‘I would be guilty of facilitating tokenism were I to accept it’

The Chief Minister of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaran, on Friday declined to join a delegation headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to participate in the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi in New Delhi on Monday.Responding to a letter from Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris — who wrote to Mr. Wigneswaran on the President’s behalf — the Chief Minister said accepting the invitation would make it seem that a strong, cooperative spirit prevailed between the Centre and the province, contrary to the current situation.The people of the Northern Province, he said, were engulfed in fear over heavy militarisation. “I would be guilty of facilitating tokenism were I to accept such an invitation,” he said in this letter.

Mr. Wigneswaran’s decision came amidst protests by political leaders in Tamil Nadu against Mr. Rajapaksa’s presence in the oath-taking ceremony.

Tamil Nadu factor

Given that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which governs the Northern Provincial Council, enthusiastically welcomed the Indian poll results, some observe that it may not have been out of place had the TNA Chief Minister decided to go to New Delhi. The reason behind their decision to decline the President’s invitation, however, seems based on another political calculation.

According to insiders in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which governs the Northern Provincial Council, many were against Mr. Wigneswaran going to India now as it would go against the spirit of the protests in Tamil Nadu. “When they are protesting for our sake, how can our leader go?” asked a senior TNA politician.

TNA leaders The Hindu spoke to said they were surprised at the President’s invitation to start with. “The Centre is yet to act upon our initial request for the chief secretary to be changed. What cooperation are we trying to showcase?” a TNA member asked. Ever since the TNA won a massive mandate in provincial polls in September 2013, the Council has been urging Colombo to part with certain administrative powers. The NPC’s hands, TNA leaders have repeatedly noted, are virtually tied with much of the power vested in the province’s governor, who reports to the President. India comes into the equation with Colombo and the Northern Province on either side, for the question of devolution in the island is closely linked to the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution that was born out of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. Soon after the elections, both Colombo and Jaffna expressed a strong desire to work with his new government. In that context, both sides have apparently pinned their hopes on the new government to take their side. Senior leaders from different parties were prompt in reaching out to Mr. Modi, President Rajapaksa being among the first leaders to congratulate him over telephone after his poll victory. Leader of the main Opposition here – the United National Party (UNP) – Ranil Wickramasinghe spoke to Mr. Modi over telephone on Thursday, it is reliably learnt from sources close to him. Mr. Wickramasinghe, who has earlier met Mr. Modi as Gujarat Chief Minister, also spoke to senior BJP leaders L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj.

Sruthisagar Yamunan adds from Chennai:

Mr. Wigneswaran’s decision gave fresh ammunition to parties in Tamil Nadu to assail the invitation extended to Mr. Rajapaksa to the swearing-in ceremony. The Sri Lankan president’s idea of inviting Mr. Wigneswaran to join him is seen here as an attempt to counter growing opposition in the State to Mr. Rajapaksa’s visit.

Senior DMK leader Durai Murugan told The Hindu that the reason cited by Mr. Wigneswaran for not accepting the President’s invitation was “identical” to the stand taken by parties in the State.

“We [DMK] have maintained that the present Sri Lankan regime is not a friendly dispensation for Tamils there. His statement that the Tamil population is engulfed in fear vindicates our stand,” he said, adding that the Centre should factor this in and reconsider the invitation to Mr. Rajapaksa.

Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader Thol Thirumavalavan said Mr. Wigneswaran’s decision reflected the mood of the Tamils across the world. “Mr. Rajapaksa tried to use Mr. Wigneswaran as a shield against criticism from Tamil Nadu political parties. The Chief Minister has managed to save himself from becoming a pawn in the game,” he said.

MDMK general secretary Vaiko met Mr. Modi and BJP president Rajnath Singh in New Delhi in an effort to persuade them to withdraw the invitation to Mr. Rajapaksa.