By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
While parties such as the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal(TMVP), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC)and the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC) want to gain the chief ministership of the Eastern Provincial Council, the United Peoples Freedom Alliance(UPFA)led Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa seems to have chosen Najeeb Abdul Majeed from Kinniya in Trincomalee district for the coveted post.
A decision to this effect was made by a high level ministerial committee appointed by President Rajapaksa to determine the choice of a new Eastern Provincial chief minister and composition of the provincial ministerial board.
The four member team of cabinet ministers entrusted with the task of finalizing arrangements for the Eastern province are Economic development minister Basil Rajapaksa, Environment Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa,Petroleum Industries minister Susil Premajayantha and Youth affairs and skills development minister Dullas Alahapperuma.
The ministerial panel has been engaged in detailed discussions with SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem, ACMC leader Rishad Badiyutheen,TMVP leader Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan and National Congress leader AHM Athaullah.The ministers have also been consulting Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) stalwarts of the east.
When the discussions began the former chief minister of the Eastern provincial council “Pillaiyan”was strongly tipped to be re-appointed again as chief minister on account of an assurance given by the President to him prior to the Eastern council being dissolved one year ahead of its scheduled term of office. The Govt was thinking of retaining Pillaiyan as chief minister until another Tamil became chief minister in the Northern province.The Govt intended replacing Pillaiyan with a Muslim Eastern chief after elections were held to the Northern Provincial council in September 2013.
These plans however underwent a drastic change after Muslim leaders of all political hues insisted that a Muslim should be made eastern chief minister due to two reasons.
Firstly they pointed out that a Tamil had been appointed chief minister previously and so it was nothing but fair that a Muslim should be made chief minister this time. Secondly they stated that only one Tamil had been elected from the UPFA this time whereas seven Muslims had won on the betel symbol. The ministerial panel was reminded that although there were more Muslims elected on the betel symbol in 2008 they had consented to the Govt decision of appointing a Tamil then.Now it was the turn of the Muslims.
The SLMC also pressed for a Muslim chief minister. The SLMC emphasized that in a situation where the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was offering the chief ministership to a Muslim if the Muslim Congress joined forces with the Tamil party it would be impossible to convince its eastern supporters to accept a situation where the SLMC agrees to a Tamil chief minister.
The ministerial panel agreed with this position and informed “Pillaiyan” of the change of plan. He was told that he could not be chief minister again but could be a provincial minister or provincial council chairman. It was also decided to appoint former Provincial minister Thuraiappah Navaratnarajah of the TMVP as a provincial councllor to one of the two bonus seats to which the UPFA is entitled to.The other bonus seat would go to a Sinhala representative from Amparai district.
Navaratnarajah contested in Trincomalee district this time but failed to win.By appointing him to the council the Govt is in a position to use Navaratnarajah as a substitute for Pillaiyan and appoint him chairman or minister if the latter created problems.It appears that Pillaiyan has no choice but to agree to the changed situation.His only option is to appeal to the magnanimity of the President and get him to rule in his favour.
When it came to the question of a Muslim chief minister the UPFA constituent parties namely Badiutheen’s ACMC and Athaullah’s NC presented a common front. Both parties wanted MSS Ameer Ali of Oddamavaddi to be the chief minister. Ameer Ali was elected to the council from Batticaloa district. He is from the ACMC but enjoys close rapport with Athaullah.
Ameer Ali had been elected to Parliament from Batticaloa district on the Muslim Congress ticket in 2004.He had later broken away from the SLMC and was a founder member of the ACMC. Ameer Ali was made Disaster Relief services minister but lost elections in 2010.
The SLMC pressed its case for a chief minister from their ranks. Rauf Hakeem wanted the newly appointed SLMC deputy leader Hafiz Naseer Ahamed to be the chief minister. Naseer Ahamed hailing from Eravur had won from Batticaloa district.Naseer Ahamed with much financial clout is regarded as being very close to SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem. It appears that firecrackers were lit by Naseer Ahamed’s supporters in Eravur upon learning that his name has been proposed for the post.
SLFP stalwarts from the East including its Sinhala members insisted that the post should go to a traditional SLFP member. They pointed out that allowing someone from a party other than the SLFP to become the first chief minister would greatly disappoint party loyalists and set a bad precedent.
