Like the Nehrus in India, ruling Sri Lanka has been the family business of the Bandaranaikes.
It was curtains for Sri Lanka´s mother-daughter political act when Sirima Bandaranaike who had been the ´token´ prime minister of her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga´s People´s Alliance (PA) government since 1994, was made to step down from office to make way for a younger successor able to contribute towards the reelection of the PA at the 10 October general election.
The 84-year-old matriarch, near crippled by arthritis, had not been able to function for much of her last lap in office. Confined to a wheelchair and unable to communicate effectively, Mrs. B, as she is popularly known in political circles, was unable to even marginally take part in governance. Although the office is without real power under Sri Lanka´s Constitution where a directly elected executive president is both head of state and head of government, the prime ministry remains the number two slot hierarchically.
The first holder of that office under the presidential system, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who became prime minister under J.R. Jayewardene, effectively demonstrated that the office could be used to reach out for the ultimate prize. Premadasa made his presence felt as the leader of the government party in Parliament and its chief defender or attacker in the legislature. It was also a useful tool to project himself as the successor to the presidency despite the challenge by two younger colleagues, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. Sadly, all three-Athulathmudali, Prema-dasa and Dissanayake—in that order were to die at the hands of assassins.
Keeping her mother as prime minister despite her very visible disabilities proved useful to Chandrika. That way she could keep other aspirants at bay without antagonising some by choosing another. Also, given the role that Mrs. B had played in Sri Lanka´s politics over a 40-year period, nobody would publicly ask “why is this lady clinging on in her condition?” Elder daughter Sun-ethra, the only Bandaranaike not in politics, said as much in a recent interview.
“I didn´t want her (Mrs. B) to be embarrassed by people saying, ´What is the meaning of this? This old lady should know when to go´ Why is she hanging on like this?” But an MP from the opposition United National Party (UNP) did say so two or three years ago, Sunethra remembered. But the irony of politics is such that the very MP crossed over to the government and was rewarded with a ministry by Chandrika. And he was pictured smiling behind Mrs. B when the cabinet called on her to bid goodbye.
But with the elections approaching and Chandrika in trouble with a new constitution that she was determined to push through at the fag end of the 10th parliament, realpolitik demanded that whatever shine there was in the prime ministry be exploited. So mum had to go. Sunethra says that she was delighted that her mother took the “initiative” to resign. “If she had not, I would presume next time round she would have been dropped from the national list (30 places in the 225-member Parliament are filled through this device with unelected persons). This I saw as a better way to bow out of the political arena”.
But Anura Bandaranaike, Mrs. B´s only son, tells a different story. He called the resignation “sudden” and says he was perplexed by it. “I don´t see any logic in it”, he said. “My mother was planning to resign at the end of the election campaign. met her twice after the resignation and I strongly feel that she was forced to leave. She is so weak that she has little to say on anything”. Anura alleged that the letter of resignation was prepared and sent for Mrs. B to sign.
Sunethra defends her sister saying that Anura “sees everything in a contrary light”. Having failed to win the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), founded by their father, prime minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959, Anura now belongs to the UNP which his father left sensing that the prime ministry was going to be dynastically handed over by (then) Ceylon´s first prime minister, Don Stephen Senanayake, to his son, Dudley. Bandaranaike Sr. was right. But he did succeed in sweeping the UNP out of office in a nationalist wave in 1956.
Like his father, Anura switched sides after losing the succession battle to Chandrika in 1993. He often jests that the Bandaranaikes of Sri Lanka, like the Bhuttos of Pakistan, are always feuding. For high stakes, it must be added.
Many Lankans believe Anura´s version of his mother´s exit. The circumstantial evidence points strongly in that direction. Mrs. B´s dearest wish appears to have been a reconciliation between son and daughter, and Anura stepping into her prime ministerial shoes. But that was not to be.
Like the Nehrus in India, ruling the country has long been the family business of the Bandaranaikes. Mrs. B was swept to office in 1960 to become the world´s first woman prime minister following her husband´s assassination. Then a shy housewife, she was virtually railroaded into politics when the SLFP failed to win the first general election called after Bandaranaike´s assassination. But with a hung parliament, prime minister Dudley Senanayake chose to recommend dissolution after he had been defeated in the first throne speech presented by his March 1960 government. Mrs. B, cast as a weeping widow in white, won the election that followed in July the same year.
She learnt her ropes from the Senate, the Upper House of the then bicameral legislature. She matured as a politician when she became the leader of the opposition in the Lower House from 1965-1970. The political savvy she acquired during these five years was remarkable. Her major triumph was her resounding victory in 1970 to become the head of a United Front government that included Sri Lanka´s old Left, the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party. The way she handled a youth insurrection in 1971 won her the accolade of being “the only man in the cabinet” from Sir John Kotelawela, a bluntly outspoken soldier who served as prime minister from 1952-56.
Chandrika´s opponents say that she would like to keep the seat warm for one of her two children. Daughter Yasodhara is studying medicine at Cambridge and son Vimukthi is due to train as a veterinarian also in England. Though their mother, who is a captive of security in the light of the continuing assassination threat by the Liberation Tigers, has publicly said that her children hate politics (their father too was assassinated like their grandfather) and dislikes her being in it, the comparison with the Nehrus is hard to avoid.