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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
Anura Bandaranaike - A Candid Contra View
25 March 2008
If nothing else, one should acknowledge the fact that the Colombo editorialists and political columnists covering the Colombo scene have an unabashed penchant for presenting a turkey as a peacock. And they would want you to believe it, even if the facts contradict their hyperbole. This is my inference after what I had read the eulogy editorials appearing in the Colombo Daily News [‘Anura Bandaranaike’, March 18], Colombo Daily Mirror [‘Rising Sun that got Eclipsed’, March 18] and the Island [‘Into Eternity steps a Gentleman’, March 18] and the musings of political columnists C.A.Chandraprema [‘AB: The Star Crossed Democrat’, Island, March 18] and Sonali Samarasinghe [‘A Man Beyond the Ordinary’, Sunday Leader, March 23].
Mervyn de Silva’s assessment
Compared to the current crop of eulogists, I sense that Mervyn de Silva had assessed the Anura Bandaranaike (hereafter shortened to Anura, as he was known to Sri Lankans) personality more realistically. Here is what he wrote, when Anura crossed to the UNP (the party in which his father Solomon Bandaranaike was No.2 in the totem pole, from 1947 to 1951) from SLFP (the party founded by his father, after he deserted from UNP) in late 1993.
Mervyn de Silva wrote,
Anura’s eulogists would want you to believe that this side of Suez Canal, Anura was a reincarnation of both Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill combined! But the facts disprove this. As per official record, Anura was born on February 15, 1949 in Colombo, and at the time of his birth, his father [the ambitious primeminister wannabe] was 50 years old. Anura was educated at the Royal College, Colombo from 1956 to 1966. What he did for the next 3 years is not clear. He then proceeded to England and was at the University of London from 1970 to 1973 [by this time, his mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike had become the prime minister for the second time], and was successful in the B.A. (London) examination.
An average teenager contemporary of Anura in Ceylon of late 1960s and early 1970s, would have entered one of the two universities (either the University of Colombo or the University of Peradeniya) in the fierce, open competition. Here is a paragraph from the reminiscences of Yasmine Gooneratne, one of Anura’s kin.
This can only pass as a good soft spin. But the issue is, if mother Sirimavo was so caring about the personal safety of her children following the assassination of her husband by the Buddhist priest Somarama Thero in 1959, she should have forbade the entry of her progeny from entering the dirty politics of the island in the 1970s. But this was not to be. She encouraged the entry of Anura (as well as her two daughters) into politics. During his stay in London, according to official records, Anura served as the political organizer of the SLFP of UK and Europe Branch! Then, after his return to the island, again according to official records, “Mr. Anura Bandaranaike has been chief organizer of the SLFP Youth League since 1973, member of the reorganization committee of the SLFP, member of the Central Committee of the SLFP, Adviser (Honorary) Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs from 1974-1977” [vide, Eighth Parliament of Sri Lanka 1977, by H.B.W. Abeynaike, 1977, Colombo.]
Family nepotism was so prominent, that the Time magazine of Dec.15, 1975 carried the infamous ‘family tree’ of Bandaranaikes in which Anura was placed right in the center as the ‘next generation Bandaranaike’ after the Prime Minister Sirimavo B, in its feature commentary titled, ‘All in the Family’.
The unsigned commentary noted that Sirimavo’s “more conservative son Anura, 27, has recently become chief organizer of the [SLFP] party’s powerful Youth League.’ This particular issue of the Time magazine was banned in the island on the orders of the then prime minister’s henchmen, since it depicted an un-flattering image of Bandaranaike kin free-loaders [including the then prince-in-waiting!], who thrived on public coffers. I provide a scan of this infamous ‘family tree’ for record.
Carpet-bagging Climb in Nuwara Eliya
Come mid 1977. Anura was ready for a carpet bagging climb in Nuwara Eliya. The dictionary defines a carpet bagger as ‘a political candidate who seeks election in an area where they have no local connections.’ In the July 1977 general election, Anura became the most prominent carpet bagger. The electorate he chose was a newly created Nuwara Eliya-Maskeliya (3 member) constituency in the Central Province. This was telling indeed. Colombo Central constituency, where Anura was born, bred and went to school, had been a 3 member constituency since 1947.
