Sonia and the Tigers

Print edition : July 03, 1999

Reports about a plot by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to target Sonia Gandhi create a flutter.

THERE has lately been a lot of publicity given to intelligence reports that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is plotting to assassinate Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi through the device of a car bomb. Coming in the wake of the ruling of the Supreme Court of India on appeals by persons convicted of killing Rajiv Gandhi, these reports have had about them a quality of pathos that transcends political divisions. Perhaps the reports would have received greater media attention had it not been for the escalation of the conflict in Kargil and, to a lesser extent, the Sharad Pawar-led rebellion in the Congress(I).

There is no denying the fact that the intelligence reports notwithstanding, it is a matter of speculation. The speculation itself is essentially dual in nature. First, there is the planned modus operandi of the plotters as alleged in the media. The details provided in these reports are not exhaustive and they do retain an element of improbability. Secondly, and more important, there is the larger question of whether the LTTE really intends to make an attempt on Sonia Gandhi's life and if so why.

Interestingly, the LTTE-controlled media of the Tamil diaspora in the West dismissed the reports about the alleged plot as a figment of the Indian establishment's imagination. It was stated that the LTTE had no intention to kill Sonia Gandhi and that the reports were just a crude attempt to incriminate it again. There was a suggestion that the possibility of India lifting the ban on the LTTE had brightened after the Supreme Court ruled that the killing of Rajiv Gandhi was not an act of terrorism and that the LTTE had not waged war against the Indian state. It was also alleged that by planting media reports about a possible assassination attempt, interested parties were trying to ensure that the ban would remain in place. Another view was that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government itself was publicising this charge in order to intimidate Sonia Gandhi and restrict her poll campaign.

It soon became evident that the LTTE itself took the charge quite seriously. It is not the practice of the LTTE to issue denials in response to adverse reports appearing in the media except when blatantly violent acts affecting civilians, such as the bomb incident at the Colombo Central Bank (January 31, 1996), occur. Yet this time the LTTE issued a press release through its international secretariat in London on June 2.

The press release categorically denied reports emanating from sections of the Indian press about the alleged plot. "Responsible newspapers in India have in an irresponsible manner highlighted this malicious and baseless story with a sinister motive to malign the Tamil Liberation struggle," the LTTE said. The release went on to add: "The LTTE wishes to state emphatically that it has no intention of interfering in the internal politics of India, nor will it act in any way prejudicial to the Indian national interests."

The terminology and structure of this press release were somewhat different from those of the ones normally drafted in Tamil and translated into English. This statement was more polished and authoritative. It soon became apparent that the press release itself had been formulated by none other than Anton Stanislaus Balasingham, the LTTE's political adviser. He had been sent to London by LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakaran for three reasons: they wanted to reorganise the international secretariat of the organisation and coordinate a propaganda drive, initiate moves to pave the way for a resumption of negotiations between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE with the help of third-party facilitation, and seek urgent medical treatment facilities.


One of the first tasks Balasingham performed upon entering Britain was to issue the press release that denied that there was an LTTE conspiracy to assassinate Sonia Gandhi. This was certainly an imperative from Balasingham's perspective. Although the LTTE wants a Western nation, or possibly South Africa, to be the third-party facilitator, Balasingham, described as an "LTTE theoretician", must definitely be aware that India's cooperation, or at least its non-opposition, is essential for any meaningful talks to occur. Besides, the LTTE still entertains the hope that with a stable BJP administration in New Delhi a change in the political equation is possible. So it would seek to avoid any negative publicity at the present juncture.

Sadly for the LTTE, its credibility has sunk so low that there are few takers for its denials. The LTTE has its own logic and motivation, which defy a conventional assessment of the movement. In fact, there is a touch of irrationality about it, which often leads to negative consequences for the movement. Therefore it was not possible to dismiss the allegation of a plot against Sonia lightly. The circumstances of Rajiv Gandhi's killing themselves were there as a warning. The LTTE had, prior to the assassination, opened a line of communication with Rajiv Gandhi through emissaries such as the poet Kasi Anandan in Chennai and the economist Arjuna Sittampalam in London. It seemed that the estrangement between Rajiv Gandhi and the LTTE was about to become a thing of the past. But soon the LTTE blasted Rajiv Gandhi to death. Again, after the incident it appeared impossible that the LTTE could act in a manner that was so detrimental to its own, and by extension Sri Lankan Tamils', interests until overwhelming evidence of LTTE culpability was uncovered.

By the same token, the LTTE's denials about the alleged plot to kill Sonia Gandhi too cannot be accepted without reservations. It is possible that the LTTE may be adopting a two-track approach on Sonia Gandhi as in the case of Rajiv Gandhi. As Sathasivam Krishnakumar alias Kittu initiated a low-key dialogue with Rajiv Gandhi without knowing that a killer squad had been despatched by Prabakaran to execute the former Prime Minister, Balasingham may be quite sincere in protesting on behalf of the LTTE. He may be genuinely ignorant of any mala fide objectives on the part of the LTTE although his long association with it would have by now provided him insights into how it thinks and acts.

