The Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) known in English as the Federal Party (FP) is the premier political party of the Northern and Eastern Sri Lankan Tamils.The ITAK/FP was formed on 18 December 1949. The 75th birth anniversary of ITAK 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 namely the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) moving out and re-configuring along with three other parties as the Democratic Tamil National Alliance(DTNA). Since the TELO (3) and PLOTE(1) have four MP’s, the TNA tally in Parliament has dropped from ten to six MPs all of whom belong to ITAK. Thus the ITAK continues to be the Sri Lankan Tamil Political party with the highest number of seats in Parliament.
Currently the ITAK seems to be on the threshold of a potential intra-party crisis. The ITAK’s long delayed party convention is scheduled for the last week of January next year. A crucial change of leadership is on the cards as the current ITAK president Somasuntharam Senathirajah known as “Maavai” is on the verge of relinquishing his post. “Maavai”has been ITAK president since 2014. Hence a new president will be elected at the convention to be held next January in Trincomalee.
What appears to be problematic from a party perspective is the fact that three contenders are in the fray for the ITAK presidency. The three aspirants to ITAK leadership are Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran, Sivagnanam Shritharan and Seenithamby Yoheswaran. As is well known, Sumanthiran and Shritharan are both Jaffna district MP’s while Yogeswaran is a former Batticaloa district parliamentarian.
An inner party election to elect a new leader is by itself a welcome feature . However the ITAK has from its inception never experienced an inner party poll to elect its president. It has adopted the practice of avoiding a direct contest and instead opted to elect the leader unanimously. From the time it was founded in 1949, the ITAK/FP has followed this consensual method of electing the leader.
Samuel James Veluppillai Chevanayagam known as “Thanthai Chelva” was the co-founder and first president of the ITAK/FP. SJV Chelvanayagam was venerated by his party members as the “Eezhathu Gandhi”(Gandhi of Eelam). He could have remained president of the party during his lifetime if he had wanted to. Chelva however stepped down as President after two terms and let others succeed him as President.
Nevertheless Chelva remained the supreme leader while his deputies like Vanniasingham, Naganathan,Rajavarothayam,Rasamanickam and Amirthalingam served as party presidents in rotation. There was no election as an arrangement by consensus with Chelva’s blessings would be worked out early. In 1973 there was a possibility of an election with the then Vaddukkoddai ex-MP Appapillai Amirthalingam and the then Batticaloa MP Chelliah Rajadurai vying with each other for the party presidency. It was feared that the tussle could rupture the party. Chelvanayagam intervened and persuaded Rajadurai to withdraw from the contest.
Now for the first time in ITAK’s history the party seems to be heading for an inner -party poll to elect a new President. It will be a triangular contest with two sitting MP’s from the north and an ex-MP from the east in the ring All three aspirants entered Parliament together as Tamil National Alliance(TNA) MPs in 2010 after the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) ended in 2009. All three are members of a common age group, born within years of each other.
The Competing Trio
The ‘senior” of the competing trio, MA Sumanthiran was born in 1964 and is a lawyer by profession. He was first appointed as a national list MP in 2010. Subsequently he was elected to Parliament from Jaffna district in the 2015 and 2020 elections.
The next in the trio is S. Shritharan born in 1968. He is a former teacher and school principal. Shritharan was elected successively to Parliament from Jaffna district in 2010, 2015 and 2020 elections.
The youngest of the trio is S.Yoheswaran born in 1970. Yoheswaran’s profession as well as vocation is social service. Yoheswaran was elected from Batticaloa district to Parliament in 2010 and 2015. He contested the 2020 poll but was not elected.
The nomination procedure within the ITAK to elect a Party president is for a minimum of six members of the central working committee to propose a name with the prospective candidate’s consent. If there is only one candidate then obviously there wont be an election. If there are two or more candidates , then there will be a contest unless the contenders barring one pull out or withdraw from the hustings.
An ”Electorate”of 310.
If an election does take place, the ITAK’s General Council members would be eligible to vote.. According to the party Constitution, the General Council will consist of representatives elected by the party branches and the Central Working Committee membersThe “Mathiya Seyal Kuzhu” or Central working committee has 50 members. The party branch representatives are 260 in number/ Thus the “Podhu Sabhai” or General council in total will have 310 members>.Thus a general council “electorate”of 310 will get to elect the new party president. Thereafter the president would be endorsed unanimously at the party convention.
The 50 member central committee comprises those elected as representatives at district level and appointed by the party leadership to represent special interests. The other general council members will consist of representatives zonal branches of the party. There are 51 zonal branches from the eight districts in the Northern and Eastern provinces/ There is also one from Colombo. Each branch will have five representatives each . The zonal branch representatives in the General council wlll be 260 members
When nominations closed on 30 November 2023, there were only two candidates in the fray namely Sumanthiran and Shritharan. An announcement was made to that effect However a third nomination dated 30 Nov sent by registered post was received by the ITAK acting secretary Dr.P. Sathialingam two days later. This was sent from Batticaloa on Yoheswaran’s behalf. Thus it became a triangular contest instead of a direct duel between the Jaffna parliamentarians.
Although a minimum of six central committee members could nominate a candidate, Sumanthiran had a dozen endorsing his candidacy. These consisted of four from Jaffna district and one each from the districts of Kilinochchi,Mannar, Mullaitheevu, Vavuniya, Amparai, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Colombo. Among those proposing Sumanthiran’s name were Batticaloa MP Shanakian Rasamanickam, ITAK administrative secretary Xavier Kulanayagam and ITAK senior vice -president and ex-chairman of the Northern provincial council CVK Sivagnanam.
