Groundviews

The Chandrika Bandaranaike factor in Sri Lankan politics, Part I

Photo courtesy DBS Jeyaraj

A Gaullist executive presidency for Sri Lanka was an idea that J.R. Jayewardene cherished since the early years of the Dominion state. Having won a spectacular majority against Sirima Bandaranaike’s United Front in 1977 (by then disunited and disintegrating), Jayewardene was finally in a position to give expression to his ultimate wish, an all-powerful, overarching Gaullist executive presidency. Since its establishment, the executive presidency of Sri Lanka has been the topic of much political debate and controversy. On the run up to the 1994 general and presidential elections, for example, the abolition of the powerful office through constitutional reform was a key tenet of the People’s Alliance (PA) manifesto. The JVP as well as leftist parties have long been resolutely opposed to the executive presidency.

In the Sri Lankan context, the executive presidency has been marked by a singular feature, common to the Jayewardene, Premadasa, Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa administrations: the wielding of overarching, near-untouchable power by a circle of individuals with close ties to the President. In the Jayewardene dispensation, this circle happened to be composed of President Jayewardene’s personal friends and family members, including sibling Harry, who chaired Colombo’s delegation to the 1985 Thimpu talks. A cursory glance at Jayewardene’s diaries from the early 1980s – the toddler years of the executive presidency – provides indications to this growing trend, with Jayewardene repeatedly jotting down appointments for lunch, dinner and tea with his closest colleagues and friends, members of the privileged presidential personal circle. Under the Premadasa dispensation, the presidential circle included his close friends cum political allies such as Sirisena Coorey. In the Chandrika Bandaranaike administration, the circle of influence included the President’s personal friends, from an infamous Ronnie Peiris to Mano Thiththawella and Tara de Mel etc., a cohort that some dubbed ‘kitchen cabinet’, a term this writer categorically abhors due to its outright sexist and misogynistic connotations.

The purpose of this article is to briefly reflect upon a number of salient factors about the political legacy of the Chandrika Bandaranaike (CB) presidency, especially in the backdrop of CB’s active involvement in bringing forth the Maitripala Sirisena candidacy for the 2015 presidential election. This article is certainly not an effort to engage in a comprehensive assessment of aspects of the CB phenomenon, which would require a much longer piece of writing and a more extensive body of research. Instead, this article highlights a selected number of key points concerning the CB presidency, and CB’s role in present-day politics. As opposed to the J.R. Jayewardene presidency, there exists a relative dearth of studies on the decade-long CB administration. Volume Two of J.R. Jayewardene’s biography authored by Professors Kingsley de Silva and Howard Wriggins is largely devoted to the Jayewardene presidency. Bradman Weerakoon’s short monograph Premadasa of Sri Lanka delves into the intriguing personality President Premadasa. In comparison, and given the much longer duration of the CB presidency, (and if one, like this writer, would rather ignore Victor Ivan categorically, and put aside an adulatory book in Sinhala by Janadasa Peiris and an English language publication that resembles a long photo essay), an in-depth study that engages in a balanced analysis of the legacy of the ‘Chandrika decade’ is yet to come.

What’s in a name?

In what follows, this writer refers to Sri Lanka’s fourth executive president as CB, making a deliberate choice to lay less emphasis on the former President’s married name. This distinction is deemed absolutely crucial in understanding the CB presidency. To be precise, what enabled a CB chief-ministership (of the Western Province) in 1993, premiership in August 1994 and presidency in November 1994 was singularly the fact that CB happened to be a ‘Bandaranaike’, and specifically, the younger daughter of Prime Ministers Solomon and Sirima Bandaranaike. CB’s re-entry into active politics from expatriation, accession to presidency and her subsequent political ups and downs were all facilitated and characterised by her ‘Bandaranaike’ credentials. Had she not been the offspring of the late Prime Ministers Mr and Mrs Bandaranaike, and were only known in public life as the late Vijaya Kumaratunga’s spouse, it is no exaggeration to note that CB is unlikely to have even made it to the footnotes of Sri Lankan political history. This argument, however, could be challenged; if one were to call CB a typical ‘dynastic politician’, for instance, CB could turn around and ask whether she would ever have married someone like the late Mr Kumaratunga, had she been ‘dynastic’. This, obviously, is an argument more than crappy, as personal choices do not necessarily reflect ‘political’ choices. Besides, one is left wondering as to who (irrespective of gender) in the mid/late 1970s and throughout the 1980s in Sri Lanka would not have been enchanted by that smile, physique, progressive ideas and, lo and behold, the voice, of Vijaya Kumaratunga…? In his short-lived political life span, Mr Kumaratunga campaigned tirelessly for a negotiated settlement to the ethnic question. This, coupled with a humanist and considerate discourse (plus a personality positively flared by his unprecedented public appeal on the silver screen, together with a politically influential profile strengthened by his nuptial connection to the country’s top political household), made him a rising contender at national-level politics. Under the CB presidency, one could perhaps attribute CB’s keen interest in political reform and relentless advocacy for a political settlement to the ethnic question (from the initial peace talks of 1995 to the P-TOMS), to a ‘Kumaratunga stamp’ of her political agenda. Irrespective of whether it was indeed the case or not, this writer argues below that President CB’s overall approach to the ethnic question happened to miscalculated and convoluted, having a politically disadvantageous effect on the entirety of the CB presidency.

