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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

 

Thondaman's Dilemma

9 October 1994


What are the minority political parties and groups going to do at the forthcoming Presidential elections?

Both the P.A. and the UNP know full well that victory at this poll would depend on their ability to secure the largest quantum of Muslim and Tamil votes through the parties and groups in the northeast and the hill country.

Because the Sinhala vote is inevitably divided, tilting the balance of the national vote in one's favour can be achieved only through wooing those minority parties which are considered capable of delivering their communities' votes en bloc. Premadasa's politics was based on this formula.

The minority vote can be divided into three categories – the Sri Lank-an Tamil vote in the northeast and Colombo, the Muslim vote in the east in particular and the rest of the country in general, and the hill country Tamil vote. The Parliamentary elections have helped clear the confusion in Sri Lankan Tamil political representation and today thre are only three parties – the TULF, PLOTE and the EPDP, which can lay claim on the Sri Lankan Tamil constituency with a measure of credibility and legitimacy. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress lays claim to the Muslim vote – a claim which is often challenged by Muslim politicians in the UNP and the SLFP. The estate Tamil vote is still considered to be largely in the hands of the CWC despite the potential for growth evident in the Upcountry People's Front led by Mr. Periyasamy Chandrasekeran.

These minority parties – SLMC, CWC, TULF, UPF, PLOTE are sitting on a vote bank more than a million strong.

We have to exclude the EPDP from this list because in terms of the votes it can deliver at a Presidential national wide poll its influence is very marginal. The PLOTE and the UPF are not big but have shown potential for expanding their vote base.

At the last Presidential election the CWC and the SLMC supported the UNP candidate and it can be said that the attitude of the TULF and the other Tamil groups were not in favour of the SLFP in that election – in fact the IPKF's last minuteactions did its best to swing the vote in favour of the UNP candidate at the eleventh hour. The PLOTE on the ticket of which Chandrasekeran contested in '89 was mainly with the JVP during the Presidential election though it had strong links with an SLFP politician at that time.

Overall the minority equation was very much in favour of the UNP candidate at the last Presidential election.

This time however things have come full circle. The SLMC is part of the PA government. And so is the UPF. The PLOTE has pledged support come what may. The TULF feels obliged to extend its support despite certain reservations. The CWC is trying its best to jon the PA government.

Two things have helped the PA in this. One of course is D.B.'s pro Sinhala nationalist pronouncements. The other is the peace initiative. As a result of these two things there is a feeling among minority leaders that their people might vote for Chandrika despite them. This I think is most acutely felt by Mr. Thondaman. Why? The CWC leader has, in the past been the most bold and in the eyes of some a rash advocate of starting a dialogue with the Tigers. It will be well remembered how he stubbornly persisted that the LTTE was the main representative of the northern Tamils and that nothing could be done about the Eelam War without recognising the LTTE's status as such etc. In fact he had at one point even preferred to emphasise this issue at the expense of several pressing problems which had arisen in the plantations after the private management companies moved into the estate sector.

He at that time was not only motivated in this by his interest in the wider Tamil cause but by the belief that a pro LTTE line would help keep the sympathies of the plantation Tamils solidly with him. The Tigers, though not active in the estate sector, enjoy a substantial measure of popularity and strong sympathy among the estate hill country Tamils. Thonda the shrewd politician knew how to cash in on this while remaining an integral part of a government which was prosecuting the war on the LTTE.

Therefore the concrete peaceeffort of the PA government has thrown him on the horns of a politically dangerous dilemma. If he remains with the UNP in view of the memorandum of understanding with that party which still binds his parliamentary group to the opposition in spite of the recent ruling of the deputy speaker on the matter, then he will have to helplessly watch the plantation votes going largely in favour of the PA which is trying to cement a peace with the LTTE. This could also mean the end of his so called command over the large vote bank in the plantation sector.

