Upcountry Tamil politics after Thonda

By N Sathiya Moorthy

The untimely death of Minister and CWC trade union-cum-party boss S Arumugan Thondaman at a relatively young age of 56 has left a void that is irreplaceable, and most definitely in the immediate term. Coming in the midst of the parliamentary polls (whenever held, as per court orders) can twist the tale either way, and possibly set the tone for the future course of Upcountry Tamil politics in the medium and long terms.

In the moderates’ politics of Upcountry Tamils, the Thondamans, starting with Arumugan’s respected grandfather Soumiamoorthy, represented an even more passive face and phase, through and through. Arumugan’s compatriot and competitor in Upcountry Tamil politics, former minister Mano Ganesan was frank and apt in claiming that between them two, they formed a double-barrel gun, fighting for the same cause.

Mano Ganesan did not stop there. He readily conceded, in his condolence message, that the two of them also took different routes to reach the same destination. That was the truth. With that, his ‘double-barrel gun’ parallel, which otherwise should be firing in the same direction and at the same target, falls flat, just owing to this simple justifiable reason.

Ego and more

There are multiple political parties in the three minority ethnicities in the country, including the Upcountry Tamils, also known as Indian origin Tamils (IOT) ad ‘Malayaha Tamils’. The cannot afford as many divisions as there are already. Much of it owes to personality clashes and ego-trips. This is true of the Sri Lankan Tamil and Muslim polity as well.

There is however some truth that the divisions also owe to the methodological differences among these parties, in terms of fighting for their respective communities’ demands. This was true of the Upcountry Tamil polity, too. The CWC, or Ceylon Workers Congress, identified with the Thondamans took the moderate, co-optional route of working with the government of the day, to be able to achieve for their people whatever was possible under a given circumstance.  Mano Ganesan and others leading such other political parties opted for taking the issue to their people – and at times to the street.

Yet, they could have worked together for the common good of their people. That did not happen, also because the Thondaman-centric politics, especially in young Arumugan’s times, was not acceptable to the rest. Considering that his father V P Ganesan too was an Upcountry Tamil trade union leader of some standing, Mano and brother Prabha – now, both politically estranged, too – would have found it even more difficult to accept Arumuga Thondaman as their sole leader.

At the end of the day, there was/is enough political and electoral space for so many of them to flourish, contest and win elections and also occupy ministerial positions. In recent times, not all Upcountry Tamil parties and leaders could stay and support the same government, as the multiple Muslim parties have been able to do. This was/is so even when independent parties and individual leaders had carved out a niche constituency for themselves within the Upcountry Tamil regions, starting with the suburbs of capital Colombo and district.

So, when post-war, behind-the-scene, informal efforts to bring all Upcountry Tamil parties to come together and work together did not bear fruits. The question was not who should blink first, how and when. It included suggestions like who (all) should not be there in such a combo. Yet, even the preliminary steps could not be followed through to the next immediate stage.

After Arumugan, who?

In these days after Arumugan’s passing away, the question has already been asked and answered: “After Arumugan, who?” Studied speculation points to the choice going between his young son, Jeevan Thondaman and nephew, Senthil Thondaman The former has just a year’s experience in CWC politics, the latter has about 10 years, with a term as a Minister in Uva Province.

At his father’s funeral on Sunday, 31 May, Jeevan declared that he will ‘continue my father’s dream’. Appropriate words for the appropriate occasion, yes. If however beyond this, Jeevan considered ploughing a lone furrow in Upcountry Tamil politics and the CWC’s affairs, he only need to look at his face on the mirror, and also his father’s past – why under the latter the party kept splitting and got continually weakened.

Under the existing election laws, the CWC working committee has decided to field Jeevan in Arumugan’s place in the parliamentary polls, from native Nuwara Eliya district. If a candidate passes away after the filing of the nominations, law permits the party to name another person in his/her place within three days.

