16 June 2016

Alavi Mowlana’s other ‘departure’ in 2001

Ramzeen Azeez  remembers Alavi Mowlana thus: “He came for my daughter's wedding and for once, sat down to dinner. So I said to him ‘so good to see you at the table Sir’. He replied ‘yes, I normally meet, greet and retreat, but today I've got to sit and eat’.”

Alavi was a party man, but more than that a trade unionist.  He lived long enough to witness party-loyalty become a joke and died at a time when color, symbol and party name count for very little.   He’s left the party now, in many ways.  I remember the one and only time when I had a conversation with Alavi Mowlana.  It was another ‘departure-moment’.   

December 2001.  The United National Party had won the General Election and the leader of the defeated People’s Alliance had fewer slots in the National List to pass around.  Two prominent politicians were denied, Alavi Mowlana and Batty Weerakoon, the former a trade union leader and the latter the leader of the LSSP.

Batty took it hard and proved to be a poor heir to the likes of NM, Leslie and Edmund.  Not surprising because he had been a minister in the most right-wing Government since Independence and had been among the most vocal of its defenders.   I predicted then that Batty was destined to become the last LSSP functionary to wander in the political wilderness.  Tissa Vitharana proved me wrong. 

What was pertinent was the stark difference between Alavi and Batty when it came to responding to the decision of the coalition leader Chandrika Kumaratunga.  I wrote about both.  Alavi, I interviewed, Batty I did not.  Alavi deserves applause, I argued.  As for Batty, my comment carried the title ‘The politics of disgrace’.  [The full piece is here]

Alavi is gone.  He will be remembered as a one of a kind trade union leader and as a parliamentary poet – rhyme and reason came to him easily and most importantly he could make them complement one another. 

Alavi said it all at Ramzeen’s daughter’s wedding.  It was “meet, greet and retreat”.  He did what he could and did it without complaint or fanfare.  He was a do-what-needs-to-be-done kind of man. Rare.

Reproduced below is the short note on Alavi Mowlana published in the Sunday Island (December 16, 2001).  It is a short tribute of sorts to a colorful man whose color preferences never discolored his principles.   

Time was when men and women of character graced our parliament. A steady erosion of ethics in the political arena has seen some of the worst social misfits taking seat in that supposedly august chamber. Small wonder that true democrats like Dallas Alahapperuma chose to "retire" rather than live the lie that "representatives" are called upon to live.

We have got used to the post-election scramble for National List seats in the two main parties. First of all, as the algebra of our politics goes awry, the representatives of constituent parties in the now necessary coalition have to be accommodated. Then the bought-over/crossed-over candidates have to be looked after. Finally the loyalists who were rejected by the voters have to be found alternative employment.

It is obviously easier for the party that wins because when you are in power there are countless "slots" where disappointment can be made to dissolve into grudging gratitude. This is how corporations and ambassadorial posts are transformed into bargaining chips when soliciting political support from small/minority parties.

The losers don’t have it that easy, naturally. To begin with, inevitably they have less slots to play with. They too have small/minority party pals to please. Hard choices have to be made in order to figure out which loyalists to favour. Chandrika Bandaranaike quickly filled up that quota. She had to leave out many people. Among them Alavi Mowlana who was overlooked while a couple of people who had lost and were non-entities in our political life were accommodated.

Alavi Mowlana, former Labour Minister and veteran SLFP trade unionist was offered a consolation prize, the post of Western Province Governor and this through the President’s Secretary. Someone was sadly lacking in the area of common courtesy. Most people would have grabbed it without batting an eyelid, in such times as these. Alavi refused. He chose honour; loyalty to a life long commitment to the dispossessed. He refused to "let down the side", insisting that he would stand by the party even if everyone else leaves, referring to moves by some stalwarts to join the UNF in a government of national reconciliation.

Alavi’s explanation was simple. He did not think the post of Governor suited a person who had committed himself to trade union activity for nearly five decades. Instead he chose to go back to his old union office in the SLFP headquarters in T. B. Jayah Mawatha to "negotiate, mediate, meditate and agitate".

"I have never governed and don’t want either myself or my workers governed," he said. He pointed out that all his life he had demanded and had been often "remanded by the high command". "A mudalali is a mudalali even if he goes bankrupt. I will always be a trade unionist".

He certainly did not lack reasons to feel betrayed. After all he has stood with the party leadership through the leanest periods of its history, has been attacked in countless demonstrations, and suffered immense personal loss. He has borne all this with a dignity and stoicism that is extremely rare, especially among parliamentarians. It would be hard indeed to find anyone who holds a grudge against the man. While many around him abused power and amassed wealth through all kinds of nefarious activities, Alavi concentrated on doing his job and being loyal to the people his party was said to represent.

He even had nice things to say about the President who would have had some say in who was "in" and who was "out": "Of course there were lapses, but to the President’s credit, she has tried to prevent collapse, tried to hold the party together". He blamed those whom he called "Tin-pot Hitlers" who he alleged put their self interests ahead of the interests of the party. He blamed them for having dropped people like Batty Weerakoon from the national list. "I am not talking about the relative strengths of the coalition partners, but we have to hold them together". It is so like Alavi to be generous.

In the couple of hours that I was with him, our conversation was interrupted over and over again by telephone calls from friends. No one, not even those who consider him an opponent can hold a grudge against this affable man. He is clearly a man for all seasons, even the most unyielding.
There is little to celebrate in the PA. Alavi Mowlana has done more than his share in redeeming the inefficient and corrupt organisation which has hopelessly lost its way over the forty plus years since SWRD’s demise. For reasons that are not clear he fell into the lap of the wrong party. This didn’t prevent him from being the committed trade unionist that he is. He can stand proud with the likes of NM, K. Ganeshan, Bala Tampoe and other committed trade unionists. He has my salute.

Thank you Alavi, because you are a living challenge to all those hypocrites whose company you had to endure all these years. That alone is enough, although you’ve done much more than that.