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
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
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
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