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This is my Nation


   Anura: A caricature of greatness    

Bandaranaike was also the most liberal of politicians. He may not have taken the best decisions regarding his own political career, but he was open to discussion, negotiation and even conviction. In a turbulent political set up where hawks are commonplace, he was the exception.
Bandaranaike was able to reconcile extremes of opinion, not merely to satisfy the needs of practical politics, but also accept them from an ideological standpoint. Very few politicians of that genre are now visible on the horizon. The SLFP sorely needs such thinking and that is one void that Bandaranaike will leave.
There has, from time to time, been calls for unity between the SLFP and the UNP, especially in the context of solving the ethnic crisis. Had Bandaranaike, even in the distant future, been able to give leadership to the SLFP, this would have become a distinct possibility. Now, that may never happen

Last week saw the passing away of two distinguished citizens of Sri Lanka: one a visionary who made the country his home and achieved more than most men, and the other, a man expected to achieve more than he ever did.

If Arthur C. Clarke bid adieu in the fullness of time, Anura Bandaranaike’s farewell was, despite his prolonged illness, rather catastrophic. It is on the latter that we wish to dwell.

Appreciations and evaluations about Anura Bandaranaike’s contribution to contemporary politics in Sri Lanka will flow freely. That befits a man who could have been a colossus in the political arena yet remained only a caricature of greatness. Instead, we aim to explore that unasked question, after Anura, what next?

Anura Bandaranaike was, at the time of his death, just a Member of Parliament and no one – probably including he himself – was quite sure whether he was a government MP or an opposition parliamentarian.

Controversial
His last appearance in Parliament was a controversial one where he sat on the opposition benches. There were subsequent reports that he had hugged and made up with President Mahinda Rajapaksa who had wanted to restore his ministerial privileges. That was not to be.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the differences of opinion began between President Rajapaksa and Bandaranaike. Rajapaksa was theoretically Bandaranaike’s senior in terms of party activity, since he entered Parliament in 1970 whereas Anura entered the legislature seven years later.

But that seniority was all but wiped out when Bandaranaike remained in Parliament for the next twelve years and became Leader of the Opposition while Rajapaksa was struggling as a Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) organiser. But they were best of friends at that time, a factor that was to play a vital role years later.

That was when the SLFP had to look beyond the once disenfranchised and ailing Sirima Bandaranaike for its leadership, and the matriarch opted for Chandrika Kumaratunge rather than her son, Anura. The battle between the siblings was bitter and Rajapaksa was loyally by Bandaranaike’s side.

To be fair by Rajapaksa, this was to cost him dearly, for when Kumaratunge ascended the presidency a few years later, she was to treat him with disdain and never trusted him a high value portfolio. Bandaranaike meanwhile, disillusioned with the SLFP, had decamped to the United National Party (UNP).

As a result, Bandaranaike spent most of Kumaratunge’s tenure in office on the opposition benches, while Mahinda Rajapaksa worked himself up the greasy pole that was the SLFP. When Bandaranaike did eventually return to the SLFP, the party was out of power and Rajapaksa was the Leader of the Opposition.

Bandaranaike must be credited with forging the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) with the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) for the last general election, much against the wishes of both Kumaratunge and Rajapaksa. It was this factor which ensured victory for the SLFP led coalition.

After this alliance rode back to power, Rajapaksa began his campaign for the ultimate prize-the presidency. Kumaratunge clearly resented this prospect and some of the ensuing hostility appeared to have rubbed off on Bandaranaike as well.

Bandaranaike himself was none too pleased. The man who worked tirelessly for the general election played only a lukewarm role in the presidential poll, although he was nominated as Prime Minister designate, in the event of a Rajapaksa victory.

The rest as they say is history. Rajapaksa showed everyone that he did not forgive or forget by appointing Ratnasiri Wikremanayake as Prime Minister, and handing Bandaranaike the tourism portfolio.

Everyone knew Bandaranaike expected at the very least the Foreign Ministry. He was later given the nebulous subject of National Heritage, only to lose that too in a reshuffle later, which ultimately led to his sacking from the cabinet, albeit briefly.

What does the Bandaranaike’s passing mean then to the political landscape? Many will miss his colourful presence, his controversial crossovers and his ready wit no doubt. But the ultimate impact is confirmation that the Bandaranaike days of the SLFP are now finally over.

It does not however mean that the party’s dynastic tendencies are over too. We see the emergence of a Rajapaksa oligarchy that may even rival the Bandaranaikes as it slowly but steadily strengthens its stranglehold on power.

Liberal

Bandaranaike was also the most liberal of politicians. He may not have taken the best decisions regarding his own political career, but he was open to discussion, negotiation and even conviction. In a turbulent political set up where hawks are commonplace, he was the exception.

Bandaranaike was able to reconcile extremes of opinion, not merely to satisfy the needs of practical politics, but also accept them from an ideological standpoint. Very few politicians of that genre are now visible on the horizon. The SLFP sorely needs such thinking and that is one void that Bandaranaike will leave.

There has, from time to time, been calls for unity between the SLFP and the UNP, especially in the context of solving the ethnic crisis. Had Bandaranaike, even in the distant future, been able to give leadership to the SLFP, this would have become a distinct possibility. Now, that may never happen.

At long last and after stumbling at many an obstacle, Anura Bandaranaike’s political journey is now over. It was not a journey that Bandaranaike himself would have been very proud of undertaking but he can be proud that at least, he did it in his own inimitable way.

****