By Uditha Devapriya –
Some people are vilified. They are in the majority. Others have their lives commemorated every year. They are rare. It is because of this perhaps that we remember them. No one is perfect, of course, which means that no one can really claim an “icon” status without adjusting for his/her frailties. Occasionally, however, they manage to transcend those frailties and become legends. With politicians and statesmen, it must be added here hence, this is more the rule than the exception. Happily.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike would have turned 99 today. She would have turned 100 next year. She was not the most perfect leader we had. She was not the most imperfect leader we had either. Achievements come with a pinch of salt, and there usually are things every person is remembered for. That pinch of salt, nonetheless, ensures that whatever achievement we commemorate is “amply” compensated by a person’s faults. Bandaranaike, like every other leader I suppose, is celebrated with this in mind.
A country’s history goes beyond a century or two. Sometimes, however, time doesn’t matter: statesmen come, go, and leave their mark within just two or three hundred years. Not so with Sri Lanka. We’ve had kings, pretenders, rebels (both real and would-be), and turncoats. We’ve also had statesmen, but going by geopolitical realities they’ve come only once in a while. Sadly.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike was not a stateswoman. But she was one of us. An “Iron Lady”. Commendable, given that politics wasn’t her preserve. Unlike the other two female leaders during her time – Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir – she had to take to it afresh. That she was born to an aristocratic Radala family and brushed with politics as time went by is peripheral. The truth is that at the time of the 1960 elections, just 10 months after her husband’s assassination, she seemed unchallenged. She almost was. Which is where her journey really began.
It wasn’t easy, of course. There were pitfalls. Undeterred by them, she continued her husband’s movement. She took over our schools and removed the colonial “mark” that had, even after independence, remained in them. She nationalised key sectors in the country and challenged the privileged minority that had controlled them. Her first real pothole, which was the 1962 coup attempt, was inevitable owing to this.
On the political and ideological front too, there was much to achieve. For the first time, a Marxist coalition entered into an alliance with her party. That this move preceded her first attempt at nationalising Lake House is significant: she needed the Left, in particular those who were being rubbished by a virulently political Press that seemed to oppose her to the last drop. It was this first attempt, however, that led to her defeat, when in 1965 a series of defections from the SLFP ruined her credibility.
Were there other achievements? Yes. But there were lesser things too. Her second term, which began in 1970, was a roller-coaster ride from the start. Barely one year had passed when an insurrection, the biggest for its time here, unfolded. As commentators have pointed out, this act proved that the state could be challenged and that armed uprisings could happen.
The JVP (which had engineered the insurrection) challenged not just the state, however. It challenged the United Front coalition and its “socialist” tag. Taken away by the need to validate themselves, therefore, the government began a spate of reforms. And if there ever was one reform that spoke for the rest, it was the transition from Dominion to Republic that was essential for our country’s true “independence”, signified by our very first Republican Constitution in 1972.
That transition was short-lived, however. We now know why.
When the second Republican Constitution was drawn up in 1977, few had misgivings about it. Few predicted that it would be worse than the 1972 Constitution. Things turned out differently, and this document eventually began to confer dictatorial powers to whoever was in power.
Not even Bandaranaike was spared. Stripped of her civic rights for nearly a decade, she paled away almost overnight. By the time she returned to the Prime Minister’s office courtesy 17 years later, hence, that flame and lustre that had characterised her before was lost. It was never regained. Sadly.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike was probably not the visionary leader her husband once had been. But she was a visionary on her own right. When the West alienated us during her time, she set up links with other countries (in particular the Non-Aligned bloc) which continue to this day.
Economically we were in dire straits back then, but this had more to do with a section of her coalition that pursued reforms with unlicensed zeal than with her. Those reforms, moreover, have stayed with us. Even today.
Her coalition was an uneasy one from the start, though. As it struggled to regain itself, and as the inevitable cracks appeared, the opposition took on her. With glee. They won in the end, and those sections in the United Front that had alienated her never really regained themselves.
The 1970s are remembered today for this perhaps. It was rough back then in the political arena. The Old Left’s fortunes were beginning to decline. Their refusal to hang onto Bandaranaike’s coalition proved their undoing, when in later years the New Left (the JVP) built up an effective challenge against them. Abandoned by both major parties, the Old Left couldn’t strike on their own. They didn’t.
The rest, as they say, is history. A breakaway section of the SLFP allied itself with the Old Left and formed the United Socialist Alliance (USA). Vijaya Kumaratunga became its candidate. When Kumaratunga was killed, Bandaranaike led the opposition. She lost on her own and would have lost even if that breakaway faction, the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP), had allied with her. It didn’t. By the time Vijaya’s wife returned to the SLFP, hence, her mother had fought her last battle. Which is why, 20 years after the 1994 elections, we mainly remember her earlier political phase. The rest is absented, for reasons that are all too obvious.
But that’s another story.
Like I wrote before, she was not a stateswoman. She stuck to self-imposed flaws which proved her undoing in the end. She remains an icon however, and while this will never marginalise those lesser things she will unfortunately be remembered for, her life will be celebrated. As a leader and a human being. That’s enough, I suppose.
*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com.