Nation Special

Succession stakes in LTTE:
After Prabha, who?

“After Nehru, who?” This was the multi-crore question going around Indian political circles in the late ’50s and early ’60s of the last century.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who was Indian Prime Minister since independence from the British, strode the political arena like a colossus! It was unimaginable then to conceive of a time when Nehru would be no more.

It was even harder to think of a worthy successor to this giant among Indian leaders of that era. And then on May 27, 1964, Nehru died at the age of 74. Gulzarilal Nanda became acting premier.

Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Kumarsamy Kamaraj was All India Congress President then. Under his smooth leadership, the Congress arrived at a consensus decision about the future PM.

After Nehru, who?
The diminutive Lal Bahadoor Shastri was the Congress Party’s answer then to the question, “After Nehru, who?”
Two years later, Shastri died. Once again Gulzarilal Nanda was acting premier.

This time Morarji Desai staked a claim to be PM. But Kamaraj, displaying great leadership qualities, managed to ensure that Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi would become PM. The question “After Nehru, who?” was answered well.

The question of succession in a political organisation or country becomes a complicated issue when a larger than life leader has been at the helm of affairs for a long period.

Like the absence of trees under the banyan tree’s broad canopy, lesser leaders do not sprout when a great leader is dominant.
Even if there are other leaders, they appear to be pygmies compared to the political giant of a leader. People fear that a suitable successor of equal ability would not be found.

This kind of leadership crisis afflicts both democratic and non-democratic entities. Even despots and dictators are mortal. Sceptre and crown come tumbling down, often.
In spite of exciting political drama, democratic parties and countries manage to resolve questions of succession clearly and without violence. If violence does occur, it is more of an exception than the norm.

But things often get murky in non-democratic organisations. Unless there is a designated successor who is both powerful and acceptable to the power structure, the succession stakes are bound to be bloodied.

A contributory factor to this state of affairs is due to the inherent characteristics of a totalitarian structure. Potential successors are not encouraged or groomed. Very often, they are purged or liquidated.

The leadership stakes in an authoritative entity are mired in intrigue and power struggles. Fanatical followers refuse to countenance the fact that their leaders are not immortal and viciously attack those who dare state evident truths.

Question of succession
The question of succession is treated as a “prohibited” zone. It is regarded as “sacrilege” to even discuss such a possibility.
Many years ago a Tamil radio in Canada interviewed Pazhaniyappan Nedumaran, the pro-Tiger Tamil Nadu politician.
One of the questions asked was, “Who do you think will succeed Prabhakaran?” Nedumaran refused to answer such a hypothetical question.

LTTE members and supporters in Canada were extremely critical of the radio for raising such a question. “How can you even think of such a thing?” they thundered.

An unhealthy personality cult has been built around LTTE Supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran. His sycophantic disciples describe him as the “Suriyadevan” (Sun God). Some call him a modern avatar of Lord Vishnu or Lord Muruga (Skanda).

A panegyric written by Tamil Nadu poet Arivumathy and sung by the exquisite singer Nithyashree Mahadevan begins thus, “Engal Thalaivan Prabhakaran, Antha Muruganukke Ivan Niharaanavan” (Our leader is Prabhakaran; He is equal to that Murugan).
However much LTTE supporters glorify Prabhakaran, the reality is that the Tiger Supremo, like all men, is not immortal. When the time comes, he cannot evade the God of Death, ‘Yaman.’

Like his bete noire from the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), Douglas Devananda, the Tiger Supremo is a great survivor. He has often escaped death by the proverbial hair’s breadth.

State of denial
On November 28 last year the Sri Lankan Air Force bombed one of his hide-out bunkers in the Jeyanthy Nagar area of Kilinochchi. Prabhakaran sustained very minor injuries on his back, shoulder and arm.

Sixteen days later the LTTE released pictures of a uniformed Prabhakaran garlanding a photograph of former Tiger ideologue and Political Advisor Anton Stanislaus Balasingham. It was to commemorate Balasingham’s first death anniversary on December 14.

The recent bombing incident raised several uncomfortable questions for the LTTE. What would have happened if the bombing was fatal? What would happen in a scenario where the LTTE Leader is no more? After Prabhakaran, who?
The stock response of most LTTE supporters is to emulate the ostrich and bury their heads in the sand. They refuse to accept that such a situation is possible. It is a state of denial.

When this columnist broke the story about the bombing in The Nation newspaper, the reaction of many LTTE stooges was hostile denial. In a convoluted version of ‘killing the messenger’ syndrome, this columnist was the target of a vituperative, concerted attack.

