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

To be or not to be – it was not to be

By our Political Editor

The Crown Prince is dead. Anura Bandaranaike died last Sunday at the age of 59. And, with his passing away, the end of the Bandaranaike dynasty has been signaled. Anura Priyadarshi Solomon Dias Bandaranaike was the only man in the world whose both parents were prime ministers. Naturally, he too took to politics and was the obvious Crown Prince, to the manor born. But in death, his manner was more of a political pauper than Crown Prince, a mere member of parliament, overstaying at a state guest house, uncertain as to whether he was in the government or the opposition.

Exclusive picture which appeared on the front page of The Sunday Times (June 10, 2001) of Anura Bandaranaike going through Erskine May before delivering the famous ruling on the Supremacy of Parliament

Bradman Weerakoon, civil servant and secretary to both S.W.R.D. and Sirimavo Bandaranaike in his memoirs ‘Rendering unto Caesar’ recalls how Anura, as a young boy ran to his father complaining that his playmate from the village was constantly beating him at cricket.

Ironically, that is what happened to Anura all his adult life: there was always someone, perhaps with lesser credentials, outplaying him. Chandrika Kumaratunge spent just a few months as a Chief Minister before catapulting into Parliament as Prime Minister before assuming the powerful Presidency; Mahinda Rajapaksa was in political wilderness for twelve years while Anura led his party in Parliament but Rajapaksa then had a meteoric rise to power while Anura fell from grace.

Anura’s record has a sense of déjà vu: it was almost as if whichever party Anura was in, lost the elections. Since the United National Party (UNP) landslide of 1977 and after spending seventeen years in the opposition, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) returned to power in 1994. But a year earlier, Anura had left the SLFP to join the UNP.

Anura returned to the SLFP in 2001 only to find the UNP winning the general election that followed. And when he finally came into power and place in 2004, his sister Chandrika Kumaratunge had to hand over the reins to Rajapaksa who by then was not his best friend. In total, Anura spent thirty one consecutive years in Parliament, twenty six of those years in the opposition.

Clearly, fate did not favour him and he was at the wrong place at the right time and at the right place at the wrong time. But fate alone is not to blame. The man who had the world at his feet also had the habit of opening his mouth and putting both feet firmly in. And that cost him, sometimes dearly.

By nature, Anura was temperamental. He was easily misled. He was impetuous. He moved swiftly to take pen and paper to hand and write what he felt when he felt he was hard-done by the press or by an opposing politician — he threw caution to the wind and would almost always reap a whirlwind for such impulsive behaviour — but he was as quickly forgiving.

He liked shooting from the lip and didn’t care who his victims were. Indeed, they included all and sundry — from Tony Blair (“an obnoxious Englishman”) and George Bush (with “his ‘thakkadi’ policies in Iraq”) to Nirupama Rao (“the pretty Mrs. Rao should look after her embassy”), Benazir Bhutto's husband ("not a very pleasant man"), and the Sri Lankan cabinet (“a carnival of clowns”).

He fought political battles with his mother Sirimavo (siding with Maithripala Senanayake over the issue of the SLFP leadership), sister Chandrika (again over the issue of party leadership) and Mahinda Rajapaksa (over the presidential election nominations). He ended being the loser in all these encounters. As a result, he never achieved the dizzy political heights that he felt was his birth-right.

So, instead of high office and statesmanship the high points of Anura’s political career are as an opposition politician and as Speaker. And surely, his role as Leader of the Opposition from 1983 to 1988 must be his stellar contribution to Sri Lankan politics.

Anura always revelled in Parliament, its nuances and its traditions. And, in 1983, at the age of 34, he was thrust into the role of the Leader of the Opposition after his mother lost her civic rights . Across the floor of the House, there were a 141 UNP members barracking against him and his seven other SLFP MPs. If one were to paraphrase Lord Tennyson's immortal poem: "Cannons to the right of them. cannons to the left of them, cannons in front and behind them, volleyed and thundered... into the chamber of Parliament rode the eight of them". And it was almost always slaughter like what Tennyson's Light Brigade faced in the Crimean war.

Anura led this small band of men who held them at bay, more than ably assisted by Dinesh Gunewardena and Sarath Muttetuwegama. In this role, Anura was in his element. In a single day he would speak on rising coconut prices, corruption at Airlanka and on Non-alignment with hardly a respite in between. He took on the likes of Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and Ronnie de Mel without batting an eyelid. He gave as good as he got, often in the same token, and more often than not, he won the duel.

As an orator, he was indignant yet incisive, intellectual yet irresistible; perhaps the famous Bandaranaike genes had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, he effortlessly held his audiences spellbound. He could switch with ease from profound political discourse in Parliament to a profane personal joke at a campaign rally. His command of the vernacular was equal to his eloquence in English.

But the fall came soon after the 1989 General Elections and the return of his mother to Parliament. There were political under-currents within the party, some of them whom he had brought into politics were sharpening their knives. They pushed the mother to replace the son as Leader of the Opposition, and with that Anura was ejected from the driving-seat, and driven into solitude seeking solace in binge-drinking. "He went to pieces thereafter" said a close buddy of his.