A word or two on the 3 member constituency of that era. These multi-member constituencies were established to afford an opportunity for minority ethnic groups to elect a member belonging to their own. Each voter had 3 votes to cast, and in the ethnically-divisive, personality-oriented island polity, it was a given that more than 95 percent of the voters cast their 3 votes to one candidate with whom they identified themselves or whom they favored, irrespective of party labels.
Colombo Central (3 member) constituency had minority ethnic groups such as Muslim Malays, Burghers and Tamils of Indian origin. The newly created Nuwara Eliya-Maskeliya (3 member) constituency afforded the opportunity for the Tamils of Indian origin – for the first time in 1977 - to elect one or two (at best) representatives of their ethnicity.
And Anura poked his neck into this Nuwara Eliya-Maskeliya constituency on the shrewd calculation of harvesting 3 votes from each voter. In 1977, there were altogether 160 electorates in the island, of which the Tamil North and the East accounted for a combined 24 electorates. Thus, pragmatically Anura could have opted to stand in any one of the predominantly Sinhala vote-concentrated 133 electorates (apart from the Nuwara Eliya-Maskeliya constituency in the Central Province). But he did not.
When the results of that election were announced, many who thought with reason were stumped. Gamini Dissanayake of UNP (and the then sitting Member of Parliament for Nuwara Eliya) had come first, with 65,903 votes. Anura Bandaranaike of SLFP (the carpet bagger from Colombo Central) had come second, with 48,776 votes. S.Thondaman Sr. the leader of the Indian Tamils for nearly 3 decades (and who was the Member of Parliament for Nuwara Eliya in 1947) had been placed a distant 3rd, with 35,743 votes.
It was obvious to all Tamils in the island, that Anura did not have the charisma of MGR to stand in any Indian Tamil constituency and be elected without a sweat. Neither did he possess the decades-old service record of Thondaman Sr. to beat him handily in vote count.
Though Anura’s eulogists had noted passingly that he was first elected to the Sri Lankan parliament from Nuwara Eliya, what was omitted deserves some notice. The devil is in the details, as wags quip.
In 1977, Sinhalese constituted only 20%; Tamils (Indian Tamils 71% and Ceylon Tamils 7%) amounted to 78%. Muslims made up the balance 2% in the total electorate of 64,407. Total votes polled was tallied as 84.64%. In terms of real numbers, tentatively this amounted to only 10,902 Sinhalese voters; Tamils and Muslims voters totaled 43,609. If the votes received by each of the 3 elected representatives from this constituency was standardized (divided by 3), Gamini Dissanayake would have been supported by 21,967 voters; Anura would have been preferred by 16,258 voters; and Thondaman Sr. would have been the choice of 11,914 voters.
Now, among the 10,902 Sinhalese voters, one could say with some confidence the split between Gamini Dissanayake and Anura would have been in the range of ~7,000 for Dissanyake and 3,900 for Anura. This was because, (1) Dissanayake was the sitting Member, and Anura was a neophyte, carpet bagger in 1977; (2) the swing of Sinhalese votes in the 1977 was pro-UNP (Dissanayake) than pro-SLFP (Anura).
Then, how did Dissanayake and Anura picked up the Indian Tamil votes to the extent, to push Thondaman Sr. to the third place? One should also note the fact that the vote difference Thondaman Sr. had between 1947 and 1977 was eerily in the same order. In 1947, Thondaman had received 9,386 votes to be elected as the Member of Parliament for Nuwara Eliya. In 1977, the same Thondaman could get the nod of only 11,914 voters! (even after three decades of service to his ethnics) This may sound surprising and illogical, but practically true when Gamini Dissanayake and Anura were his political rivals.
Thondaman Sr., ever a pragmatist politician who would never burn his political bridges, and was eyeing for a Cabinet Minister position in the newly elected UNP under the leadership of J.R. Jayewardene, did not press his case of electoral malpractice against his two younger Sinhalese rivals in 1977. But, in 1994, he did record his sour experience of the 1977 election verdict in Nuwara Eliya, in his autobiography. To quote the two paragraphs of Thondaman, verbatim,
Anura – the Opportunistic Parliamentarian
Having entered the parliament in 1977 piggy backing on the Indian Tamil vote from Nuwara Eliya-Maskeliya, did Anura contributed anything to the welfare of Indian Tamil plantation constituency for the next 12 years? His record on this issue is dismal.
