From P Ramasamy
The death of MIC’s long-time president and supremo S Samy Vellu saw an outpouring of grief and sadness.
Whatever can be said about the man and the leader, his passing elicited sympathetic comments from both friends and foes.
His friends and party members called him a legend and mentor whereas his one-time political foes described him as a straight fighter without any personal agenda.
He was lauded for his contributions to the Indian community in the fields of education and social development.
Some well-known poets from Tamil Nadu hailed him as an irreplaceable loss to the Tamil community.
Samy Vellu was known to be harsh towards his enemies but he rewarded his friends handsomely.
However, since his demise a few days ago, there has been little or no analysis of the man beyond his personality, style and mannerisms.
There are different kinds of leadership: autocratic, democratic, transformational, and others.
What was the kind of leadership offered by Samy Vellu and to what extent did his leadership style benefit the Indian community?
I have no qualms in labelling Samy Vellu’s leadership style as autocratic or even authoritarian.
For Samy Vellu, leadership meant making decisions and ensuring implementation. As such, there was no consensus and consultation as part of the process.
It simply did not fit with his leadership style. So, for all intents and purposes, MIC was a one-man show, with Samy Vellu in command.
One could say, during his presidency, Samy Vellu was MIC and vice-versa.
He managed the party and to some extent the Indian community in such a way that there was no place for democracy nor consultation in decision-making.
Autocratic leadership meant not questioning his decisions, and accepting his decisions as good for the party and society.
Any challenge to his authoritarian leadership was certainly not welcome. Those who dared either had to submit to his dictates or face the prospect of being sacked from the party and government positions.
It is well known what happened to those leaders who opposed Samy Vellu. They were either marginalised in the party or were removed from posts.
If Samy Vellu wanted to do something for the benefit of the Indian community, he would do it with or without consultation.
For example, the formation of Maika Holdings, Maju Institute of Education Development (MIED), and others were done without much consultation.
Whether such establishments would really benefit the Indian community was not fully researched and analysed.
Such impetuous thinking by an autocratic leader caused much malaise among members of the Indian community.
Samy Vellu’s autocratic leadership was enforced without feelings or compassion for those below him. He cracked down on any dissent within the party.
It might have given a superficial sense of party unity with what seemed to be a lack of divisions or factions, but it destroyed democracy within the party.
The need for obedience and compliance numbed creativity and freedom in the party.
Those who could not accept the authoritarian leadership of Samy Vellu left the party or joined the opposition.
After Samy Vellu lost power, many Indians drifted away from the party to join the DAP and PKR. Hence, the present weakness of MIC is a direct result of his authoritarianism.
Hindraf and the downfall of MIC
The synthetic preservation of unity came at a price with the loss of Indian support for MIC and Barisan Nasional (BN) in later years.
The Hindraf movement was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. It revealed, among other things, the ineffective nature of the MIC under the leadership of Samy Vellu.
The huge demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur in late 2007 organised by Hindraf shifted the Indian support from BN to the then opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), in the 2008 general election (GE12).
MIC might have been united under Samy Vellu but it eventually had to pay a heavy price for such artificial unity.
Samy Vellu’s leadership might have placed the lid on internal politics, but his subservience to Umno in the BN coalition was legendary.
He was bold, brash and ferocious towards his fellow Indians but when it came to Umno leaders, he was polite and meek as a mouse.
During his long reign as MIC president, Samy Vellu did not disturb the status quo or the political position of Umno.
The twin effects of autocratic leadership and subservience to Umno might have ensured Samy Vellu’s survival in the party and the government. But they proved to be disastrous to the Indian community.
It was the failure of the MIC in general and Samy Vellu in particular to address the myriad problems of the Indian community that contributed to the radicalisation of the rank and file Indians leading them to support Hindraf and later, DAP and PKR.
The overwhelming support of the Indian community for the opposition in GE12 proved to be the death knell of the MIC.
I seriously doubt whether the MIC has recovered from this electoral debacle. Without Indian support, PR would not have captured five states in GE12.
Similarly, without Indian support, Pakatan Harapan (PH) would not have captured the federal government in 2018.
Indians make a difference in about 60 electoral constituencies in the country.
No party or coalition intending to contest and win in the next general election (GE15) can ignore the support of the Indian community.
Thanks to the autocratic ways of Samy Vellu, Indians are now solidly behind the PH coalition.
Meanwhile, the leadership of the MIC is in tatters. It would be near impossible for the party that was so boldly managed by Samy Vellu to make a political comeback.
Samy Vellu might have been a bold, abrasive and ferocious leader, however, these qualities have ended up destroying the party that was formed in 1946 in the wake of pan-Indian nationalism.
P Ramasamy is a Penang deputy chief minister.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.