The political widows of South Asia have been a rum
bunch. Whether Sirimavo Bandaranaike or Indira Gandhi, whether Benazir Bhutto or either of
the Bangladeshi fighting-hens, they have provoked historians and political analysts to
take up their pens with glee. They were all failures, each of whom left her country in a
far worse mess than that in which she found it.
Chandrika Kumaratunga belongs to a yet more exalted category: she is a
second-generation political widow. Unlike vintage wine however, age has not mellowed her.
What is more, she has set a precedent by which future second-generation political widows
will aim at in vain. The sins of the mother pale into insignificance before those of the
daughter. In Sirimavo's case there were the charitable apologists who, even when she was
ignominiously hauled up before the Special Presidential Commission, said that whatever
were her faults, no one had accused her of making money on the side. Kumaratunga's blatant
interference in multimillion-dollar deals, and on occasion even summoning a tender board
to her residence and ordering it to decide a tender the way she wanted it, is in a class
of its own.
Joseph Estrada might offer her a knowing nod and a wink, but as far as the Sri Lankan
public is concerned, Kumaratunga has her work cut out for her in establishing that she is
above that sort of thing.
Right from her raised-arm salute over her husband's coffin, Kumaratunga's defiance and
determination to overcome were established. The country's heart went out to her and her
children, and no one begrudged J. R. Jayewardene's decision to have the state pay for the
funeral. That however was just the appetizer in what was to come. When Kumaratunga and her
children settled into the entre in 1994, their excesses would become legendary. An
election manifesto that had sworn to forego Mercedes Benzes and BMWs was immediately cast
aside when Kumaratunga ordered a fleet of leather upholstered bullet proof Benzes and BMWs
for herself and her brats to ride in. Kumaratunga even built a swimming pool at Temple
Trees, no doubt to float at leisure much like the Sri Lankan rupee.
One by one thereafter, the extravagant election promises she had made were discarded,
whether bread at Rs 3.50 a loaf or the abolition of the executive presidency. Soon she was
openly been referred to as a fluent and habitual liar and had no choice but to bear the
insult, knowing full well it was not just true but also justified. Kumaratunga's
shortcomings far surpassed her compulsion to tell a lie whenever she found the truth
inconvenient (after all, no one had included verit in the French revolutionary
tradition of libert, egalit, fraternit that she claimed to espouse). She
was quickly discovered to be a political animal in the full sense of that term.
In his statement to the media last Wednesday, her former lieutenant, S. B. Dissanayake,
said it all. She had never once accused him while he was a minister, he said, of a corrupt
act. Now, within hours of his defying her, the whole state media had been focused on him,
claiming that he was corrupt. Yet, within the past year, Kumaratunga alleged in the
presence of unimpeachable witnesses that her ministers Anuruddha Ratwatte and Nimal
Siripala de Sil va were corrupt. Her statements in this regard were unprovoked and
unsolicited: she introduced their names into the conversation and told her audience that
these men were guilty of corruption. Yet, what did she do? Did she report them at least to
her television stations Rupavahini and ITN, if not to the Bribery Commission? No. Instead,
she re-appointed them to her cabinet once more last month. What is more, she offered them
nominations for the December 5 general election last week. If that is not an endorsement
of corruption, what is?
Both because of her own utterances and because of the scandals that have dogged her
government, Kumaratunga's administration has become synonymous with corruption. She kicked
off in 1994 by alleging that she had been offered a bribe of Rs 50 million. Judging by the
fact that she has failed to name the miscreant to the Bribery Commission these past seven
years despite repeated reminders by the media, it seems this was just another of her
colourful and extravagant lies. And then there are all the deals that have led to scandal:
Evans, Thawakkal, Air Lanka, Air Bus, French locomotives, Channel 9, Galle Port: the list
goes on and on. Not just that, but the Rasputin-like position that the infamous Ronnie
Peiris has come to occupy in the government, the latest episode of which has involved the
waiving of Rs 15 million in interest on a loan he obtained from the Bank of Ceylon under
mysterious circumstances shortly after Kumaratunga became president in 1994.
Last week Kumaratunga deputised an Air Force helicopter to video S. B. Dissanayake's
house in Hanguranketa. Not only is there a war on, but private flights are prohibited. She
obviously hopes the propaganda mileage she secured by this clear abuse of power will
cancel the rather more telling excess involved in her minister-uncle's palatial residence
in Anniwatte, Kandy.
Kumaratunga came into office in 1994 with a golden spoon in her hand. With Gamini
Dissanayake conveniently murdered the opposition was in disarray, the LTTE were actively
suing for peace. There was a new sense of hope that with peace in the north and the
executive presidency abolished, stability would once more reign in Sri Lanka, ushering in
a new era of prosperity. But from day one Kumaratunga took every wrong step that came her
way. She foolishly sent a bunch of rank amateurs to parley with the LTTE, resulting in a
costly end to the peace process. She pinned all the development hopes of her government on
the Southern Development Authority, which had no clear mandate, and appointed her
well-intentioned but naive friend Navin Gooneratne to lead it. It ended in disaster.
Looking back to 1994, one has to ask what has changed? The rupee is now worth precisely
half as much as it was then. The cost of almost everything has doubled. The government has
stayed alive only by selling off state assets willy-nilly, from Sri Lanka Telecom to Air
Lanka. The stock market is at its lowest ever, or was until Kumaratunga announced the
December election and gave a glimmer of hope that she may soon be gone. Inept government
and poor planning have seen everything from the power sector to irrigation 'kota uda,'
something that gives the country a uniquely Bandaranaike flavour reminiscent of people
eating from dustbins in the dark days of 1970-77. The only difference now is that Felix
Dias Bandaranaike has been replaced by Mangala Samaraweera of credit-card fame.
The Bandaranaikes have, in the eyes of a growing number of citizens, been a blight and
a curse on this country. From time to time their evil spell has like a hammer blow come to
lay waste to peace and prosperity in this country. Now at least, with the ignominious
departure of Anura Bandaranaike to his sister's arms (not a moment too soon), the widow
and the orphan are both on a single roost. And there they will stay until the country
votes as to whether or not they will occupy the palaces they have built for themselves,
with money wrested through iniquitous taxes on the poor.