Chandrika: The Raja Yoga President

by C .A. Chandraprema

What will Chandrika be remembered by? In some quarters, there’s speculation that her political career may not be over yet and that she is trying to re-enter Parliament as an ordinary MP to fill the vacancy left by Lakshman Kadirgarmar. Some say she wants to remain as the leader of the SLFP while Mahinda Rajapakse holds the position of President. It is interesting to note, in this context, that she has not yet relinquished the leadership of the SLFP. If such a situation does eventuate, that will be another phase in her life. But what of the phase she just ended? She, after all, was the woman who guided our destinies over the past twelve years.

The day I first saw Chandrika was around 1987 at Vijaya Kumaratunga’s Narahenpita residence. I was talking to Vijaya and Chandrika was seated some distance away, answering a phone call or writing something. At that stage, she seemed more a housewife than a politician. Even though she was a Vice President of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party, she played a backroom role being overshadowed in politics by her husband Vijaya. Although Vijaya overshadowed Chandrika in politics, it was obvious that Vijaya owed at least part of the influence he wielded to the fact of being married to the daughter of the SLFP leader. Even though we at that time were under the impression that the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party broke away from the SLFP primarily under Vijaya’s leadership, I learnt later, that Chandrika herself had her own following within the group that broke away with Vijaya. For instance, I was told that Rathnasiri Wickremanayake, followed Chandrika rather than Vijaya because in addition to his personal affection for her, he believed implicitly that Chandrika was the only one of the Bandaranaike siblings with a ‘raja yogaya’, in her horoscope and the only one who had any chance of forming a government. Rathnasisri Wickremanayake followed Chandrika from the SLFP into the Mahajana Party and from the SLMP into the Bahujana Nidahas Peramuna and from the BNP in back into the SLFP, apparently because of his unshakable faith in her horoscope.

I, too, believe that Chandrika would have had a raja yogaya and a very powerful raja yogaya at that, to have been able to make it in politics at all. In 1987, if someone told me that the lady in a frock I saw at Vijaya’s house was going to step into J.R.Jayewardene’s shoes in just seven years time, I wouldn’t have believed him. She was, at that time, completely under Vijaya’s shadow. In 1988, Chandrika emerged as a leader in her own right after Vijaya’s assassination and became leader in 1988 not just of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party but of the United Socialist Alliance comprised of the LSSP, CPSL, SLMP and the NSSP, which was formed literally over Vjaya’s dead body. The fact that she became the leader of a broad based left wing alliance meant nothing in terms of political power because the government was held by the monolithic and seemingly impregnable UNP, and the opposition at that time was divided with the United Socialist Alliance and the SLFP taking diametrically opposite stands on the Indo Lanka Peace Accord of 1987. The USA had a strong organisation, but could command only a few votes.

CBK’s Raja Yoga

Anyway, Chandrika left the country in 1988, because of the ever present threat to her life and the lives of her children, from the JVP. After she fled the country, Ossie Abeygunasekeara began to build himself a power base within the Mahajana Party. By the end of 1988, there were two factions in the SLMP, one supporting Ossie and the other supporting Chandrika. I was in the faction supporting Chandrika. We used to ask Rajitha Senaratne and the other leaders of the Chandrika faction when Chandrika was coming back? The answer we invariably got was ‘very soon’. But she never came.

At times we were told that she was going to come soon. At other times we were told she was going to come VERY soon. We all waited in anticipation, but the lady never turned up as the party higher-ups promised. I now forget what we expected her to do after coming back. The JVP terror campaign was in full swing and there was nothing much she could have done anyway, except dodging bullets and sharing the terror with us. Years later Rajitha Senaratne told me that Chandrika had said that her raja yogaya would take effect in 1994 and that there was little point in her being in Sri Lanka before that.