LTTE elements may “feel good” after such attacks, but the ground reality remains the same. Once again it has been proved that the LTTE Leader is physically vulnerable.
The simple truth which Tiger acolytes deny, gloss over or ignore is that Prabhakaran, like all human beings, can die. It may not be due to an Air Force air strike or deep penetration squad landmine, but he is certainly not a “Saahaa Varam Petra Mahatma” (a great soul who will not die).

It could be from illness, accident or even snakebite. One of the certain things in life for all humankind is death. But the LTTE and supporters seem unable or unwilling to accept this.

The LTTE and the LTTE’s armed struggle revolve around Prabakharan. There is no designated leadership that would succeed him. Complicating matters further is the fact that the LTTE has systematically destroyed the vast leadership potential within the Tamil community.

Apart from losses in war, the LTTE has lost leaders like Nizam, Ramanan, Kaushalyan, Gangai, Amaran, Shankar, etc., to landmines, sniping, ambushes and cold-blooded assassinations. LTTE Political Commissar S.P. Tamilselvan was killed in an air raid. Several leaders have escaped death often.

The LTTE Leader escaped serious injury on November 28. He has had several narrow escapes in the past.
However hard it may be for the die-hard Tiger supporter to stomach, the inconvenient truth is that, Prabhakaran may not be so lucky next time. In such an eventuality, who would succeed him in the LTTE? After Prabha, who?

There is no easy or obvious answer because the Tiger Leader in recent times has carefully and deliberately avoided grooming such a successor or officially designating a ‘No. 2.’
There has been a very good reason for this as far the LTTE ‘Numero Uno’ is concerned. Delving into LTTE history briefly is necessary to understand why.

LTTE history
When a few tiny groups and individuals came together and formed the LTTE on May 5, 1976, the Tigers had a command structure of a five-man council.
Both Umamaheswaran and Prabhakaran were members of this council. Uma was also chairman of the council and LTTE while Prabhakaran was its military commander.

When the original LTTE split and Umamaheswaran formed the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the majority of the Tigers went with Uma.
A dejected Prabhakaran teamed up with the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) led by Thangathurai and Kuttimani for a while.

After the arrests of Kuttimani and Thangathurai, the LTTE began functioning independently again. Prabhakaran himself was in India for a long time.
In his absence, a triumvirate comprising Seelan, Mahathaya and Ragu ran the movement on ground. But any statement or leaflet put out by the LTTE was attributed to “V. Prabhakaran – the Leader.”

Prabhakaran, who was under house arrest in Madurai for the shoot-out with Umamaheswaran in Pondy Bazaar, made a break and escaped to Sri Lanka in 1983. Thereafter, he asserted his leadership of the LTTE on ground.

The 1983 July anti-Tamil pogrom saw the politico-military landscape change. Prabhakaran went over to Chennai (Madras then) and ran the LTTE from there. His cadres conducted guerrilla warfare in the north and east.
There were different regional commanders but Ravindran, alias Pandithar, a childhood friend of Prabhakaran, was in overall charge of both provinces.

Pandithar, based in Jaffna, was also both the military commander and political commissar for the district. He was the accredited LTTE ‘Vice Captain.’

Pandithar was killed in Atchuvely in January 1985. Thereafter Prabhakaran did not appoint an overall north east commander. Instead, he maintained contact with each individual regional commander. They were all equals. There was no first among equals.
One reason for this was the LTTE Leader’s caution. He did not want any single regional commander to become all powerful and pose a possible challenge to him in the future.

It was also easier to promote healthy competition among individual regional commanders. Besides, all of them reported directly to him via wireless communication and took orders only from him.
Prabhakaran returned to Sri Lanka in January 1987 and directed LTTE operations on ground.

Number 2
It was in 1987 July that Prabhakaran nominated a de jure ‘No. 2.’ This was none other than Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah, alias Mahathaya, who was until then the Wanni regional commander.
Prabhakaran did so on the eve of his departure to India by air to meet Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi. Mahathaya’s elevation was an act of precaution.

The LTTE Leader feared that something could happen to him in India. Therefore, he wanted someone to run the LTTE if necessary.
After making Mahathaya the deputy leader, Prabhakaran also appointed him as acting leader prior to his departure. He gave instructions that everyone should obey Mahathaya and that the Acting Leader could countermand any order sent by Prabhakaran himself from India.

This was because the LTTE Leader suspected he may be detained by Indian authorities and could be forced to issue orders detrimental to the Tigers.
Prabhakaran returned from India but the Indo-Lanka Agreement was signed. Prabhakaran took over leadership of the LTTE again but Mahathaya remained deputy leader of the LTTE.
Later Mahathaya was also made president of the LTTE’s political party, the People’s Front of Tamil Eelam (PFLT).

