Playing the role of a magnanimous do-gooder

Every year, provided a Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led government is in office, the establishment goes into a frenzy of nostalgia come September, commemorating the death anniversary of the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Independent Ceylon’s fourth Prime Minister and also the husband and father of two other Prime Ministers to come.
There is no harm in a nation remembering its heroes. That is indeed their due. In fact, some leaders do not get the respect and admiration they deserve. For instance, last week’s birth centenary of J.R. Jayewardene - who ruled the country for twelve years as against Bandaranaike’s three - passed with hardly a whimper and the United National Party (UNP) itself was broadcasting speeches of D.S. Senanayake over radio waves instead!
Even so, the Bandaranaike commemoration has now become something of a ‘must’ event in the local political calendar: It is for the Lankan politician what the Ascot is for the British socialite, the place to be and be seen. The horses are of course are different; most of them are not thoroughbred now and there are some dark ones too!
Last week, for instance there was Mahinda Rajapaksa, Anura and Sunethra Bandaranaike and even Nirupama Rao standing shoulder to shoulder as if they had just returned from a family vacation. One could almost imagine Somawansa Amerasinghe and Velupillai Prabhakaran joining them any minute and saying cheese for the cameras.
But what was most interesting was President Rajapaksa’s take on the ceremonies. It was his first since the assumption of the Presidency. In that sense, it was the first Bandaranaike commemoration that was held under a SLFP-led regime not led by a Bandaranaike.
And what does Rajapaksa do? It is not a secret anymore that his relationships with the politically inclined Bandaranaike siblings are strained to the sinew. He has virtually sent his predecessor Chandrika Kumaratunge into exile and brother Anura was given the left-over portfolio of Tourism in the cabinet, rather than Foreign Affairs which he dearly coveted. Given these estranged relationships, Rajapaksa could have easily watered down the scale of the commemoration.
Then, no one would have faulted Rajapaksa had he given the event a miss-after all, he had just returned from a long haul overseas that took him to Havana, New York and London. The security concerns too for being in Horagolla on September the 26 would seem like tempting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
None of that happened. The ceremonies were conducted on a grand scale not seen for some time, not even in the later years when Chandrika Kumaratunga was in office. Rajapaksa attended, security concerns or not. The state media provided live coverage and its radio stations blared Bandaranaike commemoration songs throughout the day, even long after the traffic snarls along the Colombo-Kandy road had cleared. And for the other media who covered the event, there were plenty of photo opportunities to keep them happy.
And therein is a story - a story that could explain at least in part why Mahinda Rajapaksa is the President of this country today. Rajapaksa knows well what the Bandaranaike commemoration means to the average SLFPer. So, instead of being petty and vindictive about what Chandrika Kumaratunga did to him when she was President and he was Minister of Fisheries, he decides to play the role of magnanimous do-gooder and aim for the Brownie points.
Anura can only grin and bear it, even when he is within arms’ length of the “pretty” Indian High Commissioner Nirupama Rao and others are already querying how Chandrika Kumaratunga came to be so busy that she couldn’t attend her parents’ death anniversaries! Trust Mahinda Rajapaksa to win friends and influence people…
The sequel is all the more predictable, then. To ensure that the Rajapaksa stranglehold is maintained on the SLFP, the President will be more pro-Bandaranaike than S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike himself would have been. That would mean paying lip service to all that Bandaranaike stood for while propagating Rajapaksa’s own allies and hand-picked acolytes within the party. That process has already begun and has also inevitably resulted in some Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga loyalists turn to Rajapaksa as Kumaratunga herself would love to remind us, citing the examples of Mangala Samaraweera and Nimal Siripala de Silva, for instance.
This strategy shouldn’t be too difficult to someone who has already taken Arumugam Thondaman into his ranks and plans on capturing the prize fish of Ranil Wickremesinghe himself. And because it is done this way, Anura B dare not complain and Chandrika K is in a spin, not knowing what to do next and undecided whether to return to the country and play second fiddle or stay put in exile and plot her next move.
It is as if the Bandaranaikes have been robbed of their inheritance while they were in political slumber. So, if you didn’t believe that politics is the art of the possible, just ask Mahinda Rajapaksa. And don’t wait for the next Bandaranaike commemoration to do that either, because by then, it would almost certainly be too late for the Bandaranaikes to attempt a resurrection of their family fortunes within the SLFP.