RETURN OF THE
The events of last week proved that the former President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is ready to take centre-stage again if necessary.
The Sri Lankan people might love to hate her, but they also recognise in her the instincts of a fighter and shrewd political acumen that can make even the worst situations go her way. Her presence in Sri Lanka poses a problem for the administration because she might prove the catalyst around which anti-government forces rally. In a sea of political corruption, she was the wildcard that took a nation by storm and created so much hope in 1994, but even she failed to live up to the people’s expectations. Is this re-entry aimed at rectifying that omission? Will she try to leave a different legacy behind this time around?
By Dharisha Bastians
The speculation about Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s return to active politics has been rampant since November 2005. Her exit from the political scene was anything but graceful, she retired young and some might even say she was unceremoniously kicked out of the SLFP presidency soon afterwards, although she refrained from making too much noise about it then.
But as last week unfolded, it became increasingly apparent that Kumaratunga had returned to the island this time with a clear resolution that she would assume a more public role. Her visits to Sri Lanka since she left office have been largely personal ones and she steered clear of the limelight on all those occasions. On this trip however, the former President has thrown herself back into the public eye, posing with politicians and diplomats and generally making her presence felt.
Last Thursday, Kumaratunga opened up her official residence to journalists for the first time, allowing them to photograph her indoors and in discussions with Western People’s Front Chief, Mano Ganesan.
Ganesan, also leads the Civil Monitoring Commission that observes and reports on abductions and disappearances taking place in the country. He decided on Thursday to hand his commission’s latest report over to the former President and obviously obtained her permission to invite the media to the event.
In keeping with the norm, the media personnel were kept waiting a good hour before Mrs. Kumaratunga swept into the tastefully decorated living room, clad in a pretty pink handloom saree and wearing her customary winning smile. She exchanged pleasantries with her callers and inquired into the contents of the report handed to her. The former President, obviously keeping abreast of things in the country, remarked that she was under the impression that abductions and disappearances were on the wane since July 2007. However, Ganesan responded that while abductions had decreased in Colombo, the north and east were still vulnerable areas.
Once the meeting was over, Mrs Kumaratunga decided to retire indoors when she was hailed out into the verandah where waiting scribes insisted on her saying a few words to be caught on camera. Smiling at the reporters and taking a few jabs at one or two newspapers, Kumaratunga spoke briefly, saying that elected governments cannot behave like terrorist organisations.
Her statement has been played down since by sections of the government, but her choice of words was not hard to read. While she stopped short on that occasion of accusing the government of acting like terrorists, her statement was referring to abductions taking place in the country, where the government’s hand has not gone unnoticed.
It was a fleeting appearance before the cameras, but her news value, despite her retirement was more than apparent when the pictures were splashed on all front pages the following day.
SLFP (M) convenor, Mangala Samaraweera played on her news-worthiness when he urged media personnel to ‘come to Nittambuwa’ and see what happens’ when journalists asked him at a press conference last week whether Chandrika would get on stage with the UNP-SLFP (M) members. She never showed and it was highly anticlimactic in the end, but it served to keep curiosity going in the rally which brought large crowds to the traditionally blue power base.
Her allure is not limited to the fact that she is the only plausible heir to the Bandaranaike legacy and so might be a worthy candidate to bring the SLFP back to its moderate policies alone. She is also undoubtedly one of the most charismatic leaders this country has ever produced. It has often been said of Chandrika Kumaratunga that you might hate her policies and she might be an ineffective leader, but few can resist her smile. It is hard to forget, especially in these times of political bankruptcy, the fresh-faced hope she brought with her in 1994.
It is hard to find a similar example anywhere in the world, where such an unknown could emerge suddenly onto the political stage and sweep the presidency with such an overwhelming majority, having done nothing to prove herself before that. Her ascent to power, however, was made easier by the fact that the LTTE assassinated her chief opponent Gamini Dissanayake shortly before the election, prompting the UNP to put up a sympathy candidate instead to contest the poll. But the fact remained that people wanted a change and Dissanayake represented the UNP, whose 17 years of rule was starting to tell on the populace.
But why would Chandrika Kumaratunga, who has reached the pinnacle of politics in this country and reigned for almost her two full terms in the presidency, want to return to active politics instead of preparing to welcome grandchildren and enjoy her retirement? And why did she choose this precise moment, when opposition to the government is gathering momentum and alliances are in the offing that could well mark the end of this administration’s reign?
Undoubtedly it could be many things that prompted her back to our shores. According to her brother Anura, Chandrika loves the country too much to stay away. She also retired relatively young for a president in this country. Whereas President Jayewardene and President Wijetunge left office in their old, Kumaratunga had just topped 60 and was as energetic as ever, giving her that much more time to continue playing politics if she so wished.
Perhaps. But what is also true is that if ever a leader left office with a huge sign over her head saying – ‘watch out, I’ll be back’ – it was Chandrika Kumaratunga. Court cases filed on her behalf, claiming that the presidential election that brought President Mahinda Rajapaksa to office should be held in 2006, did not go her way. She may have given President Rajapaksa the SLFP presidential nomination, but she did so under duress and both she and his running mate and her brother, Anura made that abundantly clear in the run up to election day that November. There was a grand ceremony being organised to bid her farewell and welcome the new president, but Rajapaksa thwarted that by deciding to take oaths and assume office before the ceremony could take place as scheduled. Following her retirement and her departure for England to be with her son and daughter, she suffered all manner of ignominies. Cases were filed in court demanding that her security and personnel be reduced in number. The mantle of SLFP president was taken away from her on her birthday last September and there were even whispers that she had been informed that if she were to return to the island, her security would be reduced even further, rendering her vulnerable to LTTE attacks.
Despite all this, the former President chose to bide her time, reacting sparsely to criticism and insisting she had better things to do than re-enter Sri Lanka’s political fray. Perhaps her keen political nose sensed a change in the offing? Perhaps the invitation from her former trusted lieutenant Mangala Samaraweera, to come back and save the SLFP proved too tempting to resist? Undoubtedly, this administration, victories on the military front notwithstanding, have made the reign of Chandrika Kumaratunga, dark though some of those times were in reality, look like a golden age. It is a sad but true fact that the political leadership gets worse every time, constantly making those that came before look angelic in retrospect. One can’t help recalling how the people cried out for President Ranasinghe Premadasa in the colossal bungling of the tsunami aftermath in 2005. The Mahinda Rajapaksa administration similarly has made Kumaratunga look good by comparison. To the Tamil people, Chandrika was a disappointment in the end, but till the end she remained a leader of moderate views with regard to the ethnic problem and she was one of Sri Lanka’s first leaders to publicly admit that the Tamils had been done wrong by the state and had legitimate grievances. Had the opposition supported her devolution package – Union of Regions – in 2000, proposing maximum power sharing within a federal structure, Sri Lanka’s destiny today may have been a different one. Whatever her shortcomings, she will be remembered, especially now in these times of hawkishness, as a leader who did even at first, when she was new to high office and filled with idealism, believe in a negotiated settlement to this tragic conflict. Not even the LTTE attack that cost her an eye changed her position on the conflict – she refused to take the attack personally. How the Tamil people view her potential re-entry into the already heady mix of political opinion on the conflict, remains to be seen.
For better or worse and whether we like it or not, it looks like ‘CBK’ is back. Her return is a mixed bag. She is certainly no much-loved leader returning to save the day in the eyes of a population wearying of political games. But in a country where the people are vehemently opposed to the government in power and have no faith in the opposition and are fast losing hope on all fronts, even Chandrika Kumaratunga could emerge a hero.
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Monday, August 27, 2007