If the chief minister is to be a Muslim and from the SLFP there was only one choice. It was Najeeb Abdul Majeed from Kinniya.Najeeb A Majeed was elected on the UPFA ticket from Trincomalee district. Three Muslims elected on the UPFA from Amparai district are from Athaullah’s national congress. Three Muslims elected on the betel symbol from Batticaloa are from Badiutheen’s ACMC. The only Muslim elected from the UPFA in Trincomalee was Najeeb Abdul Majeed.
Najeeb comes from a family that has been linked to the SLFP for decades.His father Abdul Latheef Abdul Majeed was elected to Parliament on the SLFP ticket from the Mutur double –member constituency in 1960 July. Subsequently AL Abdul Majeed won the 1965, 1970 elections and was Deputy minister of Information in the 1970 – 77 govt. He lost in 1977. Later in 1988 he was killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)
Despite being a traditional SLFP loyalist Najeeb first became MP when won the 1994 Parliamentary elections on the SLMC symbol of tree.The Muslim Congress had an electoral alliance with Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Peoples Alliance then.He won again in the 2000,2001 and 2004 Parliamentary elections. He held the posts of deputy minister of Posts and Telecommunications and non –cabinet minister of co-operatives under Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa. Najeeb A Majeed lost Parliamentary polls in 2010.
After much deliberations the ministerial panel have decided that Najeeb Abdul Majeed the only SLFP member elected on the UPFA ticket should be the first Muslim chief minister of the Eastern province.The decision has to be approved by President Rajapaksa.
A major plus point in Najeeb’s favour is that he is acceptable to the SLFP supporting Sinhalese of Trincomalee district as a long standing party man. He is also acceptable to all three Muslim parties such as the SLMC,ACMC and NC. While the Muslim Congress would object to a Muslim from Athaullah’s party or Rishad’s party they cannot object to an SLFP member of Najeeb’s caliber.Likewise the other two parties could protest a Muslim Congress chief minister but not the SLFP’s Najeeb. Besides the man is regarded as an amiable person who is liked by all leaders of all three Muslim parties. Najeeb is also popular with many Tamils of Mutur.
Under these circumstances where the SLFP’s Najeeb A Majeed is to be made chief minister the Muslim Congress may get two ministerial posts in the Eastern council. Former Sinhala provincial minister Wimalaweera Dissanayake from Amparai district will be the Sinhala minister in the Council. The fourth ministerial post and Provincial council chairman post would be shared by a Tamil and another Muslim from the Rishad – Athaullah combine.
The Muslim Congress however is aiming at securing a greater share in the Government in Colomboi rather than at the provincial level in Trincomalee. It is pressing for another cabinet minister post in addition to the one held by Hakeem and two or three deputy –minister posts.
The SLMC has delegated the responsibility of finalizing matters regarding the Eastern council to its leader Rauf Hakeem who has already pledged support to the Govt while keeping up the façade that the party is undecided still.
The SLMC has abandoned its plans of going to the East and consulting party branches because membership at the grass roots level in the East is strongly against the Muslim Congress joining the Govt. The SLMC campaign was conducted against the UPFA Govt. Party members feel that if the people wanted to support the Rajapaksa regime they would have voted for the UPFA instead of the SLMC. Rauf Hakeem’s decision is seen as being a betrayal of the SLMC mandate.
Rauf Hakeem has said that the Uyar peedam (high command) or Supreme council would meet this week-end and finalise arrangements. It is however a foregone conclusion as Hakeem has the confidence and support of the majority in the 85 member Supreme council.
Meanwhile the Muslim Congress has also abandoned its pretence of trying to come to an arrangement with the TNA. Rauf Hakeem was expected to meet the TNA on Friday 14th evening but failed to turn up. TNA leaders were not even kept informed whether Hakeem was coming or not. Finally the TNA left disappointed after waiting patiently for hours.
Rauf Hakeem however was in “Temple Trees” for many, many hours with President Rajapaksa and senior ministers. It is said that Hakeem attended Jumma prayers at the Kollupitiya mosque which is in close proximity to “Temple Trees”.
Whatever the outcome of the”Temple Trees” discussions it seems apparent that Najeeb Abdul Majeed will be the Eastern chief minister. A change in this scenario is possible only if Pillaiyan or other Muslim leaders can appeal to President Rajapaksa and persuade him to reverse this decision.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org