As was typical of his two prime minister parents, Anura was never shy on playing the Sinhala ‘race card’ when opportunity suited him, especially during the period (post-August 1983 -1988) when he served as the Leader of the Opposition. For record, I reproduce two paragraphs from an editorial that appeared in the Tamil Times in 1986, which compared the political mind-set of Solomon Bandaranaike with that of his wife Sirimavo and his son Anura.
Anura couldn’t forsee then, that it was this kind of sophomoric boasting which cost his mother Sirimavo dearly, when the indigenous Tamils tipped their vote towards her UNP opponent Premadasa in the December 1988 presidential election. The young Premadasa of 1950s and 1960s was no stranger to anti-Tamil oratory; but the mature Premadasa, the street-smart politician, knew how to turn Anura’s anti-Tamil rhetoric to his advantage by pretending not to antagonize the Tamil vote overtly.
But the political opportunist persona never deserted him even in the 2000s, when on more than one occasion (during his malcontent, malingering mood after a depletion of his security detail) Anura would attempt to milk sympathy by sobbing that he was on LTTE’s ‘hit list’, and he don’t know ‘what Pirabhakaran would do’ to him. Anura was finally felled by a lethal hit, not from LTTE, but from the Grim Reaper.
A Benefactor of 'Tamils'
If one has to mention an issue which had been omitted by his Colombo eulogists, I’d note that in the first half of 1970s (when he was dreaming of himself as the crown prince) Anura was a benefactor of a few Jaffna Tamils, who pandered to his ego. Alfred Duraiappah, Kumarasami Vinodhan and K.T. Rajasingham were a few who promoted themselves as the ‘political organizers’ of some Jaffna constituencies (like Jaffna, Uduvil and Udupiddy, by hitching their carts to Anura’s star.
In relation to this, I can state that Anura had the distinction of being the only budding Sinhalese politician receiving dramatic recognition in Tamil stage. I remember vividly that either in 1974 or 1975, in a political satire drama staged for the annual kalai vizha (art festival) at the Ramakrishna Hall, Wellawatte, the undergrads of the then Kattubedda Campus of the University of Sri Lanka [now the University of Moratuwa], depicted Anura as a thumb-sucking cretin with a crown, prancing around the stage, followed by two or three retainer servants. This thumb-sucking cretin didn’t utter a word, but the Tamil audience could easily recognize the identity of him and his spine-stunted retainers.
Quite a number of drama fans chuckled at this Anura caricature and his panderers, since during that era, the Emergency Regulations were in force and Tamil undergrads had to be careful in not providing inflammatory(?) entertainment for folks via theater.
Sometimes those who were involved in providing such harmless entertainment (the script writer, director, producer) were targeted by the government-appointed mandarin called ‘The Competent Authority’.
Thus, having nothing appearing in the drama script per se, but characters prancing in the stage without any dialogue for visual entertainment, was a ruse adopted to overcome the timid Censor police.
Boy, were the Tamil undergrads of Kattubedda Campus so mad at the hypocrisy of premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her Tamil panderers who preached the virtue of undergrad education (with all the competitive scramble for placing) within the island to the commoners, but sent her crown prince son to London for undergraduate studies.
On this issue, I write with first hand information of this period, since as a Colombo Campus undergrad (and also as the President of the Colombo Campus Tamil Society in 1975), I too acted in two politically tinged (covertly!) musical dramas in 1974 and 1975, that were staged at the same Ramakrishna Hall.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Lines
A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, the academic chronicler of Sri Lankan politics of the second half of 20th century, had recorded his reminiscence of a meeting he had with primeminister Solomon Bandaranaike at the age of 59 (in 1958) as follows:
To be fair by Solomon Bandaranaike, it cannot be said of his son Anura at the age of 59, that he “was extremely intelligent, he knew full well everything on which he discoursed.” In sum, Anura’s personal and political careers seem to fit a few lines of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem ‘Fame’ (1824).