By Vishwamithra1984 –
“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” ~ Aldous Huxley,
The country that S W R D Bandaranaike left behind to his successors resembled an experiment that had gone bust in the laboratory, not for reasons that the belief in the core theory was flawed, but more for the fact that those who were bequeathed to carry it forward were not sufficiently skilled and competent and their share of belief in the experiment did not match the original creator’s grandiose scheme. Bandaranaike was a great dreamer. When he was at Oxford, according to James Manor’s biography ‘The Expedient Utopian’, one day, on his way back to his room from an unsuccessful attempt at grasping an opportunity to make his contribution at a debate organized by the Oxford Student Union, meandering through the gorgeous meadows of the breathtaking English landscape, Bandaranaike made a promise to himself: ‘Before I become their equal, I must be their superior’. Such a magnificently inspiring life-goal would take root, leave alone bear fruit, only in rare and unique minds. Bandaranaike belonged to that rare species.
Yet in action, he was a near-disaster as was shown in the conceptualization, planning, execution and eventual tearing up of the infamous Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact. Discipline, devotion and defiance, three critical characteristics of a great leader, Bandaranaike did not seem to possess. Both D S Senanayake and J R Jayewardene were like solid rocks in the face of storms and gales; in their presence tempests lost their force and withdrew to the backwoods while Bandaranaike wilted like a fragile stalk. As Julius Caesar told the Roman Senate: ‘Some men are ruled by their circumstances but some men bend their circumstances to their will’. D S’s and J R’s place was among the latter while Bandaranaike belonged to the former.
The BC Pact, as it was known, did not see the light of day. Contrast that to the signing of the Gandhi-Jayewardene Accord in 1987: Bandaranaike could not withstand the pressures of the Satyagraha conducted by a few Buddhist monks and laymen on his private premises at Rosmead Place. J R Jayewardene had to wither the storm of riots erupting in the capital city of Colombo and elsewhere, his own Prime Minister and Minister of National Security defying the accord openly, the whole country burning in all corners, yet, with the mighty Indian Navy defending the shores of Sri Lanka (as per J N Dixit’s narrative in ‘Assignment Colombo’), J R consummated what he began with Rajiv Gandhi and to date, that document remains the sole treaty with the Tamil people in Sri Lanka- a treaty that led to the Thirteenth Amendment to our Constitution- more than what the BC Pact promised to the Chelvanayagams of yesteryear. Let’s deal with J R later. First, the years prior to him, Bandaranaike’s widow and his relative Felix Dias and the traditional Left.
A sophisticated political dynamic such as ‘democracy’ is not suited for an uneducated, unsophisticated electorate like Sri Lanka. When in 1931, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan objected to the grant of universal franchise to Ceylon, his objection was construed as a ploy to safeguard the decisive minority representation in the then State Council, however, now it seems that his argument that Ceylon was not ready for universal franchise, mainly because she was not sufficiently educated and equipped to appreciate such a sophisticated weapon, holds water, whatever his motivations were at the time. There was another person who identified the precise character of the Sri Lankan electorate. His name was Felix Dias Bandaranaike. And he was young, only 29 years old when he first entered parliament.
In post-Independence Sri Lanka, there was no second-in-command in any government who was more powerful than Felix Dias Bandaranaike. A brilliant product of Royal College, the University of Ceylon and Law College, this egotistical political snob knew how to wield power and wield he did, during the two regimes of Sirimao Bandaranaike, from ‘60 – ‘65 and ‘70 – ‘77. During his peak, Felix Dias was feared by his enemies and disliked by his peers. Yet Sirimao maintained a deadpan posture in regard to the political acrobatics of her husband’s nephew. A man obsessed with his own mighty persuasive powers, Felix piloted the governmental machine in troubled waters and quite successfully so. Two of his noteworthy feats were quelling of the infamous coup d’état led by some former high-ups in the security forces in 1962 and crushing of the ‘71 April insurrection led by Rohana Wijeweera.
