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|Trans State Nation
Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
Exit of an Emaciated Turkey
22 August 2000Poets, political commentators, cartoonists and caricaturists are fond of using animal metaphors for portraying the personalities of politicians. Prominent examples among such animals are lion, tiger, bear, elephant, donkey, fox, crocodile and toad. If J.R.Jayewardene was tagged appropriately as an 'old fox', my choice for his bete noire, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike is turkey.
At last, on 10 August, the old, emaciated turkey of Sri Lankan politics made its exit from the political stage. It was not even a voluntary exit, according to wags in Colombo. When Sirimavo made her debut in politics as the sobbing widow of an assassinated prime minister, copy writers and toadies from the journalistic profession projected her as the first 'peacock' in a stage dominated by majestic mammals. Dwight Eisenhower was the American president; Nikita Khrushev held the reins of the Soviet Union; China was under the spell of Mao Ze Dong; in India, Nehru was in the last lap of his long innings as Prime Minister; Sukarno was the strong-man in Indonesia, and Fidel Castro had just begun his (still enduring) 'revolutionary leadership' of Cuba.
Sycophantic Sri Lankan hacks unabashedly paraded Sirimavo as the first 'peacock' in the global stage of politics and waxed about the 'wonderful prominence' she had brought to the island. Of course, she became the first woman Prime minister, but she could not turn out to be the best woman prime minister. With three outstanding women becoming prime ministers in 1960s and 1970s (namely Indira Gandhi in India, Golda Meir in Israel and Margaret Thatcher in Britain), Sirimavo's sheen lost its marquee value. Why? Indira, Meir and Thatcher were true peacocks, while Sirimavo was only a turkey pretending to be a peacock. To the displeasure of Sirimavo's admirers, I would assert that if Indira, Meir and Thatcher were heaviweights in international politics, Sirimavo was just a paperweight.I can attribute four reasons for such an inference. The first is related to the geography and vitality of the issues tackled. Before the emergence of LTTE and Prabhakaran, Ceylon by any stretch of imagination did not count as a constantly 'news-worthy' location on the international radar. The second contributory factor was Sirimavo's lack of gravitas in her resume as a politician. Whereas Indira, Meir and Thatcher paid their dues in the lower rungs of political ladder for at least two decades before assuming the prime ministership, Sirimavo was just 'placed' in the vacant chair directly from the kitchen. That's why while the polish and performance of Indira, Meir and Thatcher had some mesmerizing effect on their contemporaries and on the public overall, Sirimavo's performance flopped like a turkey's dance. Let me annotate a little. At the age of 24, and while being a newly-wed in 1942, Indira Gandhi spent time in prison for months as an agitator for Indian independence. After her father Nehru's death in 1964, she served as the Minister of Information under Lal Bahadur Shastri, before being chosen as the prime minister in 1966. Golda Meir, was first elected to the Israeli Knesset in 1949 and she became the prime minister only in 1969, after serving as the Minister of Foreign Affairs for over 10 years. Similarly, Margaret Thatcher rose in the ranks for 20 years as an MP, Junior Minister and as the Minister of Education, before becoming the prime minister in 1979. Sirimavo's qualification for the Prime Minister's job in 1960 was practically nothing!
The third factor was a lack of opportunity for Sirimavo to project the 'machismo' image to the world. Indira won the war with Pakistan in 1971. Meir trounced the Arab nations in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. Thatcher was victorious against Argentina in the Falklands Island war of 1982. Sirimavo's only success was in decimating the JVP insurrection of 1971. Even that victory (if that can be called a 'victory'?) was of pyrrhic proportions and lacked international appeal. By conventional standards, to be counted as a victory on military terms, the success should be against an enemy who is of different ethnic or religious or national origin. The JVP gang belonged to the same ethnic, religious and national origin as that of Sirimavo!
The fourth factor which worked against Sirimavo was her stupidity in promoting nepotism during her tenure. Among her three illustrious women contemporaries, Meir or Thatcher were not infected with the nepotism virus. We never heard anything about the progeny of Meir and Thatcher stepping into the political shoes of their mothers.
As for Indira, she didn't have any siblings and she was even not in good terms with her politically active aunt Vijayaluxmy Pundit. Indira's infection with nepotism was limited to her younger son Sanjay first, and then only after Sanjay's accidental death in 1980, she turned to the reluctant Rajiv for emotional support.
Contrastingly, Sirimavo behaved like a patron-saint of nepotism, so much that 25 years ago, the Guardian newspaper ridiculed her with the phrase, 'The last word in family planning'. The Time magazine of Dec.15, 1975 carried a family tree entitled, 'Sri Lanka's Ruling Clan' featuring eleven members of Sirimavo's kitchen cabinet, which included all three of her children (Sunethra, Chandrika and Anura), son-in-law, four brothers and husband's cousin's son Felix Dias Bandaranaike. Those eleven members could have formed a cricket team, and that particular issue of Time was even banned in Sri Lanka.
As a Tamil student who was at the receiving end of Sirimavo's discriminatory standardization scheme for entry into university (introduced in 1970), I cannot excuse her hypocrisy in sending her own children to universities beyond the borders of Sri Lanka (They all were probably academically-challenged to enter the universities in Colombo and Peradeniya competitively), while strangling the necks of ordinary students like me to enter a university in Sri Lanka through the hurdles. Thus, she contributed significantly to the origin of Thamil Maanavar Peravai [Tamil Student Assembly], the fore-runner to the Eelam nationalism of the 1980s.
Finally, I quote from Thatcher who I have compared with Sirimavo. While describing her legacy in one of the interviews during her post-prime minsterial phase, Thatcher noted, "They (people) didn't always like what I did, but they knew it had purpose and direction." Can Sirimavo say the same thing to Eelam Tamils about her political decisions such as deliberately postponing the Kankesanthurai by-election for more than two years until 1975? I doubt!