The CWC is quite aware of the fact that there are two strong factors working against it at this Presidential election. One is the Chandrika factor which has removed the traditional antipathy which the plantation Tamils harboured towards the SLFP for evicting them in large numbers from estates in the seventies under Usawasama and other similar schemes. At the Presidential election the vote is for Chandrika as an individual and she is a person not wholly identified with the SLFP as a result of her husband's politics. So the chances are greater that the plantation Tamils whose disaffection with the UNP is yet to be assuaged by Mr. Dissanayake will be inclined to vote for Chandrika.

The second factor is of course Mr. Chandrasekeran. His party has already launched an extensive campaign program in the hill country with the full backing of PA's resources. The danger posed by this Presidential election to the CWC is this – if it were to transpire at this election that the hill country Tamils have overwhelmingly voted for the PA without Thondaman calling on them to do so, then the CWC's bargaining power and its image as a powerful and inevitable minority party would be in shambles overnight. This was the sentiment expressed at the CWC's politbureau meeting which began around 1 lam last Wednesday. Although at the initial stage of the crucial meeting the pro Gamini faction of the party led by Sathasivam (MP for Nuwara Eliya) and Rajaratnam (MP for Kandy) had argued in favour of remaining with the UNP in view of the seventeen year partnership, Thondaman had strongly favoured joining the PA and supporting it at the Presidential election. His view had prevailed as all came to agree

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15 OCTOBER 1994

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that the CWC would be left in the lurch if the plantation Tamil vote were to go largely in favour of the PA candidate.

The same thing happened at the executive committee meeting at 3pm the same day. There also a few members didn't fail to argue the UNP's case but the ulterior fear that the CWC would be reduced to nought if the PA were to secure the plantation Tamil vote seems to have finally determined the party Exco's decision on the question of what course of action the CWC should follow in connection with the Presidential poll.

The dilemma of Thondaman.

The Exco statement was therefore designed to pave the way for cultivating the PA without giving it the appearance of a surrender impelled by an anticipated weakness.

Meanwhile, Thonda had begun a two-pronged effort to overcome the crisis. On the one hand he was negotiating for a cabinet post with Chandrika through some of her colleagues. He would only settle for Power and Energy or Textiles and Rural Industries. This did not succeed because the PM was in no position to grant him any of these ministries in view of the cooperation she requires from her cabinet colleagues for winning the Presidential election.

Another serious matter was also given due consideration by concerned parties in the PA as well as in the CWC. That is any move by the CWC to join the PA by fully withdrawing from the UNP would inevitably push that party (the UNP) into adopting a virulently communal stance, which according to some in the PA might adversely affect their party's performance in the Sinhala electorate and according to some in the CWC lead to an unpleasant backlash on the Tamil community itself. It was also suggested to the CWC that in view of this as well the entry of Mr. Thondaman into the PA Cabinet should be delayed until after the presidential poll.

The other side of Thonda's two-pronged strategy was aimed at neutralising Chandrasekeran. An offer was made through one of Thonda's confidantes, Mr. Kandasamy Naidu – a Vice President of the CWC – to Chandrasekeran that he could rejoin the CWC and as its General Secretary. The offer was duly conveyed to Chandrasekeran's colleague Mr. B.A. Cader by a mutual friend at a dinner at Temple Trees two weeks ago. Later on it was suggested through the same channel that the CWC leader was prepared to create the post of deputy president with powers almost equal to that of the president of the CWC for taking in Chandrasekeran. This move was considered by some to be aimed at killing two birds with one stone. However, the UPF leadership seems to be quite wary of Thonda's offer.

The worry uppermost in the minds of the pro-PA leaders in the CWC like Kandasamy, is that if the CWC were to remain long with the losing side (the UNP), it could simply crumble to pieces once Thonda is gone from the scene. The Sathasivam faction will pull in one direction and the UPF in another. Thonda's grandson Arumugan, they are all so sure, will settle down in India to look after his lucrative business concerns there.

But whatever the purity of their intention they still refuse to come to terms with the fact that Thonda is stubbornly presiding over the decline and mess that he himself has created. This then is the undeplorable tragedy of the Ceylon Workers' Congress.

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