TamilWeek, Oct 16 - 22, 2005
SLMC Becoming dominant Muslim political force again

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

It's renaissance time again for the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress!

Plagued by internal dissensions and defections in recent times  the party was  in the
doldrums.

If the vicious criticism against the SLMC leader by his political rivals was a proper
measure to go by then the leadership days of Rauff Hakeem seemed  numbered.
Much of the anti - Hakeem venom was mouthed not by long - standing enemies  but by
the  friend turned foes , consisting of SLMC dissidents and defectors.

Politics however is dynamic. The wheel turns full cycle often. It is now turning once
again to the advantage of Rauff Hakeem. The Muslim Congress  is hitched to to Ranil
Wickremasinghes star. If the success of recent UNP - SLMC  election meetings in the
North - East is anything to go by then the mood is certainly on the upbeat.

Rauff is on a roll. Speaking confidently at well attended Muslim mass meetings he talks
proudly of the deal he has entered into with Wickremasinghe. The electoral divisions
of  Kalmunai, Sammanthurai and Pottuvil will be redemarcated together as a separate
administrative district. An equitable scheme of tsunami rehabilitation will be set up
where the Muslims will receive their rightful due and also control the process in Muslim
areas. When peace talks begin the Muslims will be given third party status. No deal will
be done without Muslim consent. Powers to be devolved to Tamil areas will also be
devolved to Muslim majority areas. A territorially non - contiguous Muslim majority
council may be on the cards depending on the course of negotiations. Muslim security
too is guaranteed.

With all these and more guaranteed by Wickremasinghe the SLMC leader is putting
his heart and soul into the opposition leaders campaign. Hakeem is telling the Muslims
that they must ensure Wickremasinghes victory in order to secure the political
promises made. Moreover Hakeem reminds the Eastern Muslims that the votes
delivered should match those delivered from the Tamil side. He also states that the
Muslims should win their rights without hindering the Tamils winning back their lost
rights. As for Wickremasinghe the "certain " Muslim vote is better than the "uncertain"
Tamil vote and so plunges zestfully in the campaign with the SLMC.

Wickremasinghe and Hakeem have been strengthened by Mahinda Rajapakses
undisguised Sinhala supremacist campaign. The JVP - JHU axis along with the stated
anti - minority position leaves the minority communities with a very restricted choice.
The decisions of minority parties like the SLMC and CWC were essentially grassroots
motivated. The membership was firmly against Rajapakse and his cohorts. Even if the
SLMC and CWC leadership wanted to support Mahinda the ordinary people would
have flocked to Ranil.

It is now a mutually reinforcing process. By the Muslim Congress aligning with
Wickremasinghe and vice versa both parties are riding the crest of wave. Both sides
benefit. Since this tie- up will continue till Parliamentary elections further electoral
gains are likely to be made. If the present trend continues then the SLMC could once
again prove electorally that it is the foremost and dominant political force of the
Muslims. Hakeem can reiterate his credentials as the Muslim "thesiya Thalaiver"
(National leader).

Even though the SLMC is much depleted in Parliament today it must be remembered
that the situation was caused more by splits and defections rather than electoral
misfortune. The MPs belonging to the three non - SLMC formations in Parliament are
all ex - Muslim Congress people. Despite all the anti - Hakeem and anti - SLMC
campaigning the Muslim Congress remains the "party of the Muslims" in the hearts
and minds of the North - Eastern Muslim voter. The SLMC symbol "Maram" is the party
tree around which other Muslim party crepers are wrapped around. The Ashraff magic
still works. Every election since 1994 has seen the majority of North - Eastern Muslim
MP's being elected from the SLMC.

It is the realisation that the SLMC remains foremost in the  Muslim psyche that impels
past dissidents and defectors to return home like the Biblican prodigal son. The
acknowledged "Sheik of Kattankudi"  Hizbullah has buried the hatchet with Hakeem
and returned to his "Thaai Veedu" (Maternal home). He was earlier in the NUA. Former
MPs Harees of Sainthamaruthu and Azeez of Pottuvil have ditched the National Muslim
Congress and joined the SLMC. Even Ferial Ashraff may re- join after the Presidential
election. She is holding back now mainly due to deference to Kumaratunga it is felt.

One problem however would be that though the people continue to elect Muslim
Congress MP's some of them could defect after victory. In a bid to prevent this sordid
history repeating itself Hakeem seems to have arrived at a foolproof arrangement with
Wickremasinghe. This is a major reason for Hakeems optimism and buoyancy.  
Fragmentation was a great impediment to  his party and challenge to his leadership in
recent times.