While she was overseas, the Ossie Abeygunasekeara faction had ousted her form the Party and the Bahujana Nidahas Peramuna was formed under Chadrika’s leadership in mid 1990. Chandrika was still the leader of the United Socialist Alliance in her capacity as the Leader of the BNP, but now she was the leader of a splinter of a splinter of an opposition party. In fact, when I published a feature article in The Island in August 1990, announcing the formation of the Bahujana Nidahas Peramuna, D.P.Sivaram then a columnist to The Island thought I was mad to identify myself with the BNP – so marginalized was Chandrika in political terms at that stage. Sivaram’s opinion was that I had reached the giddy heights of the profession with my series of articles on the JVP Insurrection and that I shouldn’t have spoilt that by getting myself identified with the splinter of a splinter group. Given the fact that Chandrika had to leave first the party formed by her father and then the party founded by her husband, whatever raja yogaya she had seemed to be going in reverse, at that stage.

Beginning of a new era

In 1990, after the JVP insurgency was crushed, the country returned to normalcy in record time. ‘Normalcy’ at that time, in political terms meant a weak and fragmented opposition and a strong UNP government which appeared as unshakeable as ever. When I say that the opposition was weak, I don’t mean that they were organizationally weak. Throughout the UNP regime of 1977-94, the opposition remained very strong in organizational terms but they were weak in their ability to capture votes. It was not Chandrika who galvanized the opposition into action in the early nineties, rather, it was another event, which weakened the hitherto monolithic UNP. In September 1991, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayaka broke away from the UNP and formed the DUNF as a result of an internal party conflict with President Premadasa. More than anything else, this was the event that infused some badly needed dynamism into the opposition.

Chandrika began to visit Sri Lanka and get increasingly involved in politics from the beginning of 1990 onwards, after the JVP leadership had been eliminated and the threat to her life removed. But it was not Chandrika who infused oxygen into the dormant opposition. By the beginning of 1990, the electoral defeats of December 1988 and February 1989 combined with the JVP’s terror campaign had sapped the energy of the Opposition. While it was true that the SLFP had not suffered as badly at the hands of the JVP as much as the United Socialist Alliance, they, too, had been affected because their defeat at the 1988 Presidential election had been caused at least in part by the JVP.

In a situation where the SLFP and the left parties were lying prostrate, it was Gamini Dissanayake and Laith Athulathmudali who gave the opposition a badly needed B-12 injection. It was they who drummed up support against President Premadasa – something that the SLFP or Chandrika Kumaratunga could never have done on their own. From late 1991 to early 1993, Chandrika had absolutely no chance against Lalith and Gamini. Had Lalith Athulathmudali not been assassinated in April 1993, Chandrika would never have become the Chief Minister of the Western province in the PC elections held that year. Candrika’s path to power was cleared by the entirely fortuitous circumstances of all those ahead of her being eliminated the LTTE. If President Premadasa, Lalith and Gamini had all survived, even on opposite sides of the political divide, the government and the opposition would have been dominated by these giants that JRJ created. This is where even I believe that what propelled Chandrika to the forefront was her raja yogaya and nothing else. The point at which her raja yogaya really began to take effect was when a section of the SLFP began to look for a new face to put forward at elections. Chandrika Kumaratunga had been elected Chief Minister of the Western province after the death of Lalith Athulathmudali and she seemed the natural choice. Sirima Bandaranaike had been defeated by Premadasa at the December 1988 Presidential elections and was also too old to be an effective leader. And Anura Bandaranaike was not attractive enough to the rank and file SLFPer. The same D. P. Sivaram, who asked me whether I was mad to identify myself with Chandrika in 1990, was an ardent supporter of the PA in 1994! Such is politics!

Raja Yogaya taking effect

Regardless of how she was propelled to the forefront of Sri Lankan politics, with Chandrika’s victory in 1994, she became the Sri Lankan embodiment of the social democratic revolution of the 1990’s, which was sweeping through the democratic world. In almost all the democratic countries, the old conservative parties that had been in power for long years, were being ousted by revamped, reformist social democratic parties with young, polished, charismatic leaders.

In the USA, the Republican Party that had held power for 12 years was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992. In 1996, Tony Blair swept into power defeating the Conservative party that had been in power from 1979 to 1996. The manner in which Chandrika’s raja yogaya seemed to coincide with this worldwide social democratic revolution is quite amazing. In the USA, Britain and Sri Lanka, the conservative block had held power for long years on the success of a new capitalist ethos. So strong was this new wave of capitalism that it precipitated the demise of socialism and the collapse of the soviet block. Even China, which is still ruled by the Communist party is today a bastion of capitalist success, thanks to this triumphant free market ethos of the late seventies and early eighties.