Under these circumstances it is of paramount importance to ascertain whether the LTTE intends to assassinate Sonia Gandhi and if so what it hopes to gain by doing so. It is no secret that the strike against Rajiv Gandhi affected its fortunes drastically. Indian public opinion, which had been sympathetic to the overall Tamil plight in Sri Lanka, became indifferent and to some degree hostile following the assassination. The ban on the LTTE by India led to world-wide revulsion against the organisation. Events in Sri Lanka took a different turn and today the LTTE, on the admission of its own leader during his Great Heroes Day speech earlier this year, stands isolated. Therefore, will the LTTE risk another calamity by trying to kill Sonia Gandhi? Again, an assessment by conventional means would result in a "no".

Rajiv Gandhi.-V. SUDERSHAN

But then the LTTE is quite unorthodox and irrationally unique in its thinking. So the question whether the LTTE intends to harm Sonia Gandhi should be examined within the framework of an LTTE perspective. A useful way of analysis in this regard would be to see why the LTTE struck at Rajiv Gandhi in the first place. There were two reasons. One was to seek revenge for imposing on it the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement and deploying the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) to enforce the accord. The second and perhaps more important reason was to prevent Rajiv Gandhi from coming to power again in 1991. The LTTE feared that if Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister again he would pursue his earlier policy on Sri Lanka to its logical conclusion, which in the LTTE's perception was aimed at its destruction. That with diplomacy and tact the contradictions between Rajiv Gandhi and R. Premadasa, the Sri Lankan President of the time, could have been exploited to its own advantage was overlooked. So great was the paranoia caused by the possibility of Rajiv Gandhi coming to power again. This is the background of what happened at Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991.

In this context, the current season is the most suitable for the LTTE to target Sonia Gandhi, if it so desires. A round of general elections is in the offing. She has set herself the imposing task of leading the Congress(I) to victory. Her opponents are using her foreign origin as a campaign issue. Moreover, some of her own partymen have rebelled against her. Besides, her party relies almost exclusively on her charisma and name to win the elections. All this means that she has to canvass vigorously and make herself appear as people-friendly as possible.

The reason for the LTTE even to contemplate targeting Sonia Gandhi lies in her entry into active politics. Had she remained in the background as a "mother figure" providing inspiration and limited guidance to the Congress(I), the LTTE may not have considered her even remotely harmful. But now it is clear that she intends to play a major role in national politics. Had she been able to muster enough support a few months ago, she would have already been Prime Minister. Even now if the Congress(I) fares well in the hustings she could become Prime Minister. In any event it is likely that she will be the brightest star in the Indian political firmament for quite a while.

This creates two problems, in the LTTE's perception. First, the LTTE fears that she will be irreconcilably hostile to it, for it feels that she has taken the killing of her husband very personally. The Congress(I)'s decision to withdraw support to the I.K. Gujral regime in the aftermath of the Jain Commission's Interim Report is seen as proof of this. The LTTE suspects that the Congress(I) pulled the plug under pressure from Sonia Gandhi. In its perception, she could not stomach the idea of the Congress(I) supporting a government in which the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was a constituent, and it was not important for her to ascertain if the Jain Commission was justified in blaming the DMK for having created conditions in Tamil Nadu that helped the LTTE to assassinate her husband. So emotional was her reaction that she just did not want any dealings with the DMK, so went the LTTE's views.

LTTE chief V. Prabakaran.-

Even now Sonia Gandhi's antipathy towards the DMK, and possibly the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), remains. This is one factor that has influenced these parties' decision to enter into an electoral alliance with the BJP. Cooperation of these parties with the Congress(I) seems to be a remote possibility as long as Sonia Gandhi is at the helm of that party. Besides, she demonstrated the strong emotive aspect of her personality through her reaction to the revolt by Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar.

Thus in the LTTE's perception Sonia Gandhi is an emotional yet strong-willed leader who will at no stage compromise on the question of the LTTE. According to the LTTE's line of thought, she will never be accommodative towards it. More important, the LTTE fears that if she becomes Prime Minister she would relentlessly pursue a hardline policy against it. It fears that she may even provide open support to the Sri Lankan authorities in destroying the LTTE and in getting Prabakaran, who ordered her husband's killing, apprehended.