CB’s 1994 landslide in retrospection: A Mandate Misread?

Flash-back to mid-1994. Barely a year had passed since the assassination of Ranasinghe Premadasa on May Day 1993, and the latter was already history, with the political establishment transformed beyond recognition. In a development that would have been far from imaginable had President Premadasa been alive and well at the helm, SLFP politicians disgruntled with the late Anura Bandaranaike spearheaded a politically tactful move, bringing back CB to the forefront of politics. It was a time when the electorate was suffering with an overdose of UNP rule, and there was a leadership vacuum at national level, which CB – with her charismatic personality and signature smile – filled. This (public discontent over UNP rule – especially the autocratic excesses of the Premadasa years) was the most pivotal factor that led to CB’s electoral hubris in 1994. To the collective misfortune of CB and her coalition, her mass public endorsement at the general and presidential elections of 1994 was repeatedly (mis)interpreted as a ‘mandate for peace’. Nationally, this was facilitated by the popularity of CB’s positions on the ethnic question (As articulated on election platforms, in front of packed audiences, basking in an unprecedented public reception not so different from that of Mr Maitripala Sirisena throughout his 2014/5 presidential campaign) as well as the global context, in which the post-Cold War primacy of liberal peacebuilding approaches were the vogue.

As events proved to demonstrate, perceiving the CB mandate as a mandate for peace happened to be fundamentally erroneous. The popularity of CB’s ideas on a peaceful settlement was largely the result of a public interest in a new face and a new agenda, and an urge for something ‘different’ from what they got from Presidents Jayewardene and Premadasa. Reading CB’s mandate as a mass public endorsement of quasi-federal political reform (intended at a durable political settlement of the ethnic question) proved to be a fundamentally flawed assessment.

A complex scenario?

In other words, the advent of a CB presidency did not take off the obstacles for magnanimous political reform with a clement attitude towards minority grievances. Siblings J.R. and Harry Jayewardene knew this back in 1985, as it was evident in Harrys’ stance at the Thimpu talks that year. The Sinhalese discontent of the IPKF phase, if anything, was most poignantly expressed when a soldier nearly smashed visiting Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s head at a guard of honour. The same contempt was expressed when President Premadasa initiated direct talks with the LTTE. Despite a landslide mandate to CB (and despite the optimistic assessments of some learned surveys of public opinion), this widespread attitude in the Sinhalese polity and wider community that was inimical to political reform targeting the ethno-national question was not bound to witness a radical change after August/November 1994. Those begging to differ may raise the question as to ‘why’ then, did hoards of Sinhalese voters voted for CB in 1994, had they not been very keen about her ideas on extensively devolved/quasi-federal political reform.

The answer to this question could be explained through a present-day analogy. In the Maitripala Sirisena presidential campaign, a key overarching pledge has been that of doing away with/substantively reforming the executive presidency. This, as other analysts have highlighted, is not a ‘public’ grievance. It is rather a grievance of the political class. Under President Rajapaksa’s second mandate, a large portion of crucial government ministries and departments fell under the purview of presidential siblings, and in many a ministry, the secretaries (administrative heads of ministries), instead of the normal practice of being appointed by ministerial recommendation, were appointed directly by the President. These developments resulted in a context in which ministers (some of them holding key portfolios) who were not presidential relatives were relegated to puppetry, with the secretaries of their ministries wielding presidential influence and their authority substantively challenged. As Champika Ranawaka’s letters to President Rajapaksa indicate, pleas from non-family ministers had been, more often than not, the objects of total disregard. This is at the heart of the political establishment’s (especially the SLFP dissidents’ and the JHU’s) displeasure over the Executive Presidency. The public is preoccupied by other pressing issues, and concerns over constitutional reform does not form a major public demand.