The reformed social democrats who took power in the 1990’s distinguished themselves by discarding their former socialism for the economic theory of their rivals. Indeed, Bill Clinton proved himself to be as good as, if not better than his Republican predecessors at administering a capitalist economy. The same can be said about Tony Blair. The SLFP that came into power in 1994, also had a reformist agenda. The policy declaration of the PA in 1994 started off by apologising to the public for the past and admitting that the socialist policies though implemented with the best of intentions, had not delivered the goods. They openly pledged to continue the free market economy that had been put in place by the previous UNP regime. To Chandrika’s credit, one must say that she did try her best in this regard. A saying attributed to her during her early days in power was that she was a good socialist in the past and that she would be an even better capitalist in the future.

Eleven years in power

If one takes Chandrika’s eleven years in power into account, no one can say that she ruined the economy the way the previous two Bandaranaikes had done. Both SWRD and Sirima implemented policies that proved to be disastrous for this country. Of course, they did it with the best of intentions –– no sane leader will do anything to undermine himself. Every leader wants to be successful. But the policies of SWRD and Sirima simply refused to work. Chandrika was much more fortunate in this respect. She did not leave behind her an economy in tatters. During her period, the country’s main sources of income such as the garment industry, foreign remittances, tea production and others all increased production. Despite the precipitous devaluation of the rupee during her tenure in power, Sri Lanka still managed to increase its per capita GNP to over the 1000 USD mark.

Even though things continued to work, during her tenure in power, she had to grapple with a negative perception of her regime among the investing public. If one takes her first phase in power from November 1994 to 2001, the country was continuously in a state of economic slowdown.

After Chandrika Kumaratunga began to administer the country, within weeks it began to seem that while Chandrika’s horoscope was good, the horoscopes of virtually everyone outside the government had suddenly gone bad. The perception was that hers was not a private sector friendly regime, even though in practice they were every bit as business friendly as the UNP. Perhaps, the rhetoric of certain individuals within the regime combined with the SLFP’s abysmal record in economic matters, contributed to the negative attitude of the investing public towards the Chandrika government during her first seven years. Throughout the seven years from 1994 to 2001, land prices stagnated and the stock market went into major remission. Try as she might, Chandrika could do nothing to arrest this trend. G.L.Pieris who was then the Finance minister would have been at his wit’s end not knowing how to turn things around. In conventional economic text books, we are told that there are four factors of production in a capitalist economy. There is the land, which from time immemorial has provided man with the means of sustenance and existence, capital (meaning both operating money and things bought with it such as machinery) labour (meaning both intellectual and physical effort of individuals) and finally, entrepreneurship which organises and brings together the other three factors of production. During Chandrika’s first seven years in power, all four factors of production were available in abundance in the country. There was land, which the government was willing to give free to those with the ability to utilise it, there was plenty of trained labour available, there was capital, the banks were literally bursting at the seams with money they would have been only too happy to lend to business and there were entrepreneurs both local and foreign who should have been as active as they had ever been.

A main factor left out

It was during these years that I realised that the economics text books I had studied in university had left out one other factor of production. There are five, not just four factors of production. The fifth and most important one being CONFIDENCE, (viswasaya) without which the availability of all four other factors of production would mean nothing. And this was exactly what the PA did not have. They were faced with a crisis of confidence of immense proportions.

Because of this crisis of confidence, the PA spent its first seven years in power cultivating a siege mentality. One would assume that a leader who won with a majority of 62% of the popular vote would be able to simply ignore the Opposition and coast along placidly and confidently. But this was not to be. Chandrika thought herself called upon to keep the UNP at bay, by good means or bad, probably because she felt that there was a whole segment of society conspiring to bring the UNP back into power at the earliest possible opportunity. Thus, she initiated commissions of inquiry against the UNP, and even one personally against the opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Elections were routinely rigged and marred with violence during those seven years because the PA thought they would lose without strong arm tactics. And this, despite the fact that the post 1994 UNP was the weakest and most incompetent opposition there has ever been in this country’s post Independence history. Being formerly a member of the left movement, I feel embarrassed to think that the widow of Vijaya Kumaratunga actually spent seven years of her life in fear of being ousted by Ranil Wickremasinghe’s UNP. During Chandrika’s first phase in power from 1994 to 2001, the UNP was no more effective than that contingent of cross-dressers from Colombo’s passive homosexual community who used to march in Vijaya’s political processions. Chandrika’s fear of the UNP was probably because things had refused to take off despite her best efforts on the economic front.

