By Lankamithra –
“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.
A very few political leaders have the foresight and spine to challenge tradition. Most of who elect to challenge, invariably end up in a mess, for the political and personal calculus they have configured have proven to be wrong or inaccurate. They, instead of creating a new tradition or convention, end up being consumed by the very tradition or convention they tried to replace. Those who succeeded did not do so by accident. It was a climax of a long drawn-out affair of deep thought, meticulous planning and timely execution. Most of today’s politicians interpret success as a matter of course in politics. They have no discipline of abstinence; they are bereft of scholarly depth; when in power, their dependence on the bureaucracy overwhelms their timelines, resulting in hasty decisions arrived at with no rational analysis of reliable data. Given these realities, it is unrealistic to expect any prudent decision-making and thoughtful follow-up action from our politicians. Consequently, success, in essence, is interpreted as favorable results achieved in a series of tactical measures rather than an attainment of set objectives in a long chain of strategic moves. This fundamental failure to differentiate between strategy and tactics eventually would determine the success or failure of any given leader.
A strategic mind is not a gift that someone is born with. It is a product of a disciplined way of life. It is born out of a life-long struggle between wants and needs. Undisciplined mind submits to short-term gains while a disciplined mind endures loss after loss and treat them as essential steps in a long journey of experience. They say that ‘experience is the best schoolmaster but fees are too high’. Nothing can be truer than that. The losses and setbacks help a great deal in shaping and defining the very strategic mind. They prepare the person in question to withstand even greater losses and setbacks in the future. The one who persists despite all setbacks and losses is the one who ultimately succeeds and remains at the pinnacle of power so that he or she could shape and define the course of events and consequently the history that he or she is determined to shape and define.
It is in the context of these paradigms that I am trying to analyze the two most significant political leaders Sri Lanka produced in the last century. One would agree that both Junius Richard Jayewardene, commonly known as JR and Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, commonly called SWRD, are two of the most, as they call, consequential leaders this country produced since Independence. I would call them far-reaching or most-effective political leaders we have seen. Their policies and programs had far-reaching and effective outcomes; during the course of their respective political journeys, both of them were ridiculed to an insufferable degree yet pursued their goals without any hesitancy. Above all else, what made them most-effective and far-reaching are the policies that they adopted from the beginning of their careers, when implemented had far-reaching and effective consequences. The ultimate results of those policies are still being felt today, after a generation or two and long after their demise.
However, when one attempts to compare the two, JR and SWRD, one would immediately encounter many issues that, on the surface, may look very similar but in deep down they are as dissimilar as apples and oranges. On the surface SWRD looked to possess a very liberal mind that was willing to implement liberal polices to move the country forward. Especially on the Sinhala-Tamil issue, Bandaranaike, at the beginning of his political career in the early 1900s, he professed Federalism and to date his critics use it to degrade his standing amongst ardent nationalists who desperately try to hang on to a Sinhala-dominated polity in Sri Lanka. In the annals of Sri Lankan political history, Bandaranaike’s rhetorical skills were unmatched. His diction was far too superior to any in Parliament in the late forties and fifties; his delivery was electric and his repartee was instantaneous. I have had no fortune to listen to his memorable speeches either in Parliament or outside. But all what I have read and heard convinces me that he was incomparable as far as speechifying and debating was concerned, especially in English. Ironically it was in the biography of J R Jayewardene that its author Professor K M de Silva writes thus: “The uninitiated could be pardoned for thinking of the physically small and unimpressive Bandaranaike, at first glance, as a professional person of middling rank and attainments. This impression was strengthened by the clothes he wore- generally the national costume, but occasionally western clothes which made no concession to current fashions- and round spectacles that concealed the sparkle of his very expressive eyes. This impression disappeared when he got up to speak, and then words cascaded forth with unmatched eloquence, the diction polished and lively, and with a wit that was as sharp as it was quick”.
Maybe Bandaranaike was too obsessed with his own unique rhetorical skills. He knew that he could overshadow any political adversary of his time, but that was limited to his aforementioned eloquence in speechifying. But his patent lack of steadfastness, when things did not look good and rosy as his rhetoric represented, came for universal criticism. One example was when he reneged on the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact. Succumbing to pressures brought upon him in his own front-yard at his Rosmead Place residence, S W R D Bandaranaike chose one side against a set of proposals that would have pacified the growing sentiments of Northern Tamils. The side he opted to support, despite many assurances given to the Tamil at the time, was Singhalese nationalists on whose back Bandaranaike was ushered into power. His close association with the Buddhist clergy, although was a great buttressing crutch at the time of the elections, stood against the very Federalist principles he once broadcasted. He just could not match his grandiloquence with deed.
On the contrary, Junius Richard Jayewardene, the first President of Sri Lanka, in spite of the grave danger of maligning himself over the same national issue- the Tamil Question- went ahead and signed the Indo-Lanka Accord with Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi amidst burning bridges and buildings and rioting Sinhalese-Buddhists. Assumption of calculated risks and possession of patient disposition are preeminent tools of a wise person. S W R D Bandaranaike might have been an inherently talented and gifted politician but I dare say he was not a wise man. While SWRD was a vocal and weak politician, J R was a quiet and strong one. J R opted to stay as number 2 of the United National Party and the governments led by it since 1952 until the demise of Dudley Senanayake. Bandaranaike chose to leave the UNP and start his own political party. Bandaranaike died by a bullet, as a victim of the Sinhala-Buddhist cause, the very cause he advanced from the day he came to power. And he was in power for three measly years.
In the animated tableau of Sri Lankan politics, both Jayewardene and Bandaranaike were players of the MVP category who led the country in changing times. Both embraced the changes that were taking place but the difference was that they embraced those changes in different fashions. Bandaranaike, to his dying day, seemed to have had immeasurable faith in his own rhetorical skills and at the same time seemed to be in a mighty hurry. While Bandaranaike was wasting his energies on this ego-elongated exercise, Jayewardene chose to play a more patient and calculated game of political chess. Jayewardene never overestimated his popularity among the masses. Intrinsically an introspective person, J R did not choose to offer himself as a popular leader. His dogged principle of adhering to principles rather than personalities ultimately paid massive dividends. The 1977 General Election results were a testimony to J R’s patient game. The crushing defeat on Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her close political advisor Felix Dias coupled with the disappearance of the old-left led by N M Perera, Colvin R de Silva and Bernard Soysa from the local political landscape, sent a clear and convincing message to Sri Lankans locally and the world at large that Sri Lanka has overwhelmingly adopted the changes that were accrued to the post-Socialist/Communist era.
Every sunset will bring to a close a withering day’s work. Bandaranaike did not have that proverbial sunset in his life. It was stolen and crumpled by a Buddhist monk named Somarama, a loyal supporter of his pro-Sinhala-Buddhist policies. J R died in bed at the ripe old age of ninety. The discipline J R had imposed on himself facilitated that prudent way of living. The vocal and weak Bandaranaike and the quiet and strong Jayewardene lent their time and energies to the welfare of the country of their birth. The political party that Bandaranaike created is disunited and in disarray at this time and the party of J R Jayewardene is as united as it could ever be. History still has to pass judgment on both.
*The writer is available at firstname.lastname@example.org