In a similar vein, CB’s enthusiastic claims for peace negotiations and political reform entailed a strong political statement, which reflected her political ideology, and her preferred approach to the ethnic question. By reiterating her commitment to political reform and a negotiated settlement in 1994, CB sought to mark her footprint, and demonstrate that she stands for a more wholesome approach to the Tamil separatist conflict than her two predecessors of the opposite political camp. Despite the undeniable public appeal of CB’s perspectives on the ethnic question, the ‘real’ reasons behind the landslide public endorsement of CB at the general and presidential elections of 1994 were somewhat different. That vote is best explained by a high level of public discontent over the seventeen-year long UNP regime, and a genuinely felt desire for change. If one is to be reminded, stark similarities can be observed between the public aversion of the UNP regime in 1994 and the critiques against the Rajapaksa regime today. Both were accused of rabid corruption, jumbo cabinets and substantive threats to ‘Southern’ public security (disappearances and anti-dissenter violence under the UNP, disappearances, white wans, Weliveriya, Katunayaka et al under the Rajapaksas) and restrictions on the freedom of expression. In the backdrop of public discontent over such issues, CB’s toothpaste-advert-smile-clad onslaught against düshanaya and bheeshanaya held the day. The only exception with regards to President Rajapaksa is that he is in a position to reiterate his political leadership to the 2009 military victory, a feat with tremendous political currency among the Sinhalese electorate.

A Decade of Political challenges

Throughout its existence, the CB dispensation was constantly faced with the challenge of ensuring its parliamentary majority, with only one additional vote for the CB government. This situation posed a considerable political hurdle, especially for the passage of political reforms. The power balance in the political landscape, even after the tragic death of Gamini Dissanayake with the UNP left with a difficultly marketable leadership, was not in CB’s favour. As the CB decade rolled on, this obstacle appeared to be insurmountable. CB’s decisions to sign pacts with the JVP, and the 2001 defeat of her coalition following the defection of a group of leading ministers including S.B. Dissanayake and G.L. Peiris were proof of the constant challenges CB faced in manoeuvring the tricky terrain of Sri Lankan politics with a weak parliamentary majority.

Despite these clear obstacles, CB proceeded, in a surreal twist, to prioritise a robust agenda of peace talks and political reform. This was a move that could be described as ‘politically not so strategic’ in the Sri Lankan context. Contrary to the belief shared by CB and her leading ministers/advisors, there was no mass public consensus on which her political reform project could lean on. This reality, complemented by the aforementioned obstacle of securing a parliamentary majority, made her political reform project an impossible venture. Prior to laying emphasis on political reform, it would have been advisable to explore options of strengthening the parliamentary majority of the People’s Alliance, through practices not uncommon to the polity, such as crossovers.

Governing amidst chaos: CB and the LTTE

Retrospectively, one ought not to loose sight of the fact that the CB presidency coincided with a time when the LTTE was at its most powerful. Despite the fall of Jaffna and the achievements of long-range patrols of the Sri Lankan army, the LTTE was in a position to regain its strength rapidly, as it was repeatedly evident in deadly bombings outside the warzone (Central Bank, Kandy 1998, and CB’s final election rally 1999, the Katunayake airport bombing, to name but a handful), large-scale military setbacks such as the Elephant Pass tragedy, and, most importantly perhaps, in the LTTE’s total disregard of CB’s political reform agenda.

In hindsight, it is plausible to affirm that a stronger stance on behalf of CB vis-à-vis the LTTE would have been in her favour. However, CB is very unlikely to have sanctioned a Mullivaikkal 2009-like military operation with a high human cost. This simultaneously proved to be CB’s virtue and her vice. By upholding her approach towards the LTTE, she may have avoided what Western media described as the ‘bloodbath’ of May 2009. The same approach, however, was instrumental in enabling the LTTE go from strength to strength, causing an unprecedented threat to national security and civil defence. The LTTE’s rise during the CB rule also left the organisation’s hierarchy (especially the non-Western-educated, monolingual element, primarily represented by Prabakaran) firmly believing by the early 2000s that Western powers (especially the Norwegian facilitators) were sympathetic towards the LTTE, and that they approved the LTTE’s stance on Tamil Eelam. As far as the LTTE was concerned, its penultimate tragedy was in a) its inability to come to terms with the monumentally erroneous nature of this assessment and b) the absence, at an earlier stage, of a vector within the Sri Lankan polity that was prepared to pose a substantive threat to its existence and pour sense into its ideological apparatus (until the Karuna split, followed by the MR/GR/SF dispensation).

A more firm approach towards the LTTE, political tact focused upon increasing the parliamentary majority, coupled with a strategic re-thinking of her political agenda could possibly have rendered the legacy of the CB presidency a very different one. Concerning political reform, the most feasible approach, as one revisits the mid/late 1990s, would have been to start from an effort to consolidate limited devolution (i.e. the full implementation of the 13th amendment, as well as the ‘practical’, ‘realistic’ and coherent implementation of the national language policy), moving gradually towards a more magnanimous posture. A strategy of moving from A to D via B and C, and not (as CB purported to do in 1995 and in parliament in August 2000 – amidst flames – as her then opponents burnt copies of her draft constitutional proposal in the Chamber itself) a radical tentative to jump from A to D on the political reform ladder proved to be – despite CB’s apparently genuine intention of positive change – politically short-sighted.