In the case of Shritharan, the Jaffna district MP’s political stronghold is the Kilinochchi district. Although Kilinochchi is a separate administrative district, it is part of the Jaffna electoral district. The bulk of Shritharan’s preference votes have come from Kilinochchi in the past elections. As such he was nominated by six from Kilinochchi including former Northern provincial minister Kurukularajah and Karaichchi PS chairman Vaelamaalihidhan.
Seenithamby Yoheswaran was also nominated by six from Batticaloa district. Among these was former Batticaloa MP Ariyanendran. It is also noteworthy that Yoeswaran’s candidacy was indeed a surprise. While there was always speculation about Sumanthiran and Shritharan being potential contenders, Yoheswaran’s name was never mentioned. Even now there are some who opine that Yoheswaran may be persuaded to withdraw from contesting prior to D-day if he is promised the party secretary post.
Under these circumstances ,it appears that the ITAK presidential election would turn out to be a “duel in the sun” between Sumanthiran and Shritharan even if Yogeswaran does not pull out. News reports indicate that both have commenced canvassing by meeting members of the ITAK Working committee and General Council. Meanwhile supporters and sympathisers of both contenders are propagating the merits and virtues of their favourites over social media. The campaigns whether official or unofficial have not descended to low levels. At least not yet. But the possibility cannot be ruled out as the campaigns begin to gather momentum after 2024 dawns.
Most political parties in Sri Lanka do not have a real election to elect the party leader. It is done by prior arrangement and is supposedly a unanimous choice. This has been the practice in the ITAK too. But the prospect of a leadership election would be a progressive and welcome feature. Inner party democracy would be strengthened and a genuinely elected leader;s stature and credibility will be enhanced. But since this would be a new chapter in the party’s history many are perturbed by doubts and fears.. This is very much so among grassroot supporters of the ITAK.
What old timers and stalwarts of the ITAK as well as concerned observers of the Tamil political scene worry about is the dismal prospect of a dirty and vicious leadership contest. It is feared that such a duel would tear the party fabric asunder and cause a serious rupture. Implicit threats by supporeters about the unsuccessful candidate breaking away from the ITAK and forming a new party or joining another party has contributed to this growing anxiety. The chief candidates have both indicated that they would work unitedly for the party whether they are successful in the leadership bid or not.
Despite assertions that the loser would be willing to work alongside the winner after the election, it may not be possible for one to work with the other after a bitter, no holds barred tussle. The respective supporters themselves may not be in favour of such “unity”. In a tight election the winner would feel insecure and be paranoid about plots by his rival. Hence the loser would be treated with suspicion. . Besides it must not be forgotten that the history of Tamil politics in this country has been a series of ego clashes posing as ideological differences. This applies to Tamil militancy too.
The mainstay of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist politics has been the recurring phenomenon of a single political party winning a sizable bloc of seats from the North and east. This has enabled the party concerned particularly the ITAK to make and/or unmake Governments in the past. In recent times the TNA too has been able to engage with presidents and governments on the basis of being the premier political configuration representing Northern and Eastern Tamils in parliament. It has also given them international approval.
The recent break-up of the TNA as well as increasing fragmentation of the Tamil polity both horizontally and vertically suggests that no single Tamil party would be able to command a majority of seats in the next Parliament. The relatively middle of the road ITAK itself is likely to fare poorly , losing out to the school of Tamil Confrontational politics on the one hand and the school of Tamil conciliatory politics on the other.
If the ITAK fractures as a result of the Sumanthiran -Shritharan leadership tussle, the consequences for either faction would be drastic. There is the danger of both factions being marginalized. The calamity of a potential split can be avoided at best or postponed at worst if the election is negated by the contestants arriving at a compromise.
Another potential danger if and when the ITAK leadership election takes place would be extraneous intervention. External agencies and actors could try and influence the outcome with not so benign motives. There are three possibilities. Elements from the Tamil Diaspora, elements from India and elements from the Sri Lankan deep state. I do not wish to elaborate more on these aspects at this juncture but would do so if necessary in the future.
As stated earlier the election campaign has just started and is yet to gather steam. I interacted with several Tamil journalists in the north and east to gain an insight about the ITAK/FP presidential race. According to these journalistic sources, Sumanthiran is tipped to win with a slender majority. But the situation could change as the campaign intensifies. Hence it is prudent and easier for well-intentioned ITAK stalwarts and well-wishers to intervene now and bring about a compromise.
I am thinking of ITAK leaders like Sampanthan Maavai Senathirajah, CVK Sivagnanam, Kurukularajah as well as “outsider” well-wishers like lawyer K. Kanaga-Iswaran, academic Nirmala Chandrahasan and a few influential newspaper editors as people who could work positively and constructively in this regard. I do hope they would take the initiative and that the contenders and their supporters would act in the best interests of the ITAK and the long suffering Tamil people.
Divided we Fall
There are people who may think a settlement between Sumanthiran and Shritharan would be impossible. They may be right. But nothing is lost by making a reconciliation attempt. After all, let it not be forgotten that Sumanthiran and Shritharan worked as a team and conducted a joint campaign at the 2020 Parliamentary election. That is why they were the only two ITAK candidates to win from Jaffna. The Sumanthiran -Shritharan duo should not forget the saying –“United we stand, divided we fall”.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com
This is an updated version of the “DBS Jeyaraj Column” appearing in the “Daily Mirror”of 16 December 2023.It can be accessed here –