And more than any other single factor, it is economics that decides the success or otherwise of a government.

Chandrika’s first seven years in power have a distinctly unpleasant taste. The UNP was kept under a state of siege, Journalists were attacked and intimidated. I too was targeted and persecuted by her government. The most dangerous and thing Chandrika did during her tenure was to attempt to imprison the leader of the Opposition during the election of August 2000. Had she succeeded in her attempt, she would have set a precedent that would have taken this country down the path of no return. Luckily for this country, she had entrusted the contract to a bunch of idiots who ended up imprisoning me for three months instead of Ranil Wickremasinghe and things did not work out the way she would have wanted.

Political turmoil

No doubt this constant state of political turmoil that she created by unnecessarily targeting all those opposed to her would have contributed even more to the crisis of confidence among that important segment of the population that could make things happen on the economic front. Even her manner of speaking was such that would make many respectable ladies of her social background quail. Her speech was targeted at the lower orders of society whom she considered her main powerbase in the context where the urban classes were refusing to accept her bona fides as a pro free market leader. When she appeared on TV, it was almost always to ‘blackguard’ her opponents. Her speeches were routinely referred as athiya amatha bena wedima (Blackguarding the nation – not addressing the nation.) Why labour the point? We all had to live through her public tantrums.

Having continued like that until 2001, she at last lost the Parliamentary elections held in December 2001. Losing that election was probably one of the best things that ever happened to her in her political career. Within the two and a half years or less that the UNP was in power from December 2001 to April 2004, they convincingly showed the electorate and the investing public that the UNP was no longer what it had been in the past. In the past, it was always the UNP that was considered the party of doers. For five decades, people were used to tightening their belts when the SLFP was in power and loosening them when the UNP was in power. But for the first time, we had a UNP that asked the public to tighten their belts. This is an issue that has to be dealt with separately. But, for the time being let it be said that the best thing that happened to the UNP since their defeat in 1994, was to be booted out again by a resurgent Chandrika in the first quarter of 2004. Had that government been allowed to stay their whole six year term, there would have been nothing left of the UNP at the end of it. Every UNPer should collect money for a farewell gift for Chandrika for having saved the grand old party from itself.

CBK regains Parliament

After Chandrika romped back into power in 2004 April, technically, the country should have reverted back to that old stagnation that we experienced during her first seven years in power. But lo and behold! what happened was the exact opposite. Even with four JVP ministers in cabinet, the stock market rose and rose, becoming one of the best performing stock markets in Asia. Land prices increased at a blistering pace. From April 2004 until the election of November 2005, Chandrika was able to preside over an economic boom – the kind of condition which she should technically have enjoyed from 1994. Chandrika’s last eighteen months in power was in economic terms comparable to President D. B.Wijetunga’s eighteen months in power. That important segment of the population that was able to make decisions affecting the economy obviously had realised that there was little point in waiting for a performing UNP and that they had to make do with what was available. Even the presence of four JVP members in the cabinet did not deter them from reposing as much confidence in Chandrika as they had traditionally done in the UNP. The natural advantage in the economic sphere that the UNP had enjoyed for 50 or more years was frittered away in just two years between 2002 and 2004. Having seen the UNP performing in power, Chandrika would have marvelled at how she had overestimated them.

During her last eighteen months, she made no effort to persecute the UNP. She refrained from giving the nation the regular tongue lashings as she was apt to do during her first seven years. Success seemed to have mellowed Chandrika and soothed the feeling of insecurity which dogged her first phase in power. Indeed, her confidence vis-a-vis the UNP seemed to have percolated down to grassroots SLFPers as well because the Presidential election of 17th November was one of the most peaceful elections held in the past couple of decades. From the point of view of the national interest, it was, indeed, good that Chandrika managed to taste success on the economic front at least during her last eighteen months in power. The monopoly that the UNP had had on the economic confidence front, was effectively broken. That was bad for the UNP, but good for the country, because whichever party is in power, there will be some degree of economic confidence and progress. During her last months in power, she managed to level the economic playing field between the UNP and the SLFP – or rather, the UNP levelled it for her. I suppose even the success of her last eighteen months in power can be ascribed to her raja yogaya because it simply was handed over to her on a platter by the UNP.

