By M.S.Shah Jahan
On Friday August 27th, the day the “Athi Uyar Peedam” or High Command of the SLMC met at the party headquarters “Darussalam” in Colombo, in a “Ifthar” [breaking fast] function –not breakfast, I happened to meet a sitting Muslim Congress Member of Parliament who is well known to me for the last two decades and presently defined as one of the “trios”, and said “it looks you all are going to go”. He smiled and replied “what to do, he will be in power for the next 12 years”. This MP skipped the High Command meeting.
In 2004, I bumped into a breakaway former SLMC nominated MP, a lawyer turned politician who is now a diplomat in a Middle Eastern country, in Trichy, Tamilnadu airport. He was going to the Southern part of Tamilnadu to attend the wedding of a daughter of a prominent business magnate in Dubai.
I took him to the hotel I was booked to stay and while we were chatting about SL politics, he said “Madam [Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge] asked me, why Muslims are so much with the UNP even though we have done a lot for them?”. “Madam, trade is the main source of living for Muslims. UNP does not interfere with trade and private life but the socialistic policies of the SLFP cause hindrance to their life” was his reply.
An example is, Dr.Badiuddin Mahmud who did yeoman service to the Muslim community, as the Minister of Education in Madam Sirimao’s government, contested the General election of 1977 on SLFP ticket in the Eastern province with the desire to be elected by overwhelming Muslim voters to stand for them through thick and thin. But he was defeated by least known Fareed Meera Lebbei of UNP.
Three years ago when I hosted ‘the right and left hands of Rauf Hakeem’ [as described by DBS] and Hakeem for a dinner in India, I told Hakeem that his ties with the UNP will be acceptable to the majority of Muslims. He nodded.
Few months before the helicopter crash on 16th September 2000, late leader M.H.M. Ashraff came to my house for a dinner along with “Kavikko” Abdul Rahman, a poet from Tamilnadu who is a close friend of Tamilnadu Chief Minister M.Karunanithi, and D. Eswaran, a business man and Consol for the Republic of Mauritius. We discussed politics of Sri Lanka and across the Palk Straits. As Kavikko and I were arguing on Tamilnadu politics, Ashraff admired my knowledge of current affairs of India.
At one point Ashraff told me that he intended to resign from Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government as relationship between he and the “Madam” had become strained. I was alarmed and advised negatively. “Do not resign. If you are dissatisfied with her, act in a way that she herself ousts you. Then only you can gain sympathy from the masses. A resignation on a conflict of policy will not go much with people. MGR’s [a late Tamilnadu Chief Minister -actor cum politician] phenomenon rise was based on the sympathy wave.” He did not resign.
Before he departed, holding the door and with one leg inside in his Volvo, he invited me to come as an advisor to NUA –National Unity Alliance, another multi ethnical political party he formed to broad base his political career. I smiled and said nothing. It meant sorry. Subsequently this was my last conversation with him. It is to be noted here, Ashraff made Hakeem to resign from SLMC and he obliged without reservation. Then in a week he was put into shoulder the NUA.
When my wife called me to Bangkok and briefed about Ashraff’s helicopter crash I was dumbfound and saddened beyond comparison. My mind was haunting with the thought ‘is it because of me? Would not he have avoided the helicopter ride if he had got out of the cabinet?’ In a way it could have been true. I keep the handkerchief he left behind in my house in his memory. Further it was I who in 1991 suggested to Shankar Anna or Ananthi Sooriyapragasam of BBC’s Tamil service to contact Ashraff also for matters concerned to Lankan Muslims and Eastern province.
On Saturday 4th September I mentioned about DBJ’s article in a local daily to a former SLMC Municipal Councilor of Colombo, a lawyer [interestingly most of Ashraff’s front line buddies were his law college mates] from Malay ethnicity and asked him, ‘could not have this chaos been avoided had Ashraff supported the UNP in 1994’?.
He said what Ashraff explained in the politburo in today’s “Darussalam” which was an old house, that being a minority party, they had to support either of the Sinhalese party and UNP was in disarray at that time with Premadasa’s death and squabble between Gamini Dissanayake and Ranil Wickramasinghe. Further incumbent President D.B.Wijetungha’s remark against the minorities also prompted him to be away from the UNP.
In personal life, though Ashraff’s proximity to a Chennai’s Tamil actress with Sinhala blood was not much exposed, Hakeem’s link with a Sinhala divorcee came to light prominently and cast a dark cloud over that threatened to eclipse his political career, but he came out miraculously. This made his opponents, former SLMC rebels to hammer him harder.
By the way, the problems the present SLMC leader Hakeem faces are immense. First of all, SLMC derives its strength from the East though it has reasonable support all over the island. As long as Ashraff, a son of the soil, was in the throne, his words were gospel and everybody was obedient. The ship had a smooth sail under the Minister of Ports. But the curse with SL politics is, every Tom and Harry has leadership ambition regardless to whether he/she is qualified or capable. This was what disturbed Premadasa’s presidency too. His opponents though matured were impatient.
The growth of SLMC made Eastern politicians over enthusiastic with a dizzy head. Murky lambs that were not known outside their own electorates also wanted to grab the throne the lion sat. Hakeem, despite of his efficiency, talent and contribution to the party was marked as an “outcast” – an outsider from the hill country who should not make any claims. That way the Congress was not for Muslims but for Easterners.
Policy based politics in Lanka has become a thing of the past – antique. The day leaders sold their own properties to run parties are gone. Power and profit are the main goals today. In simple word politics has become a business. You approach them for anything, there is a fee. That way SLMC’s trauma is also chiefly based on profit motivated second ranked politicians.
The representation electoral system what JRJ introduced only gave the Minority parties including the SLMC a bumper harvest and a big say with the major parties as king makers. No doubt SLMC commanded immense influence.
Today’s UNP has more problems in hand than in 1994. Ranil is more of an unlucky statesman than a politician. He has vision but blind to see how and where the wind blows. Also he has a bad nose that does not smell. A wrong person is in the wrong place. If he were a real politician, regardless to the consequences, he should have toppled Chandika’s 1994 government that hung on one seat majority with Upcountry’s Chandrasekaran.
Or else he should have taken protective measures in 2002 for Chandrika not to dissolve his government. He proved to be a statesman. Thanks to the LTTE that decimated more of Lanka’s talented politicians. Today’s confused and unorganized state of affairs is also mainly due to lack of good politicians in the country who are dead and gone by nature or bombs.
The LTTE though got eradicated finally, succeeded in its aim to rock the boat or bring unstable political climate to Lanka. If Gamini had survived, it is doubtful whether Chandrika could have captured power which has led to 11+4 years of SLFP rule and, as the one of the “trios” said, another 12 or more years of power.
The direction less situation in the UNP also must have prompted the SLMCers to cross the bridge rather than idling in the bank of the river for too long with Ranil. Ashraff wanted to resign from the SLFP government. Hakeem was once sacked and later withdrew from the SLFP cabinet. Now the SLMC has one leg here and one leg there. But it is believed before the end of the year SLMC will have both legs there. Many of SLMC’s former rebels lost election and the few in the cabinet also are now voiceless or noiseless. Their importance is gone. Therefore time only will tell whether SLMC’s decision is right or wrong.
Any way it is ugly for politicians to join the winning team after blackguarding the other side in the election. The voters who voted for them cast their votes for the party only. Presently there is no politician among us who can win an election independently without party support. MR and Ranil may be exceptional. Let us wait and see how the chess game of Lankan politics progress.