May 24, 06 12:39pm, Malaysiakini
Mount Merapi in Indonesia is still rumbling but volcano Samy Vellu erupted ferociously last week and spewed hot lava on his long time rival and deputy S Subramaniam.
The flare up transformed the MIC election campaign - that erstwhile had been a quiet gentlemanly affair - into an open war.
The sudden eruption raised questions as to whether Samy Vellu was putting out a carefully orchestrated drama to prepare his camp for an ugly war or as Subramaniam’s supporters claim, it indicated that Samy Vellu was unnerved and blindly hitting back, oblivious of the fallout.
At first it started as a dispute over whether Samy Vellu told a Johor MIC meeting that former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had said ‘nehi’ (‘no’ in Hindi) to uplifting the Indian Malaysian community during his tenure.
Two Tamil newspapers linked to Subramaniam, Makkal Osai and Malaysian Nanban, reported that Samy Vellu said those words and claimed that they had tape recordings to prove it.
Samy Vellu denied the report and challenged the dailies to produce the tapes.
That dispute had now been transformed into an assault on Subramaniam.
On Friday, Samy Vellu accused Subramaniam of using the two newspapers to stab him in the back with the ‘nehi’ story. Samy Vellu said he was not surprised because ‘traitor’ Subramaniam had been doing it for more than 20 years.
Samy Vellu sent legal notices to the dailies demanding an apology and retraction and threatened libel suits if they refused.
All these drama had a familiar ring to them - traitor hiding behind Tamil dailies and back stabbing - and was reminiscent of earlier Samy Vellu- Subramaniam battles.
Samy Vellu’s ugly mood was also evident at Saturday’s nomination for the Youth and Wanita wings.
From start to finish he was spoiling for a fight making snide remarks at Subramaniam and the Tamil dailies but without mentioning their names.
Eventually his attention fell on a young photographer/reporter from Malaysian Nanban with whom he eventually picked a fight.
The photographer, exasperated by the non-stop needling, bravely walked out after advising Samy Vellu to think first before speaking.
It was good advice but Samy Vellu was in no mood to accept it.
A deflated Samy Vellu then picked on the Wanita wing. Like Merapi he rumbled on and finally, at a press conference, exploded against Subramaniam, accusing him of incompetence, warming his seat and constantly back-stabbing the boss.
After it was all over somebody on the stage suggested lunch to the still smarting president but Samy Vellu rounded on the person for suggesting such an offending word.
‘I am already overweight’, the president said haughtily and abruptly left followed by the fawning crowd.
The tension ebbed in the hall and people smiled and came alive. ‘So what’s new?,’ a delegate told me on the quiet.
‘Enemy number one’
The ‘new’ is that Samy Vellu had just fired his first full volley at his target - Subramaniam - in his strategy to present his deputy as the enemy to the party rank and file.
At this while, Subramaniam’s campaign, to retain the deputy presidency, was structured on presenting himself to voters as the ‘caring and experienced’ underdog deputy seeking re-election.
If attacked, he becomes the victim.
MIC delegates have a soft spot for underdogs and Subramaniam had hoped to capitalise on it, said a state MIC leader. "He was very careful in his campaigns to play the underdog role and never attack his challenger G Palanivel or Samy Vellu."
Just give me another chance, was Subramaniam’s main argument.
He denied a rift with Samy Vellu and promised to work closely with the party president for the benefit of the party and the community.
That’s exactly the strategy that Samy Vellu torpedoed with his orchestrated drama attacking Subramaniam and tying him to the two Tamil dailies.
Samy Vellu did not want a polite, soft-spoken and smiling Subramaniam sobbing his way into the delegates’ hearts.
He preferred a Subramaniam who was clearly identified to the rank and file as ‘enemy number one’ together with the skull and bone motif for easy targeting.
The total effect of his drama, that was widely reported, was that he had pointed the dagger at Subramaniam for the MIC rank and file to see and sharpen their blades.
The MIC rank and file are already burning copies of the Tamil dailies, attacking Subramaniam and calling him a back-stabber.
"Leave the president alone, you traitor!," one banner read at a demonstration in Kulai, Johor over the weekend.
The orchestrated drama was a classic case of a general rallying his troops, getting them into war mood for the big battle ahead, said another MIC veteran.
He has got the rank and file all excited, worked up and spoiling for a fight, the veteran said. It is what any good general would do before a big battle.
More is on the way, he said. "For what ever it takes, Subramaniam must be presented as an enemy ... that's Samy Vellu strategy."
It’s Samy vs Subra
By declaring war on Subramaniam, Samy Vellu has also made the deputy president’s battle a fight between himself and Subramaniam, not Subramaniam and challenger Palanivel, as Subramaniam wanted it.
It is either me or him (Subramaniam), said Samy Vellu, telling delegates in the plainest terms possible what the contest was all about.
That statement threw a spanner into Subramaniam’s strategy which had been to sell the battle as a fight between him and Palanivel.
A straightforward Subramaniam-Palanivel fight gives Subramaniam a fighting chance because he can also win over some of Samy Vellu's supporters by arguing that he was not threatening the president.
That is why Subramaniam had been constantly repeating that he was only defending his own post and not challenging anybody.
At a recent press conference, Subramaniam repeated the mantra.
On Saturday, the Makkal Osai - his mouthpiece - front paged his arguments under the headline ‘Samy Vellu or Subramaniam: that is not the issue’.
He played up the sympathy factor and reiterated that he had nothing against Samy Vellu and would work closely with him.
“I have already announced my decision to defend my post (a year ago). It is wrong to assume that this is a fight between Samy and me. (The contest) is between me or Palanivel or whoever that is contesting for the post,” Subramaniam said.
But Samy Vellu was unlikely to fall for this ‘we are all one family’ argument. While he engaged Subramaniam, Palanivel toured the country meeting delegates.
On Saturday, he was in Kedah and Penang and his arguments were centered on two words - change and contest - and why both were vital for a mass-based party like the MIC.
Without change there is stagnation, Palanivel told dozens of delegates at these meetings. “I welcome contest, lets have contest.”
It is a good strategy, the president tying down his deputy on inconsequential matters while Palanivel campaigned across the country making an impact.
An enraged Subramaniam called it entering through the backdoor.
Somebody might have the benefit of coming into my position through the backdoor, he told a press conference called to deny he owned shares in the two Tamil dailies.
“I don t know who it is, because the (challenger) has not been announced. But I m sure it s a clear attempt to seek a backdoor entry into my position,” Subramaniam said referring to Palanivel who had not officially announced his candidacy.
But with the president on the war path, Subramaniam would have his hands full watching his back and winning votes at the same time.
Because by this time next month it will be irrelevant who owned which Tamil newspaper or whether Samy Vellu said ‘nehi’ or ‘pyar’ (love).
Nor will the libel suits against the Tamil dailies, who are immune to such threats, deter them from flaying Samy Vellu.
What would really matter is who wins the deputy president’s post.