By 1994, a frustrated Anura was committing political hara-kiri. A statement he made to the press was pounced on by a growing number of party insiders backing the entre of sister Chandrika into mainstream politics. Anura was served a charge-sheet, and with his sacking from his father's party imminent, in a swift move that took the country by surprise, he joined the D.B. Wijetunge UNP government as Minister of Higher Education — almost as if to spite his mother and sister.

One of Anura’s singular achievements was in June 2001, when as Speaker he upheld parliamentary supremacy over the Judiciary in the conduct of its affairs, rejecting a supreme court order restraining him from accepting an opposition motion to impeach the Chief Justice. He got good legal advice for this, but he was also willing to stand by it. That decision showcased Anura the liberal democrat, an often unsung aspect of the man.

Until his dying day, he was a student of politics-he enthusiastically followed the Clinton-Obama battle in the Democratic Party primaries from his sick bed. His knowledge about the British and American political systems was as extensive as his understanding of the intricacies and nuances of the local caste system and the tendency of the Sri Lankan to vote for his caste when he casts his vote.

Anura the person was not much different from Anura the politician. He wore his heart on his sleeve. He demanded respect in the literal sense, and was living in the age of his grandfather, the feudal Maha Mudliyar Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike. The 21st century Laird of Horagolla was often unable to break bread with the common man who had been unleashed into the political arena by his own father.

There was also another, more private side to the man. He was a voracious reader steeped in the classics — Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde were his particular favourites — and he purchased only hardcover books which went into a magnificent library.

He was also an unabashed movie buff. Uncharacteristically, he maintained a meticulous record of all the films he had watched in theatres abroad. These were recorded in box-files. For instance, the file marked ‘B’ would contain films he had seen of Burton, Brando, Bond etc.,; the actual ticket he had purchased, any other literature pertaining to that film — and his own comments on the movie, in his handwriting written with an ink pen.

Anura liked living the good-life, perhaps the result of his privileged upbringing. He loved flying to foreign climes among which Los Angeles — the city of Angels — was his favourite city. He visited the Californian metropolis as many as forty times and greatly appreciated the theatre scene there, which he felt was better than in London.

He also had a penchant for good food and good wines and yet never ate vegetables or fruit. Epicurean in taste he was to the last even though his lavish habits did not cure his later physical ailments to which he eventually succumbed.

But most of all, Anura liked a good laugh. Once he had been drinking with friends at the old ramshackle walauwwa at Horagolla. He asked some of his friends to sleep the night over in the Maha Mudliyar's bed-room. As they proceeded to the room he would relate stories of the house being haunted with his long dead grandfather making visits in the middle of the night.

The room was filled with the Maha Mudliyar's imposing portrait staring at you, and his riding gear boots and all — hanging from the walls. Close to an hour after lights had been switched off, the groggy inmates would hear crackling noises and hooting sounds.

They would run out of the room with their sarongs tucked up and demand that Anura’s police guards sleep in that room with the lights on. It was later learnt that it was Anura, Parliament's Leader of the Opposition no less, who had asked his domestics to play ‘ghost’ by throwing pebbles and make howling noises from the garden at that ungodly hour !

He enjoyed having people invited for friends’ parties — some of them unwelcome — and would watch from a corner how the host would handle the surprise. Among the ‘invitees’ have been foreign ambassadors and cabinet ministers. Some considered this childish but that was Anura in essence-sophisticated gentleman, yet a simple human being.

But this is also why Anura Bandaranaike’s life story is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions on which Anura himself may have mused sometime in his life. Indeed, sulking and depressed beyond comprehension at the latter stages, he could not come to terms with the fact that a man who called him ‘Lokka’ would be his Lokka, at the helm of affairs of the nation, while he was languishing in oblivion.

That in fact was his last known lament when he said that he was “not treated properly”. The treatment he expected was from those whom he made into men, when his mother was the all-powerful Prime Minister and he had her ear. And, some of them who had slept in his garage because they had no fixed abode in Colombo, would now do nothing for him. The ingratitude was simply too much for Anura to handle.

History would eventually judge Anura Bandaranaike. Some would argue that Anura got only thus far and no more was because Sri Lanka is a robust meritocracy. That argument has some justification because Anura’s undoing was largely his own doing.But the counter argument is that Anura never stooped to conquer. Allegations of corruption were never made against him though he had some undesirables as friends. He never resorted to thuggery or violence to gain his political ends. In reflecting on Anura’s life one cannot escape the conclusion that these attributes are now not necessary prerequisites for political success in this country.

Anura may have exuded an aroma of aristocratic arrogance. But there was, lurking inside a burly frame and a gruff voice, a gentle human being. And it is perhaps fair to say that Anura’s spectacularly mediocre achievements were a result of him being that gentle human being. Had Anura had a choice in choosing his epitaph, he would probably have opted for Shakespeare’s ‘Goodnight, Sweet Prince’ from Hamlet. And it was Hamlet who asked, ‘to be or not to be, that is the question’. With Anura Priyadarshi Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, sadly, it was not to be.

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