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Of Thondaman and Thondaman

“Thondaman (Snr) dreamed for years of changing the humanly degrading estate cooly "lines" imposed during the colonial era. He used his considerable influences with JRJ, Premadasa and CBK for change in this direction - but made little headway”.

by A. Kandappah

(March 06, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
As the run up to the General Elections takes the center stage the spotlight will be on the key players around whom will revolve the eventual result. In the nature of things under the PR system and the voting pattern of the country in the last few occasions, anything between 35-40% of the entrenched votes will generally go in favour of the two major Sinhala groupings. This will once again result in political parties representing the minorities - notably the CWC and the Muslim groupings - to yet again play a key role in the formation of the next government. A substantial portion of the votes in the Tamil dominated areas of the North-East will very likely go the TNA way. In 1988 and 1994 the CWC led by the late Thondaman (Snr) played what the Press described as the role of "Kingmaker." With the passing away of the elder Thondaman his grand-son Arumugam took over the reins of the CWC and helped the formation of Ranil’s government in December 2001 using his vote bank to the UNF’s advantage and was rewarded with a key Ministry.

Whenever the matter of the Thondamans comes up for discussion the question asked of those with proximity to both is how does the younger Thondaman, carrying the disadvantage of an age difference of over 50 years between him and his illustrious grandfather, measure up? The asymmetry - in experience, statecraft, the tough and unpredictable terrain of leading a vital trade union on which hinges the future of over 1.5 million people just to mention a few factors - at least on paper, works overwhelmingly in favour of the older leader. But a close look at the younger Thondaman’s performance both as a Cabinet Minister and leader of a fractured party and robust trade union entitles him to feel he is well suited to the mantle of leadership of the CWC and his people.

The hustle and bustle of politics is nothing new to Arumugam, who for many years functioned as his grandfather’s Private Secretary and even during the times his grandfather ran the show he was very close behind the scenes. The fact he has succeeded in several areas where the more experienced senior Thondaman failed alone should be a factor that speaks well of Arumugam’s leadership, its potential and what can be expected of him in the future.

Difficult for Thondaman

Septuagenarian Sellasamy was, for nearly 40 years, the undisputed No. 2 of the CWC. For much of this period he functioned ably as General Secretary. Affable, easily accessible "man of the people" and a crowd-puller possessed of brilliant Tamil oratory, he often captivates his plantation audience in the style and inspiring language of DMK giants - Anna and Karunanidhi. Senior Thondaman virtually hounded him out of the party due to internal party politics. The unyielding Sellasamy took the matter to courts, made it difficult for Thondaman to use the vote-catching "Cockerel" symbol and also started a party in competition to the CWC - with a name very much similar. The CWC, since then, was forced to eat humble pie in several subsequent elections denied their established symbol.

Several leading platation leaders and unionists intervened for a settlement between the feuding CWC leaders but the egoistic elder Thondaman remained adamant. The CWC remained a divided party with prospects of early disintegration. Signalling his precocious maturity in negotiation skills the younger Thondaman, using the intermediary of trusted insiders, surprised the local political establishment by causing the return of Sellasamy back to the CWC 2 years ago. He enticed his return making him - in the words of Mario Puso - "an offer he cannot refuse" - that of Deputy Leader of the CWC. Such a compromise would have been totally alien to the mental chemistry of the elder Thondaman. Thus unity returned to the CWC with future prospects of more of same in a party that boasted of 8 elected MP’s only a few years ago and is now left with 3.

Sellasamy has withdrawn all court action filed against the party. During those many years of estrangement Sellasamy continued to enjoy the support of many younger leaders in the party and the trade union - who cannot but admire Arumugam’s political accomodation in his generous sense of "give and take" that earned a gainful solution to the party’s most serious crisis. Considering the Sellasamy saga had upto that time not only sapped the Leadership resources of the party but also resulted in considerable financial drain in their depleted coffers, this settlement was widely applauded within and settled, once and for all, all speculation of the younger Thondaman’s legitimacy to leadership.

Degrading estate cooly lines

Thondaman (Snr) dreamed for years of changing the humanly degrading estate cooly "lines" imposed during the colonial era. He used his considerable influences with JRJ, Premadasa and CBK for change in this direction - but made little headway. Arumugam, in his request for the Housing Ministry just prior to formation of Ranil’s Cabinet, had given indications one of his priorities will be to change the housing landscape of his people within his tenure. No sooner he became Housing Minister, he lost no time in securing his goal. So far he has provided 2-storied houses to several hundreds of plantation workers. He accomplished this against severe resource constraints in his Ministry’s budget. On the occasion of the opening of the first of these a few months ago PM Ranil Wickremesinghe openly declared "I am glad I made Arumugam Thondaman my Housing Minister. He has fulfilled my total confidence in him. This historic achievement is one good example of what we can expect from him in the future."

Several more of these projects are taking shape endearing the younger Thondaman firmly in the minds of the plantation community as a no-nonsense "achiever." When a team from the World Bank visited the Nuwara Eliya district recently, they commented favourably of Armugam’s vision to provide against odds modern housing to the estate folk. The team was particularly impressed with improved water and sanitation facilities provided within these houses compared to the earlier unhygienic "in the open" situation.

Demonstrating he is not obsessed with benefits to his people only and as a Cabinet Minister responsible for Housing in the entire country, he has helped in increasing the "National Housing Stock" substantially through the National Housing Development Authority and other agencies under him. The Housing Development Finance Corporation alone has provided finance to nearly 50,000 home-builders throughout the country in the past 30 months and has, in the process, recorded nett profits of over Rs. 500 million during the past 2 years - a record in any State-run body in Sri Lanka.

His trade union and party must but feel pleased he has and continues to maintain very warm and cordial ties with both President CBK and PM Ranil - as did the older Thondaman with the political leaders during his time. This is not for reasons of any political expediency but is the most sensible thing to do for the leader of a political party representing minority interests - dwarfed between two larger political entities. Displaying his grandfather’s vision of 1976, he has shrewdly avoided falling prey to the beckoning bosom of extreme radicalism despite the temptation of attractive returns.

Arumugam Thondaman has much work to do in reuniting the divided forces within the plantation political structure - some of them now in rival organizations. A few of the key players have come back to the party while it is believed current behind-the-scene negotiations will deliver more of the strayed flock into the fold. The chances of reconciliation are bright because most of the quarelling leaders now outside the party have all agreed to accept Arumugam Thondaman as the undisputed leader not only of the CWC but of the nearly 2 million people of recent Indian origin as well. This augurs well for the future when the voice of the people of recent Indian origin will speak in some degree of unison in the pursuit of securing a more equitable resource allocation claim from the Centre.

(The article originally published in 2004)

- Sri Lanka Guardian

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