Sunethra rang me. I was in the middle of something. She asked me ‘what is your prediction?’
A conversation ensued, but before we come to it, let me briefly state the historical context.
Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike was born on the 17th of April, 1916, exactly 100 years ago. As the world’s first female Prime Minister, a woman who served three terms as the Prime Minister of the country, the longest serving leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the wife of a Prime Minister and the mother of an Executive President with credentials as a strong and resourceful leader, her place in the history of post-Independence Sri Lanka is well-established. Her achievements and failures, the good and the bad, have been extensively written about and will probably be the subject of political commentary well into the future. This is not an article of that nature. It is essentially a report of her last political act which can be taken as symptomatic of the overall political culture of the country. That assessment we shall leave to the reader.
I was at the time working for the Ravaya newspaper. On the evening of the day before the election, the editor of Ravaya, Victor Ivan, and I were considering possible outcomes based on our assessment of the numbers that the two main candidates, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa, were likely to poll in different provinces and districts. It was in the midst of these calculations that Sunethra Bandaranaike called me.
“What is your prediction about tomorrow’s result?” she asked
“We are still calculating. However even in the worst case scenario Ranil Wickremesinghe is the winner, noh?” that was my response.
She then said: “Come, come, come let’s meet tonight to discuss this further.”
So I went to her residence and we considered different scenarios and made relevant forecasts.
She wanted me to write them all down. I did so.
She asked me what I was going to do the following day and said “I am going to bed now, I have to wake up early and go vote with my brother and sister”. That would be Anura and Chandrika.
At this point I asked her why the three of them were so eager to wake up early to vote for Ranil Wickremesinghe. I added, “Even Sirima voted for the UNP and died the same day!” I was repeating a rumour I had heard four years before that.
“Show some respect and call her Sirimavo or Mrs. B,” Sunethra said.
“Ok, ok, ok…calm down… she anyway died after voting for the UNP noh?” I asked.
Then she related what had happened on the 10th of October, 2000, the date of the General Election.
“No, no Uvindu I was there and it was I who took her in the wheel chair to cast her vote. Once we entered the polling booth, the lady official assisted her to cast her vote. The lady official asked her whom she would wish to vote for in order to tick the relevant box. She loudly said ‘Bandaranaike’. Luckily only the lady officer, the polling booth official and I were there. I am not sure if anyone else heard it. Fortunately there was another Bandaranaike on the SLFP list. Pandu Bandaranayake. The polling booth official asked her which Bandaranaike she wanted to vote for. She then said ‘Anura, Anura’ ”
I then said “There you go, that’s why I said your mother voted for the UNP”.
According to the voting system, one has to first vote for the party and then mark one’s preference for a candidate.
“Don’t interpret it like that,” Sunethra said, and explained, “That’s the love a mother has for her son”.
This was how Sunethra Bandaranaike confirmed the rumour about the last time her mother cast a vote, which turned out to be her last political act.
The piece of information of course was interesting, but what intrigued me more was the nuances of this game of politics and what a strong factor nepotism is. Sirima, after all, was at that very moment the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and yet she voted for the United National Party since she wanted to mark a preferential vote for her son! Her last political act, was clearly nepotistic. Party loyalty, party leadership, ideological position etc., were obviously less important to her. Of course, one can argue that by that time Sirima was only leader in name and that it was Chandrika who ran the party, but still, we are talking about a key political personality in the post-Independence history of the country and not the figurehead of a marginal political entity.
The following morning Sunethra called me again.
“Mama mallith ekka chande dande yanawa. Mallita oyath ekka katha karanna oneylu (my brother and I are going to cast our votes. He wishes to speak with you) can I pass the phone to him?”.
I said “OK no problem”.
Anura came on line.
“Mama oyage analysis eka kiyewwa (I read your analysis) and it is correct. Esayma weva kiyala mama prarthawa karanawa (I wish your prediction will come true),” he said.
In October 2000, Sirima Bandaranaike, while being leader of the SLFP, voted for the UNP. In 2005, her son Anura, although a leading member of the SLFP, also voted for the Presidential candidate of the opposition UNP! Ironically, Sirima’s husband SWRD Bandaranaike formed the SLFP after breaking away from the UNP.
Let me repeat. As we commemorate the birth centenary of Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike, there will be commentary on her leadership qualities and her place in history, the good, the bad and the ugly and so on. Here, we focus on two things only. First, the establishment of the truth of her last political act while the sources of the story are still alive (at this point myself and Sunethra, who by the way has not responded to several attempts to contact her regarding this article). Secondly and more importantly, the fact that family ties, maternal/paternal love and other such ties associated with nepotism are overriding factors in Sri Lanka’s political culture.
Sirima, we all know, entered politics because she was the widow of a politician. Nepotism was affirmed by the rank and file of her late husband’s party when the time came to elect a successor. Some may claim she was indeed a better leader than her husband, but that’s irrelevant here. What is relevant is that she nurtured her children, Chandrika and Anura, to take over the party leadership. She was strongly motivated to turn the SLFP into a family fiefdom, a charge that her daughter Chandrika ironically levels at Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man that Anura and Sunethra and perhaps Chandrika voted against in 2005.
Sirima held the party leadership for over 50 years, i.e until she died. What Mahinda Rajapaksa did, one can argue, was take nepotism to a level that the people just couldn’t bear. Doing away with nepotism, one might remember, was one of the major slogans in the anti-Rajapaksa campaign.
The mainstream media, for reasons best known to its commanding personalities, did not raise the issue of nepotism. It was raised by websites banned by the Rajapaksa regime and by social media activists. This is why, as a consumer of social media, I can say that the brand of nepotism displayed by Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tendency to appoint friends and donors to key positions is far more corrupting than that of the Rajapaksas or Bandaranaikes, because they came to power promising to end nepotism.
Sirima will no doubt be showered with accolades and she will also have her fair share of critics. The problem is that she may be dead and gone, but nepotism lives and thrives. This is why it would be prudent for Sirisena and Wickeremesinghe to read the recommendations of Presidential Commission on Youth Unrest, published in 1990. The youth of today are not going to be as tolerant as the generations that came before.