ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 23, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 43

Anura a viceroy in the wilderness

A master of the House; He was essentially a ‘Parliamentarian’

By Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition UNP leader

Ranil paying his last respects to a long-time friend

Anura Bandaranaike was responsible for the survival of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party after the 1977 Parliamentary election. Without Anura, the party would have collapsed in Parliament leading to its disintegration in the country. The 1977 elections decimated the SLFP. All the experienced Parliamentarians other than Maithripala Senanayake, lost their seats. Many questioned its ability to play an effective role as an opposition party. Anura alone rose to the challenge.

Anura was, like me, a novice to the 1977 Parliament. While I could take cover behind Government front benches, Anura sat in the Opposition front benches. In fact, the Opposition did not have a full second row. He had to face the shouting and heckling from the Government benches when he clashed with us. The Government Parliamentary party was first led by J.R. Jayewardene and was followed by President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The front benches included Gamini Dissanayake, Ronnie de Mel, Lalith Athulathmudali and A.C.S. Hameed. Anura was at the receiving end for two years but that gave him superb training. He learnt to face the Government benches.

By 1983, Anura was leading the Opposition, the smallest, in the history of our Parliament. Another classmate Dinesh Gunawardena was there to help him. Nevertheless, he equalled the performance of George Lansbury who led a decimated Labour Opposition in the 1931 House of Commons. Lansbury unlike Anura, was an experienced Parliamentarian and a former Cabinet Minister.

I always wondered why the SLFP did not make use of Anura’s Parliamentary experience in the 1989 Parliament and put him in charge of Parliamentary strategy. Thereby, both of us lost the chance of facing each other when I became the Leader of the House. Sidelining Anura affected the performance of the SLFP in Parliament. Though their numbers swelled after the 1989 Parliamentary elections, it was like an orchestra without a conductor. Even after Gamini, Lalith and Premachandra left us; the UNP outperformed the SLFP in Parliament. As a result, the Opposition’s focus shifted to street demonstrations. This gave the opportunity to Mahinda Rajapaksa who began to emerge within the ranks of the SLFP. Finally, the SLFP’s comeback was not through Parliament but through Provincial Council elections under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s leadership.

Anura Bandaranaike was of great help to me when I became the Leader of the Opposition in 1994. The Thotalanga bomb resulted in the UNP losing four of its key Parliamentary debaters. Anura’s presence strengthened us in Parliament. In 2000, Anura became the Speaker — the highest Parliamentary Office. He became the master of the House. Repartee was his weapon to bring a Member under control. He will always be remembered for his historical ruling, upholding the supremacy of Parliament.

Anura was essentially a Parliamentarian. He shone whenever he held Parliamentary office. From his schooldays he prepared himself for a Parliamentary career, modelling himself on his father who was both a first class orator and an outstanding debater. Anura himself became a formidable Parliamentarian who amused and dazzled the House. Lord Chesterfield once said of William Pitt the Elder and Lord Chancellor Mansfield: “Does the House expect extraordinary information from them? Not in the least; but the House expects pleasure from them, and therefore attends; finds it, and therefore approves it.” This was equally true of Anura Bandaranaike.

Anura was not involved in the forming of the People’s Alliance and was uncomfortable in it. He was essentially SLFP and had as his second preference the UNP. But in 2004, he played a key role in putting together the UPFA and ensuring its victory; however, he was not one of its beneficiaries. He watched as the JVP allies deserted him.

I befriended Anura at Royal Primary School. Mrs. H.D. Sugathapala – the class teacher, had in her class, sons of the leaders of the MEP, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Philip Gunawardena. Our numbers expanded when we joined Royal College. After we left College we formed the ’60 Group. When the three of us became Parliamentarians, the ‘60 Group’ broke the earlier record held by the Class of J.R. Jayewardene and Colvin R. de Silva. Anura was happiest with the ’60 Group who were with him till the end. He also had a fatal flaw, in that, he could never judge who was a good friend. Many lived off him. This had serious repercussions on his political career.

Anura was never bitter about the setbacks in his life. He enjoyed life to its fullest. He always talked about the uncertainties of a Parliamentary career: you were on top one day and out the next. He gave the example of Winston Churchill who spent 10 years in the wilderness and then events thrust upon him the Premiership during a crucial moment in the country’s history – World War II.

While a Parliamentary career is full of uncertainties, life does have one certainty. Anura may have had a premonition that he would not live too long. In December last year, he told me that he had no intention of contesting the next Parliamentary elections. When I met him for the last time, we talked of politics, including the Pakistan and US Primary elections. We also discussed the Royal-Thomian match. But he knew this was his last innings. Anura Bandaranaike faced it with courage reminding himself as a Royalist that he always “played the game”.

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