‘Cold War’
At one point serious differences emerged between Prabhakaran and Mahathaya. A ‘cold war’ was on.
The Tiger Leader asked his ex-Jaffna Commander Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar, alias Kittu, to return home from abroad. Kittu, however, committed suicide when the ship in which he was travelling was surrounded by the Indian Navy in international waters.
Had Kittu returned safely, he would have been appointed deputy leader and accredited as successor to Prabhakaran.

There was, however, further trouble in the LTTE paradise. Pottu Amman, the LTTE Intelligence Chief ‘uncovered’ details of an alleged conspiracy involving Mahathaya, who had already fallen out of favour with Prabakharan.

Mahathaya was accused of conspiring with the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to kill Prabhakaran and take over the LTTE. After prolonged incarceration, Mahathaya was executed.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of this charge, the LTTE Supremo felt that anyone appointed officially as deputy leader would be vulnerable to machinations by his enemies.

He also felt that designating an official successor could bring about many intra-LTTE problems. Prabhakaran also felt that such a nominee would be preyed upon by various intelligence agencies. Still there was low-key speculation about possible deputy leader successors.

The affection displayed by Prabhakaran towards his ex-Political Commissar Thamilselvan gave rise to the theory that Thamilselvan was being thought of as a likely successor. But ‘Brigadier’ Thamilselvan was killed in air strike on November 2 last year.

Tricky question
Another favourite of Prabhakaran and a potential successor was Vaithilingam Sornalingam, alias ‘Col.’ Shankar. But he too was killed in a landmine explosion on September 26, 2001.
Against this backdrop, succession stakes in the LTTE remain a tricky question. Is there a mechanism within the LTTE that could ensure smooth succession?
The highest decision making body is a central committee comprising 32 persons. These include all regional commanders and heads of different divisions.

But Prabhakaran calls the shots in this. Though a certain amount of discussion is possible, there is no vote taking. Ultimately the central committee approves Prabhakaran’s diktat unanimously. The central committee is a virtual rubber stamp.

As such, the central committee may be required to act independently for the first time only to select a successor. What an irony!
The most senior Tiger in the hierarchy is a man whom many do not know of. It is “Baby” Subramaniam, the head of the LTTE’s Education Division. He now has a de-Sankritised nom de guerre, ‘Ilankumaran.’

Most senior Tiger
Ilankumaran, hailing from Kankesanthurai, is a founder member of the LTTE. He has remained steadfastly loyal to Prabakharan.
Despite his seniority, Ilankumaran is not a fighting man. Until 1991 he spent most of his days in India. Ilankumaran, known as “Baby” Subramaniam, coordinated all propaganda and political activity for the LTTE in Tamil Nadu, India.

He cultivated many Tamil Nadu politicians and promoted the Tiger cause. It was he who established links with M.G. Ramachandran.
Under present circumstances, this Tamil Nadu connection would be perceived more as a liability than an asset by hardcore Tiger elements.

Ilankumaran was responsible for a revised educational curriculum for school children in LTTE-controlled areas. Along with LTTE Inland Revenue Chief Thamilendhi, it was he who conducted the ‘Pure Tamil Drive’ in Tiger-dominated regions.
All Sanskritised names were Tamilised. Likewise, English names were replaced with pure Tamil names. Bakery became ‘vethuppagam’ and bank became ‘vaippagam,’ etc.

In the harsh world of ‘power struggles,’ these accomplishments are of no use. Even if Ilankumaran is made leader or acting leader on account of his seniority, it is only a matter of time before he is dethroned or reduced to a puppet.
Also by nature and temperament, the mild-mannered “Baby” is not likely to pursue power or hold on to it ruthlessly.

With the demise of Appiah Annai and the semi-retirement of Thevar Annai and Basheer Kakka, the only other senior from the pre-July 1983 days who is active in the LTTE in the Wanni is the dreaded Intelligence Chief Pottu Amman. Pottu joined the LTTE in 1982. He was a ‘helper’ long before that.

Contender for the crown
All the other senior Tiger commanders like Soosai, Bhanu, Sornam, Jeyam, Thileepan, Balraj, Nadesan, etc., joined the LTTE after July 1983.
Apart from Pottu’s seniority, there is also another factor that makes him a serious contender for the crown.

As Intelligence Chief, Pottu Amman wields enormous power now. His minions have infiltrated all sections of the LTTE.
This extraordinary power and influence makes Pottu Amman the favourite in LTTE succession stakes. Already Pottu Amman acts like a de facto deputy leader. It would not be difficult to be de jure leader after Prabakharan

He is regarded as a staunch Prabhakaran loyalist and acts as the cat’s paw of the Tiger Supremo.
The only man who could have effectively challenged Pottu Amman for leadership was former Batticaloa-Ampara Commander Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan, alias Karuna Amman.