Senthil operates out of Badula district. Some reports claim that he too wold want to shift base to Nuwara Eliya, the CWC’s traditional stronghold, still. Media speculation is that one of the two younger Thondamans will take over the party, as if the other would be consigned to history – even before either of them, especially Jeevan, had even begun his.

No analyst is willing to speculate that the two of them together can lead the party – and use the common bondage and family legacy to strengthen the CWC among the new-generation voters in the two districts and spread elsewhere, too. Following the parliamentary polls, they can expect the much-delayed and equally forgotten provincial council polls, and that is where they can work together or fall together. If Jeevan and Senthil – or, Senthil and Jeevan — do not work together and pulling along others, too, with them, they can expect the CWC to split – into more than two pieces.

This does not mean that a fourth option of the CWC electing a non-family leader, even if the question remains a theory just now. South Asian politics identifies as much families and what they represent in day-to-day politics, as the ideologies that they may prescribe and methodologies that they may proscribe. It is more so in the Upcountry Tamil community, again for historic reasons.

Role for Mahinda?

Reports claim because of longer association with the Rajapaksas through the past decade after he got baptised in CWC politics, Senthil Thondaman may garner ‘outside support’ of the kind that the SLPP leader of the ruling alliance may be able to exert. Truth also remains complexities of governance and t4rade union negotiations may put young Jeevan at a relative disadvantage, at least in the immediate future. But that is again a claim that is untested and unproven.

Yet, no one should be surprised if the Rajapaksas, especially Mahinda R, uses his good offices, to make the two Thondamans and other CWC veterans to work together. If someone were to point out to the Thondamans how the Rajapaksas have jelled together as a family, both in private and in politics and political administration, there is a great truth in it.

There is still the outside chance of some one from within the community trying to bring together all Upcountry Tamil parties, starting with the CWC, together, to take their political movement to the next stage. What that stage can and how to reach there cannot be achieved in isolation, not certainly the way they are split.

It is unlikely that anyone can expect the SLFP leadership or breakaway UNP/SJB leaderships to take the initiative in this regard. It owes to specific reasons. Mano Ganesan, Palani Dhigambaran and some of the non-CWC Upcountry Tamil political leaders with their own electoral identities, have moved too far away from the SLFP and the Rajapaksas, for the latter to take the initiative. It is technically possible for UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe or breakaway SJB’s Sajith Premadasa to try their hand at it.

Considering that they are both in the Opposition and are still fighting for the third place in national politics, the CWC especially, will have more than second thoughts. They hold ministerial positions, which is a sine quo non for minority parties in the country to be able to obtain some governmental benefits for their people, their constituencies.

Wide open….

Should the SLPP combine win the parliamentary polls, then the non-CWC parties too may come under increasing pressure from within, for the parties to reconsider their anti-Rajapaksa posturing of the past years. The reverse may be true if the SLPP did not fare as well as expected by the leadership in the parliamentary polls. Unlike the rest, the CWC have never ever had problems working with one or the other of the Sinhala political leaderships that the majority community voted to power.

For the immediate, what are the chances that the Malayaha Tamils as a whole cast their lot in sympathy for Arumugan and remembering Soumiamoorthy Thondaman in the process, this one time? Alternatively, what if they decide that with Arumugan, the Thondamans’ domination of the CWC, and the CWC’s domination of the Upcountry Tamil trade unionism and politics, too, should be brought to a sudden end? Or, they decide to stand by party identifies and continue to vote the way they have been doing over the past decade or so?

These are the three broad-questions before the Upcountry Tamil electorate, following the sudden demise of Arumugan Thondaman. In their answers also rest the next steps to the future of Upcountry Tamil politics in the country.

The game is wide open, but wider or narrower than when Arumugan was alive and around. The CWC is not gone with him, but with his passing, there may be those that had stayed away from the CWC who might have no personal reservations for returning to the fold.

Handling them all, along with handling themselves and the party’s veterans, is the immediate challenge facing the two young Thondamans, just now. They can swim together, or sink together. Only in the political survival of the one is that of the other ensured – and insured, too. Not otherwise, now or ever – or, so it looks like.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: [email protected]

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