DAP’s Bollywood drama

The stand-off between the “warlord” and the “godfather” in Penang is a signal that the DAP will have to grapple with ambitious politicians who will go all out to be picked as candidates for the general election.

The issue was sparked off by a Tamil press report where Dr Ramasamy had reportedly indicated that DAP might field three Indian women in the next general election. It is actually a good idea and might even be a game-changer for the party among Indian voters. Some even suggested it was Guan Eng himself who had asked him to look out for credible Indian candidates.

Joceline Tan, The Star

THEY say a picture speaks a thousand words and this could not be truer during the Penang DAP convention.

The “godfather” and the “warlord” barely glanced at each other. The “warlord” Dr P. Ramasamy looked terribly defensive with his arms folded across his broad chest whereas the “godfather” Karpal Singh stared straight ahead like an angry lion.

The “buffer” between them was party secretary-general and Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng who looked rather sheepish and almost like a small boy next to the two defiant and big-sized men.

Guan Eng’s new hairstyle has transformed his appearance. It has helped him shed some years off but, as many have pointed out, also makes him look softer and chubbier.

The previous Brylcreem image was outdated but it lent him an air of authority which would have been handy during such hostilities.

Penang DAP chairman Chow Kon Yeow who was seated next to Karpal looked even more sheepish and subdued. Lim and Chow are big names in DAP, but when the elephants fight, even the powerful know better than to get in the way.

Dr Ramasamy is also the Deputy Chief Minister and Penang deputy chairman whereas Karpal is the national chairman. But more than that, the two men have big personalities and egos.

Besides, Karpal is not afraid of anyone in the DAP, not even Guan Eng; he has put Guan Eng in his place a few times although not after the latter became Chief Minister.

DAP people have labelled the war of words between Karpal and Dr Ramasamy as a “Bollywood drama” but deep down, they are extremely worried that something like this is happening with a general election around the corner.

“We are wondering why it had escalated to such a public theatre,” said Klang MP Charles Santiago.

Santiago had attended a book launch of an Indian social commentator on the day of the Penang DAP convention and the warlord-godfather issue was the top conversation topic among the Indian crowd.

Santiago, who is also Selangor DAP vice-chairman, led a delegation of Indian DAP leaders to Penang to meet with the warring factions a few days ago.

“We appealed to them to get back together or to at least maintain silence. What is happening is affecting us in Selangor and Perak,” said Santiago.

Internal party quarrels are not new in DAP and big names have fallen out because of it. Last year, the fallout from the in-fighting between rival camps in the Selangor DAP grew so nasty that the party took the unprecedented step of postponing the national elections.

Internal fights have acquired a greater intensity than ever before because the party is now in power and power does strange things to people.

Previously, it was just about fighting for a party post; now it is also about fighting for what comes with the post.

More than that, many in DAP have convinced themselves that Putrajaya is within their reach and that makes everything more urgent and seductive.

The warlord-godfather dispute was referred to a high-level panel headed by party doyen Dr Chen Man Hin and comprising Guan Eng and his father Kit Siang. They wanted to keep a lid on the issue.

The matter would not have been raised at the central executive committee (CEC) meeting on Tuesday night if not for Selangor vice-chairman Datuk Teng Chang Khim who insisted that it be discussed.

He had apparently said that the same rules should apply to all and the committee could not possibly think of leaving the building without some conclusion on the issue.

Eventually, Kit Siang proposed the special panel and the CEC went along with it even though several people, including Dr Chen and national vice-chairman Tunku Aziz Ibrahim had been in favour of it being handled at the CEC level.

A day later, the party announced that the matter had been resolved.

Dr Ramasamy, known as “Professor” in the party, took a beating at the Penang DAP convention and had to endure a long and rambling lecture by Karpal.

It was very humiliating and he felt his pride and honour had been trampled upon.

The former academic did not appreciate being slammed as a warlord and has indicated that he is prepared to walk away from it all if the party is unhappy with him.

The term warlord carries unsavoury connotations in the DAP. It is associated with MIC politics or what Santiago called “Samy Vellu kind of politics”.

Tamil press report

The issue was sparked off by a Tamil press report where Dr Ramasamy had reportedly indicated that DAP might field three Indian women in the next general election. It is actually a good idea and might even be a game-changer for the party among Indian voters.

