Kaluvaanchikudi residence of Batticaloa district MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam. The overwhelming mood was for the ITAK to go it alone. The Committee unanimously resolved that the party would contest local authority polls separately instead of joining the TELO and PLOTE as part of the TNA.
The TELO and PLOTE struck back quickly. They announced that the ITAK had walked out of the TNA and ruptured Tamil unity. They would however continue as the TNA. What happened next was interesting.
TDNA to DTNA
The PLOTE had not been a member of the TNA for many years. It joined the TNA only after the war ended. In 2008 the PLOTE had formed a joint front with two other parties to contest the Eastern provincial poll. The name of that front was Tamil Democratic National Alliance (TDNA). The TDNA became defunct after the PLOTE joined the TNA. Nevertheless its registration with the Elections Commission remained valid.
Now the TDNA with its brass lamp symbol was retrieved from cold storage. It was renamed as the Democratic Tamil National Alliance (DTNA). The DTNA downplayed the “Democratic” in its name and played up the “Tamil National Alliance” to convey the impression that it was a continuation of the old TNA. The new alliance has five constituent members. They are the TELO, PLOTE, EPRLF, TNP (Tamil National Party) and CFD (Crusaders for Democracy). The official date of the DTNA’s founding is 13 January 2023.
Local authority polls
Both the ITAK and the DTNA fielded candidates for the local authority polls. Electoral campaigns were conducted by both parties. Both sides appealed to the people. It was hoped by both sides that the local polls verdict would demonstrate that they were the true, accredited representatives of the Sri Lankan Tamil people. Alas! These best laid plans of the ITAK and DTNA went awry thanks to President Ranil Wickremesinghe. As is well known the envisaged local authority election was a non-starter.
With the excitement of prospective polls waning, the political climate became drab and dreary again. It was a stalemate situation. Both the DTNA and the ITAK await elections to Parliament, Provincial councils or local authorities to prove their mettle and win the Tamil nationalist electoral crown. There are other contenders too like the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) and the Tamil Makkal Koottani (TMK). However climate of uncertainty prevails about polls.
ITAK leadership issues
Meanwhile the ITAK is undergoing internal tensions concerning leadership issues. These matters will be delved into in detail in a forthcoming article.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected].)