TamilWeek Apr 23, 2006
The rise and fall
from grace of CBK

By S. Francis Perera

Now that Chandrika Kumaranatunga has
bowed herself out of office, it should be
possible to make an objective study of
her political career. It has, however, to be
emphasized that, she made her exit with
an ill grace.
When his second term in office was drawing to a close, the late J.R.
Jayawardena explored the possibility of going for a third. But, R.
Premadasa, his lieutenant, would have none of it. Not daring to
displease his deputy, JR acquiesced. To go for a third term, JR said
with his tongue in his check, is to set an unhealthy precedent. And out
he went.

Sangfroid, such as Jayawardena possessed, was alien to Chandrika.
A court ruling brought about her departure. There was sufficient
material in the whole episode for a latter-day Aristophanes to write a
tragicomedy with.

One has to delve into the political history of the recent past, to
discover the causes that paved the way for Chandrika to become the
executive head of State. First, under J.R. Jayawardena and
subsequently under R. Premadasa, the country had been reduced to
a sorry mess. The nascence of the LTTE terrorist movement took
place under one and a rash of paramilitary groups made their
appearance under the other. Abroad, the name of Sri Lanka was
synonymous with misrule. Political harassment having enfeebled
Sirimavo Bandaranaike, she was not equal to the task of leading a
crusade against the corrupt regimes.

Going by the performance of two Bandaranaikes, the people
concluded that only another Bandaranaike could bring salvation to
the country. Thus, it was that a path was cleared for Chandrika to be
elected the executive president.

She was raw to high office; the people were in the mood to extend
their goodwill to her. She began on a clean slate. The shock of
disillusion would come later, but for the present, they were in a state
of euphoria.

What her over zealous admirers said of her high intellectual
attainments and her inherited knack to govern, may be dismissed as
mere claptrap. At that time, her brother was (politically) opposed to
her. He persisted in his efforts to denigrate her, alleging that her claim
to academic attainments was a bogus one.

People were skeptical; they attributed his words to envy. They hoped
her virginal talents would be used to serve the nation. There was no
reason to doubt that she would redeem her election pledges: To
abolish the executive presidency, to find a permanent solution to the
ethnic problem, to stamp out the gun culture, widespread in the land
and to cleanse the public service of corruption.

Soon, it was apparent that what her admirers said of her intelligence,
skill and abilities, was sheer exaggeration. Her performance belied
their words.

She was of average intelligence; her propensity to work was not out of
the ordinary and her vision - if she had one - was hidden from the
public. Despite these shortcomings, the people were magnanimous
enough to give Chandrika a second chance.

Several factors worked in Chandrika’s favour - helped her to top the
poll.

The principal one was that she was pitted against a mediocrity –
though, herself a mediocrity, she was several pegs above this other
mediocrity.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, being the leader of a party which has carved a
permanent place for itself in our democratic setup, his predicament
should be the concern of us all. We need not be coy to admit the fact
that he shows signs of retarded political understanding. It is about
time that he emerged from the chrysalis stage, in which he has
lingered for an unconscionably long time and soared to the heights of
success. However, this isn’t the place to present a lucubration on
Ranil’s career.

Two other factors - among others - served to bring her victory.

One was the abortive bomb attack made on Chandrika. The other
being the death of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, her mother, which
coincided with polling day. Both events helped to generate sympathy
for her.

On beginning her second term in office, Chandrika could not plead
any more that she was raw to office. By now, the more observant
among her followers were able to notice that Chandrika wasn’t as
flawless as she posed to be.

At first, she was very particular not to betray her shortcomings, but
eventually, the will to conceal slackened. They were blatantly obvious.

Unpunctuality was second nature to her. Her Ministers had no choice
but to adapt themselves to her easygoing way of life. They
considered it one of her idiosyncrasies and left it at that. It was bad
enough to keep busy Ministers waiting, but it was scandalous to
subject ambassadors to the same ordeal. That it did not lead to
diplomatic crises, is a matter for surprise.

The use of coarse language used to be the prerogative of mob
orators. It helped camouflage their bad grammar, poor logic and
poverty of ideas. One presumed that these tribe of men were
politically extinct and with them, the offensive practice.

The medieval poet Francois Villon’s muse had endowed him with the
ability to weave obscene words into his verse. But what is permitted to
a poetical genius is not extended to people with commonplace minds!

One can imagine how awkward it would have been to decent men and
women to be on the same platform with Chandrika, when she used
crude language. She cut a most unladylike figure with her vituperation.

