By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, May 28: The unexpected death of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) leader and Estate Infrastructure Development Minister Arumugan Thondaman on Tuesday has left a vacuum in the leadership of the CWC.
The CWC will have to find a leader who has the aggression and the political sense and skill of Arumugan to successfully navigate through the Sri Lankan political system dominated by Sinhala-majoritarian parties. The new leader will also have to have the iron will and the deftness needed to keep the CWC from splitting into various rival groups.
As on date, the CWC is the single largest trade union and political party among Indian origin plantation workers. According to one of its former leaders, P.P.Devaraj, the CWC is a well-oiled machine with a history going back to 1939. So far, it has had two strong top leaders, namely Savumiamoorthy Thondaman and his grandson Arumugan Thondaman. The senior Thondaman got Sri Lankan citizenship for the stateless plantation workers, and set up the trend of joining governments, no matter what its political color, in order to keep serving the plantation workers. Arumugan Thondaman brought aggression to CWC’s political culture which gave the historically downtrodden plantation workers a sense of power in their dealings with plantation managements, the Sinhala politicians and the government. Over the years, the CWC has also had very competent, educated, and skillful second line leaders.
Though the CWC has had its share of splits and many stalwarts left it to found their own outfits, the organization has managed to survive and continue to be the single-most powerful force in the plantation sector.
The new leader has to maintain the status quo if not improve the status and power of the CWC. Among those in the reckoning for the top slot are Arumugan’s son Jeevan Thondaman and his nephew Senthil Thondaman.
While Jeevan is a barrister and has intellectual ability, he is only 24 and with only a year’s experience in politics. But he has one great advantage – he is the son of the departed leader, Arumugan Thondaman. Grieving plantation workers are expected to endorse Jeevan’s succession automatically, as per the South Asian political tradition.
His supporters say that Jeevan’s lack of experience can be compensated by putting together a band of experienced second line leaders. Further, the officials of the CWC, being experienced and competent, need not look to a leader for directions on a day to day basis. This should make up for Jeevan’s inexperience.
The other candidate for the top post is Senthil Thondaman, who besides being a nephew of Arumugan Thondaman, has ten years’ experience in politics and has been a minister in the Uva Province. Senthil is close to the ruling Rajapaksa clan as he had had an excellent personal relationship with Sashindra Rajapaksa, who was Uva Chief Minister when the current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was President of Sri Lanka. Through Sashindra, Senthil was able to get many of his ministerial projects sanctioned by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. Senthil has continued to maintain close relations with the Rajapaksas. Currently, he coordinates Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s dealings with the plantation sector.
It is significant that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was the first top Lankan leader to rush to the Thalangama Hospital on hearing about Arumugan Thondaman’s death.
But Senthil Thondaman has one handicap. In contrast to Jeeevan Thondaman, Senthils s political arena is, and has been, Badulla district in the Uva Province and not in the Indian Origin Tamil heartland, Nuwara Eliya district in the Central Province. Most of the top leaders of the CWC have come from Nuwara Eliya district which also sends the largest number of Indian Origin Tamils to parliament. Sources say that Senthil may want to shift to Nuwara Eliya district. In that case, he will clash with Jeevan. And that may result in a split in the CWC in Nuwara Eliya.
It is also said that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa could acquire a role in determining who will lead the CWC. Given the close relations he has maintained with Senthil Thondaman, Rajapaksa might back him. However, if CWC members cast their lot with Jeevan, Mahinda Rajapaksa will extend support to him as he is interested in helping the CWC maintain its unity and integrity. The CWC is a key pillar support for the Rajapaksas among Indian Origin Tamils in the plantations.