Secondly, the LTTE is anxious about Sonia Gandhi propelling the Congress(I) into power at the expense of the BJP-led combine. Even though the LTTE is not a communal outfit, there is a lot of pressure from its overseas supporters to adopt a Hindu line. These sections hope to gain some political mileage if a strong BJP-led regime is in place in New Delhi. Also, political parties that are somewhat sympathetic to the LTTE, such as the Samata Party, the Shiv Sena, the MDMK and the Paattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), are allies of the BJP. So the LTTE would prefer the BJP to form a government. It is optimistic that such a development will be advantageous to it even if there are no immediate benefits. The only upsetting factor in this scenario is Sonia Gandhi, a political impediment that has to be removed.

Another development that is likely to make the LTTE fear the ascendancy of Sonia Gandhi is the recent return to Sri Lanka of ex-Chief Minister of the North-Eastern Province Varadaraja Perumal from India. Varadaraja Perumal has been telling the cadres of his Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front that when Sonia Gandhi becomes Prime Minister of India she would back him in combating the LTTE. Perumal had launched plans to expand the Razeek Group, an anti-LTTE Tamil group, into a full-fledged army. The idea was that it would be the cutting edge of an interventionist policy in Sri Lanka by India when Sonia Gandhi was at the helm.

Again, the LTTE reacted by killing Razeek, thereby delivering a death blow to Varadaraja Perumal's plans(Frontline, July 2, 1999). In the LTTE's logic there may evolve a new determination to eradicate the hindrance that is Sonia. It has also been the style of the LTTE to remove the head, or the most effective member, of an "enemy organisation" in order to undermine it. Unfortunately, the LTTE has created several situations in which the removal of a single person resulted in a whole organisation collapsing or being reduced to a caricature of its former self. So, given the LTTE psyche, it is possible to conclude that it would consider the assassination of Sonia Gandhi as spelling the doom of the Congress(I). The undermining of the Congress(I) and a consequent strengthening of the BJP-led combine would be most welcome to the LTTE.

Given the unhappy experience of the fall-out of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, the LTTE would be very careful and calculating in this matter. Any plan that it may have to assassinate Sonia Gandhi would be carefully drawn up. Against this backdrop, the revelation that the plot to kill Sonia Gandhi was hatched in South Africa deserves to be taken with a pinch of salt. The Rajiv Gandhi assassination trial has conclusively proved that the conspiracy was carried out in northern Sri Lanka. A decision of such great importance as the one to kill Rajiv Gandhi could be taken only at the highest level, by Prabakaran himself. The same applies in the case of Sonia Gandhi too. Thus it seems improbable that the plot was formulated in Durban. But the intelligence reports may be partially correct: it may be that after the go-ahead was given a follow-up meeting was held in South Africa.

Anton Balasingham, the LTTE's political adviser.-

What is more likely is that some South African supporters of Indian origin, who are extremely intense and conversely imprudent, may have been merely thinking aloud in an irresponsible manner. It must be noted that some LTTE supporters created unwelcome publicity for themselves by boasting that they were taking arms training to fight in Sri Lanka and that the LTTE had training camps on South African soil (Frontline, December 4 and 18, 1998). It is also highly improbable that the Tigers in Canada were involved in the plot. Again it is quite probable that some loose talk may have occurred between LTTE supporters and BJP sympathisers. But to suspect anything beyond "bravado" seems a highly unlikely proposition at this point of time.

If and when the LTTE hatches a conspiracy to kill Sonia Gandhi, it will be done closer to home. It may not send out a hit squad, as in the case of Rajiv Gandhi. What is more probable is the assigning of one or two individuals, with unlimited funds at their disposal, to plan out the assassination in meticulous detail. The overriding consideration for the LTTE this time would be the scrupulous avoidance of any sign of its involvement. Intelligence reports about the possible use of a car bomb or the LTTE aligning with Sikh or Kashmiri separatists may not be entirely incorrect. The human bomb has almost become the monopoly of the LTTE in this region. To avoid being accused of the offence, the LTTE may use a different method in the case of Sonia.

Likewise, getting another outfit to be involved in the actual implementation of the plot may help avert suspicion. This writer, however, hazards a guess that if the LTTE really desires to eliminate Sonia Gandhi, it would collaborate with some Hindu nationalist-fanatical organisation. Given the xenophobic frenzy whipped up in certain quarters, it would not be difficult to find some high-strung person who is determined to serve his or her "Bharat" by trying to kill Sonia Gandhi. It is in the interests of the LTTE to identify and cultivate such a person and utilise him or her as a willing assassin. There is of course the possibility that some other agency, which has no connection with the LTTE, may be planning a similar assassination and hoping to blame it on the LTTE.

It may also be that the intelligence reports about the assassination attempt are totally incorrect and the entire matter constituted a false alarm. However, this is no cause for relief because the potential danger to Sonia Gandhi from the LTTE is always there. That threat is something that cannot be disregarded as improbable. Therefore, it would be prudent for the authorities to provide maximum security to Sonia Gandhi and also exercise a constant vigil in this respect.

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