Her greatest political achievement was that she modernised the SLFP’s economic thinking, and with the generous and unstinting help of the UNP, managed to get the country performing at a level that only the UNP could manage in the past. While it is quite true that it was Ranil’s incapability that ended up giving the economic advantage that the UNP had monopolized for five decades to the SLFP, one must not forget that Chandrika was fighting with the SLFP’s abysmal past tied to her neck like a millstone. Moreover, compared to the UNP, the human material that she had to work with in the SLFP, was far inferior barring a few individuals like Lakshman Kadirgarmar.

Ranil’s team

In contrast to Chandrika, Ranil had a superb team of well qualified technocrats to work with. In many senses the team that Ranil had to work with in 2001 was better than the team that JRJ had had to work with in 1977. What happened in April 2004 was that Chandrika defeated the UNP Porsche with her bullock cart! As I said earlier, even though one may ascribe her success to the failure of the UNP, rather than her achievement, the bottom line is that she managed to hold her own against the present day UNP as an administrator and manager. In 1994, when she first came into power, everybody including myself, compared her to the 1977-1994 UNP and found her wanting. But that was the UNP of the past. The investing public who had remained loyal to the UNP in the 1994-2001 period could see with their own eyes that the modern day UNP was not what it used to be in the past. After the UNP’s debacle of 2001-2004, compared to Ranil Wickremesinghe, Chandrika appeared to be an administrative genius – no less. Nay, I’ll go further and say quite openly that Chandrika was the better administrator by far. And the investing public who continued to throw money on speculative investments even after the UNP was defeated in 2004, also appear to have accepted that. Chandrika ended her career on a high – the high she would always have craved, and thought she deserved.

When Chandrika Kumaratunga was re-elected for a second term in December 1999, I called the voting public punnakku kana gonnu (poonac eating cattle) in my regular column in the Irida Peramuna – the then Sinhala sister paper of the Sunday Leader. This was in the belief that had the UNP won, the country would have been able to pick up from where it left off in 1994 and that there would be an economic boom. By defeating the UNP, I thought the people had deprived themselves of a great green future. But after the UNP was elected into power in December 2001, I discovered to my embarrassment that the people had been right in 1999 and that I had been wrong. Dead wrong! The people, even in their ignorance, had instinctively gone with the better candidate – in economic terms.

CBK’s future

What will the future hold for Chandrika? If she does make it into Parliament, she will be setting a dangerous precedent of having presidents who cannot bring themselves to retire after their two terms is up. Because she tasted success at the tail end of her tenure, she probably feels that she was cheated of her best period in politics by the constitution which limits the Presidency to two terms. I would agree that had she contested a third time, she would have won hands down, and the economic boom of her last eighteen months would have continued. While acknowledging that, it should be remembered that it is not just constitutional clauses that decides the future of leaders. If J.R.Jayewardene had not included this limiting clause in our constitution, does that mean that Chandrika or any other President could have been able continue indefinitely in power? I do not think so. Take Britain for example, where there is no limitation on the number of times a leader can contest or be re-appointed to leadership. Even a strong leader like Margaret Thatcher was ousted by her own party making the way for John Major to succeed her as Premier. And this, mind you, was when she was in power! Today, Tony Blair, who is as every bit as successful as Thatcher was, is also under pressure from his own party despite being re-elected as Prime Minister only recently. In Australia, the powerful conservative Prime Minister John Howard is also under pressure from certain quarters to hand over the reins to his Deputy.

Democracy abhors over-extended stays in power. Even if there are no limiting clauses in the constitution, people require a turnover in the leadership. Leadership turnover after all is the very basis of democracy. Even in a democracy, the leader usually wields just as much power as any dictator, but the difference is that in a democracy, there is a turnover at regular intervals. Every democracy should have a cohort of retired political leaders – that is an indication of the health of the system. If a leader is refusing to step down, or refusing to retire, then that is an issue that needs to be seriously addressed.



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