Both of them were blue-eyed boys of the big boss and there was simmering tension between them. But Pottu emerged victor in the battle of the Ammans. Karuna was ejected as ‘thurogi’ or traitor.

One-horse race
In such a situation, the succession stakes seem a virtual one-horse race.
Even if Pottu Amman takes over after Prabhakaran, he would not dare step into his Leader’s position formally.
When C.N. Annadurai split from the Dravida Kazhagham (DK) and formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) in 1949, the party constitution did not provide for a ‘thalaiver’ or leader.

In an act of sentimentality, Annadurai said that the only leader he acknowledged was his mentor and DK Chief, E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker, popularly called ‘Periyar’ or great man. Annadurai said that the DMK leadership would be vacant till Periyar himself filled it at some point in the future.

Administrative power of the party was in the hands of the ‘amaippu seyalaalar,’ or organising secretary. It was only in 1969 that Annadurai’s successor, Muttuvel Karunanidhi, got the DMK constitution amended and created the party president post.

Likewise, it would be practically impossible for anyone in the LTTE to even dream of instantly filling Prabhakaran’s place. There would be inevitable resistance from cadres and strong supporters. The transition can only be gradual.
It would be difficult for Pottu Amman or any would be successor to ‘fill’ Prabhakaran’s shoes automatically. There has to be an interim period before such an eventuality.

Two options are possible. One is for a leadership committee chaired by Ilankumaran to run affairs for some time. The other is for a cabal of senior Tiger leaders to provide an informal collective leadership.
Pottu Amman will be the most powerful person calling the shots in either set up.

Dark horse
Arguably, there could be an unexpected aspirant for the leadership stakes too. This ‘dark horse’ could be a filly or colt from the family stables.

Prabhakaran’s wife Mathivathany is now being seen increasingly in public. She ceremonially opened an elders’ home recently.
Already her ‘influence’ is visible in the overseas branches of the LTTE. Mathivathany is the daughter of Erambu Master in Pungudutheevu.

Plum positions in the LTTE overseas branches and institutions have been given to those of Pungudutheevu origin. Their passport to success is Mathivathany Prabakharan.

The other possibility is Prabhakaran’s eldest son Charles Anthony, who was named after Seelan. Charles Anthony, alias Seelan, died on July 15, 1983. The LTTE’s First Infantry Division is named after him.

Charles Anthony Jr. has reportedly obtained a pilot’s licence and aeronautical training. He is involving himself with LTTE activity nowadays, it is said.

‘Vaarisu arasiyal,’ or dynastic politics, is a common phenomenon in South Asia. It is widespread in both national and regional levels. Can the so-called first family of Tamil Eelam be immune to this common affliction? Only time will tell!
If the family enters, then even Pottu Amman may have to give in. He will, however, remain the power behind the throne.
A collective leadership under a nominal head from the family is also a possibility. Pottu Amman will dominate such a set-up too from behind the scenes. The succession will ultimately be determined by the manner in which Prabhakaran exits.

Intra-Tiger conflict
If Prabhakaran himself can ensure who the successor would be, then the transition will be smooth. But this seems unlikely at the present juncture.
If the LTTE top guns are unable to agree on the successor, there could be utter chaos. Intra-Tiger conflict of an internecine nature could erupt. The absence of a father figure like Balasingham would be keenly felt then.

Another factor to be noted is that outside agents could decide the LTTE’s fate. The dominant line of thought in some countries is that a regime change is necessary in the LTTE.
If these countries are powerful enough to remove Prabhakaran, then it is they who will choose the successor. The successor will be a puppet on a string.

There is, however, a long-term question. Will the LTTE be as effective without Prabhakaran at the helm? The answer is “No”!
The LTTE without Prabhakaran is like the Ramayana without Lord Rama. If Prabhakaran is no more, it would not be an immediate end of the LTTE. It would, however, be the beginning of the end for the LTTE.

No viable alternative
Prabhakaran himself is basically responsible for this situation. He has built up the movement around his dictatorial leadership and personality cult. He is projected as the all powerful Messiah who would lead the Tamils into the Promised Land of Tamil Eelam. He has made sure of the absence of a viable alternative.

Like Louis the 14th of France, it is a case of “After Me, The Deluge.”
If Prabhakaran goes, the LTTE will go too. That’s the situation today. The decline and fall of the LTTE would be inevitable. The deterioration would be drastically rapid.

In the final analysis, the questions of succession after Prabhakaran and the future of the LTTE without Prabhakaran, etc., would all become unimportant because the Tigers would fast become a non-entity if and when Prabhakaran is no more.

(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at djeyaraj@federalidea.com)