The governments of Sirimao Bandaranaike in her two terms were an economic misadventure for the country. Bent on populism and leftist socialist policies, these SLFP-led coalitions in 1960 as well and in 1970 were entrenched in unbending doctrinaire politics. Failure of these policies was a textbook lesson for all politicians in the third world why socialism/communism-based economic policies were a great hindrance to the advancement of a capital market and progress of the average man. A populist move, nationalization of profit-making business ventures, including the estate sector, may have had a very popular appeal, especially in the context of the hatred and loathing the capitalist elites were held in, but their long-term adverse economic effects were yet to appear. The propaganda machinery steered by Felix Dias and his close associates, poured out fake statistics bordering on outright lies and their supporters and cohorts bought these lies as the gospel, and this campaign was followed up by a potentially dangerous slogan asking Sirimao Bandaranaike not to dissolve parliament on due date.
The frenzy that was generated had a trace of desperation for those in power. But J R waiting in the Opposition, the one who had exercised great discipline, whose devotion to the task at hand was never questioned and who proved that in defeat he was defiant to the end, realized that the SLFP-led coalition government was cutting a sure road to electoral disaster. J R had a unique curriculum vitae. The intangibles in his resume were unmatched in that his loyalty to the one on the throne was always total and it never wavered. On top of that unique trait, J R also showed consummate capacity for organization and the greatest of all traits a leader should possess, equanimity, being unmoved by victory or defeat. Armed with such matchless qualities, besides the educational credentials, J R was supremely confident that Sirimao-Felix-N M clan could be defeated at the next elections.
After Dudley Senanayake passed away in 1973, the mantle of leadership of the UNP fell on J R. In hindsight, I dare say that J R reached the seat of power two decades too late. But how did Dudley Senanayake perform in his four terms of Prime Minister of the country he loved so dearly? My answer is: he was rather disappointing. Dudley Senanayake, a man of scholarship, a first class parliamentary debater, and an affable conversationalist and a compelling public speaker with a sincere commitment to the service of man, his biggest folly was his stifling sense indecision. That sense of indecision cost the enactment of the Dudley-Chelvanayagam Pact (DC Pact), with that, the trust the Tamil community had in the leadership of the Sinhalese political leadership evaporated. His hesitancy also cost his party a lot, especially when changes of its faces were a dire need.
Nevertheless, Dudley was a ‘big’ human being. In a gallery of giant peers such as J R, N M, Colvin, Kuenaman, Chelvanayagam, Sunderalingam, S W R D and Felix Dias, Dudley stood the tallest in every sense of the word. A man who could laugh at himself while cracking a joke on others, the passing away of this son of our first Prime Minister caused many strong men to weep openly. At the funeral attended by the largest gathering of a grateful nation, J R, paraphrasing Horatio’s farewell to Hamlet, made the most momentous funeral oration in our lifetime and bade good bye to his dear friend thus: ‘Good night, sweet prince, may the hosts of Devas sing thee to thy sleep’. Against a backdrop of darkening skies, while millions of stars from above mourned in the twilight of the day, the Hamlet of Ceylon’s politics bade his final good bye to a lamenting nation.
When J R assumed the leadership of the UNP, the party that was drifting without any direction, suddenly found direction and a purpose. An astute student of history and politics, J R did not get into politics only to occupy a position of power. He was there to use that power to serve the country the way he thought best. He also understood that the fundamental element in survival in politics is patience and he had a load of it. And J R in the Opposition, as its leader, was no joke. Sirimao Bandaranaike may not have assessed J R’s ability to persuade key personnel to switch camps, his immense capacity for work without losing focus on the final goal, his matchless sense of timing, all played crucial roles in making the Bandaranaike-government in the early seventies extremely unpopular. Mrs. Bandaranaike didn’t help herself either. She could not control her own parliamentarians whose uncouth behavior, inside that august assembly brought dishonor to the people whom they have sworn to represent, and that alone was testimony to Mrs. B’s disregard for accountability. Indulging in politics for serving and enriching oneself instead of the masses became the norm during this time and this nasty, dishonorable trend kept continuing to date at a more devastating rate. The government’s unpopularity reached so high, it was no exaggeration to presume that the people were waiting impatiently for the polling day to dawn.
It was a new dawn all right. Next week, that dawn and its story.
*The writer can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org