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A president and gentleman

The nation is mourning the death of a great leader. The late President D. B. Wijetunga epitomised frankness, simplicity, maturity, humanity and candour. Like greatness, the executive presidency was also thrust upon him at a time the country was mired in an unprecedented crisis. His tenure spanned only a little over one year and his eagerness to relieve himself of the presidency was clear from the very beginning. His only desire was to act as a stabilising force in the national politics, catalyst for democratic change and bulwark against separatist terror. His mission proved to be a success.

President Wijetunga never let the unbridled powers of the executive presidency get the better of him. Instead, he tamed the all-powerful presidency without succumbing to its corrupting influence. Greatness of political leaders could be judged not so much by the way they ascend the throne and conduct themselves but by the way they bow out. Very few do so gracefully. Most of them cling on to power like limpets until they are booted out. When the time came for President DB to leave, he already had one foot out of the President's House. He was more than happy to return to his Kandyan roots, leaving governance to lesser minions.

The turbulent and tumultuous period when DB became President had all the trappings of a Dickensian paradox. It was the worst of times as a president had just been assassinated by terrorists and a 17-year-long repressive regime had gone into a tailspin: It was the best of times as a tragic event had paved the way for a democratic change. It was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair. The country was in the depths of despair, as it had been rendered rudderless; there was hope as the fatherly DB took over the reins of power.

By the time DB became President, the country had felt the birth pangs of an emergent democracy. The UNP dissidents-Lalith, Gamini and Premachandra-had founded the DUNF and jump-started an ailing Opposition, whose leaders were busy fighting one another rather than their bĂȘte noire, President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The UNP in a desperate bid to retain power was striking back with might and main. And the Opposition suffered a paralysing blow. Lalith was assassinated in April 1993, while addressing a PC polls rally. Like the butler in a whodunit, President Premadasa became the immediate suspect.

Lalith's funeral procession which turned Colombo into a sea of mourners marked the beginning of the Premadasa government's end. President Premadasa was politically dead in all but name by the time the LTTE physically eliminated him on May 1 the same year. Upon assuming duties as President, DB was in an unenviable position. He had to face the landfall of a political tsunami. The Opposition was on the warpath and a decapitated UNP was without any defence. DB proved he was a statesman. He rose above petty partisan politics and adopted a conciliatory approach to the problem. Instead of confronting the Opposition, he became flexible and amenable to democratic change. Disaster was thus averted.

Besides the crisis in the country, an internal dispute was brewing in the UNP following the return of Gamini and Premachandra to its fold after President Premadasa's untimely demise. The end of President Premadasa's one man show had resulted in the emergence of two centres of power in the UNP. The then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Gamini Dissanayake were at daggers drawn, as both of them were aspirants to the party leadership and presidency.

President Wijetunga not only managed the party crisis without letting another split occur but also defeated the LTTE's plans to unleash anarchy through political assassinations by way of a shortcut to its goal. He radically departed from his predecessor's military strategy. He ruled out negotiations with terrorists and took on the LTTE militarily. The LTTE was wrong-footed. Prabhakaran may not have anticipated that kind of reaction from a mild-mannered President. The Eastern Province was cleared and LG polls were held. President Wijetunga's strategy was to capture the East and the Wanni first and then bag the north, exactly the way the present government is doing. But, before he achieved his military goal, his term came to an end.

For the first time under the executive presidential system, it was under his watch that the president and the prime minister happened to come from two different parties. The PA captured power in Parliament in 2004 and Chandrika Kumaratunga became Prime Minister. That was something the architects of the present Constitution had not anticipated. But for his maturity and skillful handling of the situation, the results would have been politically catastrophic. He ensured a smooth transition; the president and the cabinet co-existed, unlike in the 2001-2004 period, when President Kumaratunga and the UNF ministers clashed openly like vendors in a fish market.

President Wijetunga saw to it that the country had a free and fair general election in 1994 after a lapse of 17 long years. It was followed by a democratic presidential election a few months later. The general election had almost a photo finish and the PA had a razor thin majority. The UNP bigwigs engaged in a lot of horse-trading in a bid to retain power. An anxious polity was held in suspense. But, President Wijetunga invited Chandrika to form a government.

President Chandrika stood her predecessor's military strategy on its head. She offered the North to the LTTE for ten years without election. Prabhakaran rejected her offer. She walked into a peace trap and gave the LTTE a breather only to get a rude shock a few months later in April 1995. Then, she abandoned the East and wrested control of Jaffna. The PA government argued that it had to do as by that time the LTTE had established a de facto separate state in the north and was planning to declare unilateral independence. However, she should be credited with recapturing Jaffna, a loss which the LTTE has never recovered from. The Rajapaksa government has successfully carried forward the late President Wijetunga's military strategy by liberating the Eastern Province first and then moving into the Wanni.

Besides politics and military affairs, President Wijetunga's handling of the economy was truly remarkable. He accomplished the daunting task of preventing the economy collapsing during the political turbulence in the aftermath of a string of high profile political assassinations, two major elections and a change of government.

All this he could achieve as he was devoid of greed for power and had the national interest at heart. He will go down in history as a leader who steered this country out of one of its worst ever crises, saved its democracy and showed how the scourge of terrorism should be tackled.

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