www.malaysiakini.com (7/9/2009) Sothi: Change is a task for the young, not old

Fortes fortuna adiuvat
is an antiquated Latin adage which suggests that the Goddess of Fortune smiles on those who are courageous.

And when dawn breaks this Saturday, S Sothinathan will be hoping that the celestial being smiles for him when on the terrestrial plane, some 1,400 MIC delegates decide his fate on Sept 12.

Those who know him well say that he is ambitious, but others did not expect this man of few words to do it and they thought he lacked the guts, but he has proved the doubters wrong.

While the pundits debate on whether it is a wise move or simply political suicide, the father of three however has no regrets about having cast the dice.

But why did he do it?

Because there is no room for sentiments in politics, declares Sothinathan, who also stresses that it is not an art for the faint-hearted.

Drawing inspiration from the likes of Barack Obama, he firmly believes that change is inevitable if MIC is to remain alive.

Rivals have missed the boat

And why should the delegates pick him?

Because just like the American president and unlike his rivals G Palanivel and S Subramaniam, who are in their sixties, the 49-year-old politician feels that age, strength and stamina are on his side.

He mercilessly drives the point home when it is pointed out that the other two contenders are also talking about transformations.

As far as Sothinathan is concerned, the 'productive years' of man are between the ages of 45 and 60 and in that context, the duo, he agrees, have 'missed the boat'.

"My question is simple. They have been there in this position (deputy president). What change have they brought? For 25 years they have been there as deputies, they couldn't bring change..."

"When someone who has been there for such a long time, I mean at this particular stage in life, to talk about change, I really don't understand what (that) change is all about."

"If there is a transition, if someone comes to take up the leadership, they should have the age with them. Not someone who is about to retire..."

True enough, when Malaysiakini caught up with him at his seafront office in his hometown of Port Dickson last week, the former Teluk Kemang MP was full of vigour despite the intense campaign which has seen him criss-crossing the peninsular to canvass for votes.

'This is not orchestrated'

However, his decision to contest for the deputy presidency has irked his mentor, the formidable MIC president.

Stopping just inches from outrightly calling him an ingrate, a slighted Samy Vellu later accused his protege, with whom it is said he shared a father and son relationship with, of deceiving him and reminded the latter that he is what he is because of him.

But Sothinathan shrugs this off with a smile, saying: "Actually, there is no friction between us."

According to the outgoing MIC vice-president, Samy Vellu was initially receptive to the idea of him ascending the party hierarchy. "But come May, there was a change in (his) mind."

Unperturbed by the feathers he may have ruffled, Sothinathan says: "I am not interested in that. I am more interested in the party remaining relevant..."

Is he hurt or discouraged by the president's attack? Not at all. "In politics, you've got to face all these things. You can't be too sentimental about it. You got to be practical about things."

He also stresses that 'unlike the others', he did not abandon the party following its near fatal electoral whipping last year, which also robbed Sothinathan of his MP title.

Prior to the president endorsing the incumbent Palanivel for the post, speculation was rife that Sothinathan is on track to being named the anointed successor. But soon rumours of a tiff began to circulate.

Still there are those who refuse to believe that the challenge is for real.

Some claim that it is a mere charade to break the votes for the president's former deputy and nemesis S Subramaniam, and once the contest is over, the duo will kiss and make up. And a new master plan will be put into work.

Sothinathan however rubbishes this claim.

"Let me make this very clear. There is no orchestration. I have made a very clear, a very bold decision, I am going for broke. Either I make it or I forget about it. There is no two ways about it."

In view of this, the former deputy minister says the focus is on his bid to vanquish the president's choice and the president's foe. And the underdog is confident of sinking his teeth on the coveted prize.

'President has to accept the victor'

On the possibility of the embattled party being plunged into further crisis if Samy Vellu does not accept his victory should the delegates vote for him, Sothinathan puts it bluntly: "One man cannot deny the decision of the majority."

He stresses that the president has to acknowledge the victor irrespective of who he is. "If you cannot accept it, then you can't be a leader."

Responding to critics who accuse MIC of being too subservient to Umno, Sothinathan vows to speak without fear or favour when it comes to defending the community.

"You must speak your mind. If you feel something is right, you must stand by it... when you feel something is not right, you must be able to speak up."

In 2005, he did just that and caused a stir when he erupted in Parliament over the government's de-recognition of a medical university in Ukraine which has a sizable population of Indian Malaysian students.

Although the incident boosted his popularity in the community, it however earned him a three-month suspension as deputy minister. His crime: not toeing the party line.

But Sothinathan, who holds a first class honours degree in business administration apart from being a qualified lawyer, is not without controversy either.

The alleged hijacking of nine million Telekom shares in 1992 continues to be a Sword of Damocles, and although the then Anti-Corruption Agency cleared Samy Vellu of any wrongdoing, Sothinathan has never been able to scrub himself clean off the 'taint' for his alleged role in the scandal, which continues to be the most potent weapon in his detractors' arsenal.

When quizzed on this, he dismisses it as a smear campaign.

"Those things have been answered and cleared. People are now trying to bring back the same issue, just to tarnish one's image. This is a smear campaign that is going on."

'I have never practiced caste politics'

Sothinathan also strongly denies the accusation of playing the caste card with the hope of striking a royal flush in this poker game of high stakes.

"I have never practised caste politics. I have never been brought up in that manner. My family never taught me all those things."

Describing the ongoing campaign as being replete with the politics of money and fear, which he claims to be innocent of, the MIC leader says the fingers which point at him belong to the chief perpetrators of caste politics themselves.

"One can say 'I don't do this, somebody else does this' but at the end of the day, each and every single individual in MIC and also the public know as a matter of fact who preaches all these things."

Asked if the president is also guilty of this, he quickly adds: "Let the people decide, they are all informed about what is happening. I am not pointing at any individual."

While MIC leaders do not openly admit it, caste is an important factor in determining the office bearers and by virtue of being 'Gounders' both Sothinathan and Subramaniam are banking on the same votes.

On how different MIC will be if he becomes president some day, a confident Sothinathan smiles, and says: "You will see that for yourself. Believe in me."

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