We expect our leaders to speak with a sense of responsibility. We
expect them to present irrefutable facts, figures and data. But
Chandrika was a disappointment. She expected her aides to stand in
the background, while she spoke, to help her out in case her memory
failed her! Flippancy is unbecoming in a national leader.

There are those who start as politicians and with growing maturity,
end up as statesmen. For example, at the early stages, they are
opportunists, rabble rousers or turncoats. Then comes the
awakening; the light of understanding dawns upon them. Now, they
are overwhelmed with a passion to serve. Dedicated service to the
people, helps them to graduate from the status of politician to
statesman.

Lord Macaulay, in his biographical essays, presents several such
noble characters. He shows that the younger Pitt, Charles James
Foxe, Edmond Burke and Robert Peel began their parliamentary
careers as men with a penchant to shock or to demolish political idols.
But, in the course of time, they blossomed into statesmen, with a
mission to serve or, if necessary, to die in harness. With Chandrika,
the process has been inverted. Neither, years at the centre of power
nor, contact with leaders of other lands, has helped her to attain a
state of mellowed wisdom. At the tail end of her career, she was
reckless, like one in a hurry. Calm and cool reflection did not seem to
precede her actions. She was like one racing against time.

Chandrika will be remembered for the record number of cheques on
which she placed her signature at this stage. According to press
reports, she is said to have given away prodigious sums of State
money to organizations, some of which she was patroness to.

Munificence is a trait, they say, she acquired during the last days she
held office.

Thanks to President Mahinda’s vigilance, it was possible to stem the
outflow of a part, at least, of the State funds. When once, she had
made up her mind on a particular course of action, neither wise
counsel nor, conventional procedure, could restrain her. As long as
she had her way, consequences did not seem to matter. Like the
chained Samson, she would bring down the edifice, than be thwarted
in her plans.

Now began the downward trend of her fortunes. Whatever she
touched seemed to turn to ashes. It started with her tiff with the JVP.
The Post -Tsunami Operation Mechanism was her hobby horse.

Those close to her, feared that her monomania would lead to her
undoing, but they did not dare to tell her so. The JVP leaders, who
were not awed by Chandrika, warned her of the imprudence of
seeking the help of the Tiger Terrorists to implement the scheme. The
Tiger Terrorists, they told her, would use the funds to consolidate
their Military machine. There is nothing more distasteful to a petty
mind, than to have to listen to reason. It was her whim, to have the
scheme implemented. Those who stood in the way were brushed
aside. The scheme, as many feared, floundered and the LTTE was
the gainer. Gone were the dreams of being considered a candidate
for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Chandrika’s antipathy towards Mahinda is something, sanguine
political commentators cannot account for. Few, if any there be, with
as unblemished a parliamentary record as Mahinda. It is certainly
more impressive than that of Chandrika’s.

Unlike Mahinda, she cannot boast of steadfast loyalty to the party.
Her name is stained with the stigma of having deserted the party, at a
time when its fortunes were at their nadir.

When the tsunami tidal wave hit Sri Lanka, Chandrika was away in
England, holidaying with her children and it was Mahinda who went
among the victims of the catastrophe, to comfort, console and
succour them. Thanks to his demonic exertions, Mahinda was able to
hold, as it were, the fort, till the return of his leader, refreshed and
renewed from her vacation.

The manner in which she requited Mahinda’s faithful services, is a
sordid story to be stated in brief As head of the SLFP, she could not
possibly keep out of Mahinda’s election campaign, without drawing
upon herself the opprobrium, if not the wrath, of the common people.
She, however, was a positive liability to Mahinda, who had to fight
against heavy odds. On the platform, she sounded so ambiguous,
that one wondered whether she was pro or anti Mahinda. In the very
same breath, she urged the people to vote for Mahinda, she
denounced the JVP leaders, who were his staunchest allies!

It is the practice in the civilized world, to cherish statesmen who,
having served their country, have gone into retirement - the
statesmen emeritius.

Like Cincinatus, the superennuated Roman ruler, these elder
statesmen, once they retire, should sever all ties with the State
apparatus and devote their time to those avocations, for which they
could not spare time while holding office.

Chandrika’s exit, alas, has been an inglorious one.

Her eleven years in office have been sterile of achievement.

Let us hope, her years in retirement will not be as barren as those of
her years in office.
[Courtesy: Daily Mirror]