After the untimely death of Ashraff the man who enabled the SLMC to achieve political
power the leadership mantle fell on the comparatively young shoulders of Rauff
Hakeem. The  political base of the Muslim Congress was the Eastern Province.
Hakeem however was from the Central Province.

They party also used the familiar "Sympathy for the widow" card of Sri Lankan politics.
Ferial ashraff contested the 2000 Oct 10th poll from her husbands Amparai district.
Though in mourning and away from active politics she achieved a great victory.Both
she and Hakeem became cabinet ministers.

The situation was ripe for politics of inner - party intrigue and manipulation. Hakeem as
the blue - eyed boy of  Ashraff had aroused the envy of some in the party. As a loyal
deputy of Ashraff the young lawyer had been identified with the actions of his leader.
There were some in the SLMC who were angered harboured resentment towards
Ashraff and Hakeem. They never dared to confront Ashraff. With his passing they felt
confident to take on Hakeem.

Since the SLMC base was the Eastern province the new leader being from the Up -
Country was  resented by some of the old SLMC hands from the East. This factor too
was exploited by some disgruntled elements. Hakeem added to his problems by trying
to emulate his mentor too soon.

Ashraff had tolerated no dissidence and asserted his authority as the undisputed
leader of the party. In fact the party rank and file never referred to him by name but
respectfully as "thalaiver" or leader. Hakeem too tried to be another Ashraff. The
SLMC Constitution gave the leader autocratic powers in some spheres. Hakeem too
tried to be a "thalaiver" like Ashraff.

This naturally was resented. Many tried to "democratise" the party and usher in a type
of collective leadership where  major decisions would be taken after  collective
consultation. Worried perhaps that such type of leadership would prevent his
assertion as leader Hakeem resisted it.

Soon the dissidents got around Ferial Ashraff. A not so subtle effort was made to
promote her as the sole SLMC leader.  Eastern Muslim  sentiments were aroused
against the "outsider" Hakeem. The Thalaivers widow was projected as the alternative.
Ironically Ferial too was not an Eastern Muslim but like Hakeem from the Central
Province. Yet she was a daughter in law of the East and also had been elected to
Parliament from the East with a creditable majority.

Kumaratunga too began fishing in these troubled waters.She  began cutting out
Hakeem and favouring Ferial. The aftermath of the Mawanella anti - Muslim violence
was a prominent example of this. Despite the simmering tensions Hakeem could have
perhaps neutralised Ferial by sharing the leadership mantle with her . But he did not
and this exacerbated the tensions.

When the great showdown came and Hakeem was fired overnight by Kumaratunga
seven of the eleven SLMC Mps crossed over with Hakeem while four stayed on with
Ferial in the cabinet. The subsequent election saw Ferial and her faction contesting as
NUA with the PA. Hakeem tied up with the UNP. The SLMC  swept the polls . Amparai
district politicians like Athaullah, Anwer Ismail, Farees, Azeez etc backed Hakeem over
Ferial.

But  there was trouble again.. Athaullah wanted a full - fledged cabinet post. Hakeem
refused. Inspired by Athaullah most of the North - Eastern MP's began ganging up
against Hakeem. The LTTE did not honour the pact signed with the SLMC. Muslims
were under severe harassment by the LTTE. This increased Eastern Muslim
resentment.The tigers also blocked Muslim representation at the peace talks. Hakeem
adopted a moderate and sensible approach over these issues. Athaullah and co
raised the regional cry against Hakeem and also aggravated anti - Tamil tensions.
Adding to Hakeems woes was his closeness to Basheer Segudawood of Eravur.
Athaullah and his cohorts quit the SLMC on the verge of elections.

The fresh poll saw Hakeem proving a point by contesting in Amparai and winning. The
SLMC won  most of the seats again. But the party was in the opposition. Kumaratunga
needed a majority. Carrots were dangled and Badiurdeen. Abdul Majeed, Ameer Ali
and Baila  defected. One of the dirtiest political stunts was enacted against Hakeem in
the form of the Kumari Cooray matter.

All these brought the SLMC tide  to a low ebb. Hakeems stock was falling. Then came
the tsunami and the miserable performance by all those SLMC defectors who were
now cabinet minsters, non - cabinet ministers, deputy minsters etc in the cabinet.
Athaullah for example never even visited the affected areas for weeks. The shabby
treatment meted out to Muslims in the P- TOMS and the inability of Muslims in
Government to remedy it exposed their inadequacies.

The SLMC resurgence under Hakeem began with the party's post - tsunami politics. It
has now reached new heights with the Presidential elections. The SLMC in general
and Hakeem in particular are on the ascendant.
[MinorMatters-MorningLeader]
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