A CB comeback?

Flash-forward to late 2014. As some political commenters have highlighted, the former President’s role in the Sirisena campaign carried the risk of damaging its credibility at national level. However, throughout the campaign, CB was quite successful in keeping her distance, engaging in multi-level lobbying, locally with ministers, parliamentarians, provincial and local councillors (the latter especially from her native Gampaha District) and internationally, with the diplomatic community and with her broad-based international network. It is also plausible to assume that CB’s presence (together with Ranil Wickremesinghe on the same side against Mahinda Rajapaksa) would have made the Sirisena phenomenon increasingly appealing to Western funders and well-wishers. It also appears that CB (once again, echoing the ‘better together’ by-line of the Scottish referendum, together with Ranil Wickremesinghe) has been instrumental in promoting the Sirisena candidacy before the Western and Indian foreign policy lobbies.

There has been much speculation about CB’s objectives and agenda in playing a frontline role in bringing forth the Sirisena candidacy. It is myopic to assume that CB has reappeared on the political frontline out of principle alone. If one looks back, it could be understood as a carefully orchestrated political move. At the very end of the presidential campaign of 2010, CB extended her support to Gen. Sarath Fonseka, receiving the latter at her Horagolla home. She appeared on a private T.V. channel soon after, appealing to the public to make a wise choice at the election. In the last few years, CB has been engaging in soft-campaigning amidst the intelligentsia and the upper middle classes, nationally and internationally. At each of her public appearances at home and abroad, be it a keynote at the CERI research centre at Sciences-Po Paris, at a private dinner hosted by a life peer of North Indian descent in London, or in delivering the Justice Palakidner Oration in Colombo, CB repeatedly sought to highlight the same set of arguments – that her rule, in comparison to the Rajapaksa dispensation, was more democratic and accountable, that she stands (as opposed to President Rajapaksa) for good governance, the rule of law, accountability and associated progressive values, and quite interestingly, that in her day, her offspring (as opposed to the Rajapaksa offspring) were better behaved, more sophisticated, and never abused state privileges. CB’s role as the lead batsman behind the Sirisena candidacy therefore does not come as a surprise. It is rather a logical and (unfortunately for President Rajapaksa) inevitable progression of CB’s above-mentioned softcore lobbying, extended to stronger and confidential interactions with dissident SLFP politicians disgruntled with the Rajapaksa brothers, interactions with the UNP, the India-U.S-led ‘Western’ block (opposed to the Rajapaksa-Chinese influence paradigm), and her old friends in the Tamil and Muslim polities.

Carefully Orchestrated?

Spearheading the Sirisena candidacy, she has ensured that the entire initiative serves as a reinvigoration of the Bandaranaike presence in Sri Lankan politics. Mr Sirisena’s much mediatised floral tribute to the Bandaranaike commemoration monument at Horagolla at the very outset of the campaign, for instance, was a clear indication of this reality. If one sufficiently reads between the lines of CB’s recent public pronouncements, her ultimate target appears to be that of deploying her ‘good book’ discourse to her political advantage, in bringing her offspring into politics under a government and a political context favourable to such a development. To quote CB from a newspaper interview, “I don’t know what will happen if the political culture changes. If it does, maybe even I will encourage him [her son, to enter Sri Lankan politics]. But not in this filthy situation”. If the ‘filthy situation’ is to be understood as the Rajapaksa regime, it is clear that CB is engaged in a crusade to end it, and bring back (to borrow from Tisaranee Gunasekara) a normally-dysfunctional democracy, replacing the present regime with one that is more clement towards herself and her personal-political interests. This writer shares Comrade Anura Dissanayake’s affirmation that at the present juncture, an electoral defeat of the Rajapaksas is a positive step, in that it serves to halt the excesses of the Rajapaksa regime. However, it is yet to be seen as to whether a Sirisena presidency would be marked by a ‘Manmohan Singh effect’ (i.e. the case of a dynastic ‘real power’ wielder overshadowing the leader in office). Irrespective of the outcome, it is clear that the 2015 presidential election (which, in a supremely ironic twist, was declared by CB’s political non-friend President Rajapaksa) is set to reinvigorate the CB phenomenon in Sri Lankan politics, approaching seventy, and still running strong.

To be continued…

Dr Chaminda Weerawardhana is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Queen’s University Belfast and Chargé d’Enseignements at Université Lille 1, France.