Some even suggested it was Guan Eng himself who had asked him to look out for credible Indian candidates.

But Seri Delima assemblyman and lawyer R.S.N. Rayer did not take well to the report and complained to Karpal. The rest is history.

Rayer, said one Penang professional, is the Indian version of Ng Wei Aik, the hot-tempered and impetuous political secretary to Guan Eng.

But the tall and fierce-looking Rayer had chambered under Karpal, hence the older man’s soft spot for him. Rayer takes his Hindu roots seriously and is rarely seen without vibuthi (holy ash) on his forehead.

Seri Delima is one of three state seats under Karpal’s Bukit Gelugor parliamentary constituency. It was supposed to have gone to Zulkifli Md Noor, a long-time Malay face of DAP. But Rayer lobbied through Karpal for the seat and had reportedly threatened to stand in Bagan against Guan Eng if he did not get it.

When Karpal’s white MPV, that is specially out-fitted for his wheelchair, drove up to the state convention last week, he was greeted by protesters holding banners slamming Rayer although they misspelt his name as “Rayar”.

The pro-Ramasamy protesters pointed to Rayer as a troublemaker and demanded that he apologise to Dr Ramasamy.

DAP is used to protesting against other people and it was extremely embarrassing that this demonstration was an instance of DAP versus DAP.

Dr Ramasamy, some said, was not off the mark in referring to Karpal as the godfather. Karpal is an unparalleled figure in the party, almost untouchable because of his long service record and the special relationship he holds with Kit Siang.

Over the years, he has become some sort of rallying point for young, upcoming Indian figures in the party. Dr Ramasamy, who has the ears of Guan Eng, is probably seen as a threat by those around Karpal.

Dr Ramasamy’s supporters have reacted by accusing Karpal of trying to position his son Jagdeep Singh Deo as the next Deputy Chief Minister.

Jagdeep has dismissed the claim as “preposterous and malicious” given that he had rejected an offer to join the state executive council after the 2008 election. He wanted to focus on his law career.

It would be a field day for DAP’s detractors if that ever happened – Kit Siang’s son the Chief Minister and Karpal’s son the Deputy Chief Minister.

Dr Ramasamy’s problem is that he is a parachute candidate who is only starting to build up a grassroots base.

He was a big catch for the DAP but his phenomenal rise from university lecturer to Deputy Chief Minister has also resulted in envy and jealousy among some people.

The way the speakers at the state convention went for him was terrible. It was as though he had done nothing for the party, which is not exactly true.

There have been allegations of cronyism and MIC-style politics on his part but he is basically a political novice who is struggling to make the transition from academic ideas to the dog-eat-dog world of politics on the ground.

“Dr Ramasamy is an okay person, he has no airs and does not demand special treatment. But Karpal is an urban electorate hero who has earned his stripes and Dr Ramasamy should have watched his words when it comes to Karpal,” said social historian Dr Neil Khor.

Different culture

The warlord-godfather issue is far from resolved. There are big egos involved and besides, the Indian faction in DAP poses quite a different culture to the Chinese-dominated culture of DAP.

Guan Eng is probably at a loss on how to handle these two men. But his bigger headache lies ahead.

In essence, the warlord-godfather drama is about the upcoming general election, candidates and seats.

There will be an intense lobby to be candidates and it is going to be fierce among the Indian aspirants because there are far fewer seats allocated to them than for the Chinese candidates.

Unlike in 2008 when DAP had to go around persuading people to contest, this time, they will be fighting off people who want to be candidates.

Aspiring candidates are not just thinking about forming the state government, some of them already see themselves as ministers and deputy ministers. Even Guan Eng is caught up in the Putrajaya dream.

This general election is going to be much more complicated for the DAP leadership than they care to admit.

Apart from the lobbying, there is the question of whether certain leaders should still persist in contesting parliamentary-cum-state seats.

Karpal has been vocal about his one man-one-seat proposal although he has made an exception for Guan Eng on the grounds that as the Chief Minister, he needs access to Parliament.

Given all that, the stand-off between the warlord and the godfather may not be a Bollywood drama as claimed by some but a prelude to the big fight to be candidates in the mother of all battles.