Chatting to a journalist at a recent National Day party in Colombo, a newly arrived high commissioner mentioned that she had not yet presented her credentials. “You’d better take along something to read at the credentials ceremony,” advised the journalist. “Our president is notorious for keeping people waiting.”
In fact, such is Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s habitual unpunctuality that the Colombo foreign office has re-arranged the credential presentation ceremonies so that arriving ambassadors will no longer have to cool their heels waiting for the president. Under the new arrangement, the envoys need not go to the presidential palace on the appointed day until summoned by phone. Till the call comes, they make small talk at their own residences with a government official who comes and sits with them.
During a two-day state visit to India in December, the ‘victims’ included Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Vice- President Krishna Kant. former prime minister I.K. Gujral, Home Minister L.K. Advani, captains of trade and industry religious leaders and the media.
“True to form—Chandrika does it again,” proclaimed a prominently displayed front page piece in the Island when Kumaratunga returned to Colombo. The newspaper’s New Delhi correspondent reported that Kumaratunga had kept a total of at least a thousand distinguished Indians waiting for her for varying periods of time during this visit. “Those who suffered in horrified silence—because of her astounding habit included some of the most important people in the land,” the report said. Kumaratunga, whose signature smile is said to charm most people, was said by a Delhi paper to have left the Indian diplomatic establishment “red faced”. Vajpayee was said to have been fortunate according to the paper—his wait was only of about 20 minutes
Vice-President Kant and Home Minister Advani were not so lucky. They could not meet Kumaratunga because she was “simply not available” at the appointed time. Advani then tried twice to call on her, but in vain. A new meeting was fixed, but she was still not available and the meeting was rescheduled by embarrassed protocol officials. Advani went to seek Kumaratunga in the Rashtrapati Bhavan where she was staying, only to be politely told that “Madam President had extended her discussions” with Sonia Gandhi at the latters home.
Earlier, the president was even late for her ceremonial welcome at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan, and was tardy by over half an hour for a ceremony at which she and Vajpayee jointly laid the foundation stone for a pilgrim’s rest-house near the New Delhi railway station. She kept Indian business leaders waiting for an hour at a scheduled luncheon meeting at the Taj Palace hotel. On the day of her arrival she was late by almost an hour at a dinner hosted in her honour by Sri Lanka’s high commissioner in New Delhi, and the nearly 400 people, including 300 Japanese Buddhists and a hundred very important Indians, could do nothing but wait patiently.
The Island report got under official skin, it seemed. For, two weeks after it appeared, the foreign ministry issued a statement explaining that the president bad had to work very hard in India, till 2.30 am on one day, “directing complex final preparations that led to the signing of the free trade agreement between India and Sri Lanka.’
The ministry accused the report of being gross distortion of the true picture” and said that a great effort had been made to “demean the results of the [India] visit”. The Island hit back saying that its correspondent had simply reported an “extraordinary happening in diplomacy” which had also been reported in India’s national newspapers. “To say that the article in question attempts to ‘demean’ the president defies logic and reason and could be considered only as an expression of bureaucratic toadiness.’
The fact is the Indians should have known that back home, Kumaratunga is habitually late for almost every appointment. It is news when she is anywhere on time. One example of uncharacteristic punctuality was in last April when the highest ranking US delegation since Kumaratunga took office, visited Colombo, led by UN Ambassador Bill Richardson. One news agency reported that “she stunned the guests with a rare display of punctuality” and that “the gesture paid instant diplomatic dividends”.
But Commonwealth Secretary General Emeka Anyaoku was not so lucky. He was kept waiting nearly an hour and a half the same evening!