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This is my Nation


How not to bluff

Politics in general and minority politics in particular, have taken a turn for the worse. The two major minority parties, apart from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which some argue is a proxy for the LTTE, the CWC and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) have been playing a deplorable game of wanting to stay in power at the cost of policies and principles.
A minority party’s agenda should be the betterment of the community it represents, not the material wellbeing of a handful of its leaders. The argument, that the party must be with the ruling party, to reap benefits for its community, rings hollow, when switching loyalties for political and personal expediency, time and time again, becomes self evident.

If Saumyamoorthy Thondaman was amongst us, he would have been aghast at the events that occurred last week. But alas, the veteran trade unionist and founder of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) is no more and the mantle of leadership of the CWC now rests on his grandson, Arumugam.
Thondaman (Snr.), we know, was a self made man. Having been born in India and arriving in Sri Lanka as a child, he knew first hand, the hardships faced by his community, the Tamils of Indian origin, resident mostly in the tea plantation-dotted hill country.
Even if the Sirima-Shasthri Pact of 1964 and similar agreements that followed, redressed a few of their grievances, he knew that the community, by no means, enjoyed equal status. He recognised that half-a-million of them were still disenfranchised and cleverly saw the window of political opportunity there: whoever gained citizenship for them, would have a bonus of half-a-million votes in their bag.
He bided his time and sided with J.R. Jayewardene after the United National Party (UNP) landslide of 1977. He was given the inconsequential portfolio of Rural Industrial Development but, no one doubted his clout.
While in the Cabinet, he launched a campaign of agitation, to win citizenship for those of his community, who were still deprived of it. This was at a time when Velupillai Prabhakaran was advocating separatism in the North. Thondaman (Snr.) gently, but firmly, pushed, prodded and persuaded Jayewardene, until he won his demands, albeit with a few economy-crippling strike or two in between.
More relevant to the present context, he never threatened to resign. The personal chemistry between President Jayewardene and Thondaman Snr. was excellent, both being politicians from the same generation. Rumour even had it that when President Jayewardene called for undated letters of resignation from his parliamentarians, prior to the 1982 referendum, Thondaman Snr. was the only person not to provide one.
From time to time, Thondaman Snr. was accused of being in cahoots with Prabhakaran, mostly because of the former’s close links to Tamil Nadu politicians sympathetic to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cause. But, Thondaman Snr. did not flinch; nor did he allow militancy to grow in the plantation sector.
Since then, politics in general and minority politics in particular, have taken a turn for the worse. The two major minority parties, apart from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which some argue is a proxy for the LTTE, the CWC and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) have been playing a deplorable game of wanting to stay in power at the cost of policies and principles.
One cannot, of course, point fingers at minority parties alone, when party loyalties have been made a mockery of by stalwarts of both the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). But, even in this context, last week’s events must be a new low.
The bone of contention, apparently, is a remark made by presidential advisor and sibling Basil Rajapaksa. If Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is the brawn behind the presidency, Basil is thought of as the brains behind it. Basil himself denies uttering any disparaging remarks but, the CWC is insisting he did. Nevertheless, the issue is, did this incident warrant a resignation?
As soon as word got out of the CWC resignations, the rumour mill began working overtime. First, Mangala Samaraweera and Sripathi Sooriyarachchi, then the Jana Rala and now Thondaman and his crowd: was this some grand plan to orchestrate the government’s downfall? On the surface of it, it did appear so.
In fact, the UNP’s political mercenaries were already at work, hunting their prey, attempting to inveigle the CWC into joining their camp, the other Congress, the new-fangled, National Congress.
To his credit though, President Rajapaksa did not blink. It is unlikely that he was totally unperturbed by the events, given his slim parliamentary majority but, publicly, he merely said that the door was open and anyone was free to join the government or leave it, but that the government would go on.
In real terms, what it meant was that Rajapaksa’s hold on Parliament became just a little weaker. In this scenario, the President could either call for an election (which the collective Opposition would love dearly) or, work his charm on the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) -which is unlikely to succeed- or, on disgruntled UNPers- which is more likely to succeed.
However, all this paints Thondaman Jnr. into a corner. Resigning now would entail foregoing all the perks and privileges of a portfolio. And life in the Opposition benches is something that Thondaman Jnr.-unlike his grandfather- is not accustomed to.
If indeed, aspersions were cast by Basil Rajapaksa, on CWC Parliamentarians, and the resignations were in protest against that incident, it would be a principled stand-but, only if they stand by it. But already, the CWC is making noises to the effect that it would support the government on select issues!
This is why this incident exposes the hypocrisy of the CWC. The party’s agenda should be the betterment of the community it represents, not the material wellbeing of a handful of its leaders. The argument, that the party must be with the ruling party, to reap benefits for its community, rings hollow, when switching loyalties for political and personal expediency, time and time again, becomes self evident.
This, then, would be an acid test for the CWC. If it can stand by what it said and what it did, Arumugam Thondaman would have made his grandfather proud. But, if not, Thondaman Jnr. is likely to realise that inheriting a party leadership, as a family heirloom, does have its pitfalls.