Chandrananda De Silva – A Distinguished Public Service Career


by Leelananda De Silva

Chandrananda De Silva was one of the most eminent public servants of the latter part of the 20th century. As Elections Commissioner (EC) for 14 years from 1982 to 1995 and as Secretary of the Ministry of Defence from 1995 to 2002, he was one of the key figures who managed the two challenging issues the country faced during that time. As EC, he had the task of implementing a new electoral system amidst growing threats to the integrity and fairness of the electoral process, as a consequence of emerging authoritarian trends. He was one of the courageous few who kept the flickering flames of electoral democracy burning in this country. As defence secretary, he was the leading civilian official to manage the defence establishment during a most critical period in the civil war. Both these tasks required administrative and political skills of the highest order, and Chandrananda rose up to these challenges. He was deservedly awarded the accolade of Deshamanya at the end of his tenure.

Chandrananda was born in October 1936 at Dondra (now Devinuwara). He came from a highly respected family in that town, and his parents were R.K.J and Millie De Silva. In the 1940s, his father was elected chairman of the town council of Dondra. There was a deadlock in the council at the time and R.K.J. De Silva was persuaded to become a member of the town council, uncontested, and to assume the chairmanship without a contest. Chandrananda had his early education at Rahula College, Matara from where he entered the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. In 1955, at Peradeniya, he read economics, specializing in political science. Subsequently, he joined as an elections officer and became a member of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. He went on to hold many top posts including being Government Agent in Polonnaruwa and Kurunegala. Chandrananda had a lifelong interest in politics and he had the facility, as a bureaucrat to work with politicians. An earlier generation of public servants had a tendency to look down upon politics and politicians and to feel that they were superior in managing the affairs of state without political interference. This was a colonial mindset which was in conflict with democratic processes of governance. Chandrananda belonged to a new generation which accepted the role of politicians in policy making, and at the same time, believed that public servants had an autonomous role in implementing those policies. He could work with politicians and yet maintain his autonomy and integrity.

Chandrananda’s life will be remembered by many in his capacity as EC for 14 years and the fearless manner in which he performed his duties. He was responsible for organizing nine nationwide elections. He was appointed EC in 1982. The parliamentary system had been abolished in 1978, and the first presidential election in the country was to be held in 1983. Before this election was held, there was much political tension in the country. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), had split and this widening rift within the party was encouraged by the UNP government, which was partial to the anti- Sirimavo Bandaranaike faction. The key issue which the EC had to decide, whenever the election was announced, was which faction of the SLFP was entitled to the "Hand" symbol in the ballot papers, the "hand" being the traditional SLFP symbol. Before the elections were announced, Chandrananda was invited by the then President, who was expected to contest the election for the UNP, for a breakfast meeting at his home. It was a cordial meeting and there was nothing improper in it. The President suggested that the EC should take his cue from a report of a parliamentary committee which had recommended that the "hand" symbol should be given to the anti- Sirimavo faction. Chandrananda’s response was that he will make his decision when the elections are announced, and that he would act according to the law. There were many pressures on Chandrananda at this time from leading politicians and bureaucrats to award the "hand" symbol to the anti- Sirimavo faction of the SLFP. When the elections were announced, Chandrananda rightly awarded the symbol to the leading faction which was Sirimavo’s. This enraged the government. I had the opportunity recently to speak with the present EC and in his view this was Chandrananda’s finest hour, where he withstood the pressures from the highest in the land, and implemented election laws in letter and in spirit.

The first ever island wide presidential election was held in October 1982. It was the first time that the preferential system of voting was in operation. Chandrananda had to develop new systems to implement the changed voting systems. The EC had to decide as to how the votes should be counted. There was again pressure from the government to announce only the final result for the whole island. Chandrananda decided that results would be announced for each electoral district, making it more understandable to the public. This is the system which has continued to this day. His report on the presidential election (Sessional Paper No. VIII – 1983) running to 130 pages is a fine analysis of the problems encountered in this kind of election and with many proposals for reforming the system.

Two months after the presidential election, there came another new type of election – the Referendum. This was to extend the life of Parliament. This was a complete travesty of what a fair referendum should be. Malpractices were the order of the day, and the government obtained the majority it desired. Chandrananda in his report on the referendum (Sessional Paper II of 1987), was highly critical of this election. In a later report (Sessional Paper No. IV of 1993), Chandrananda had this to say. "It is understood that the regularity of elections specified in the Constitution is a means by which the franchise of the electorate is guaranteed. In that context, the electorate must be provided with the opportunity to exercise its choice both on persons and policies at elections. It is precisely this choice of persons and policies that the Referendum denies to the electorate." These were courageous remarks at a time of creeping authoritarianism.

Then came the second presidential election, where Mr. Premadasa contested Mrs. Bandaranaike. This was one of the most difficult elections ever to be organized in Sri Lanka due to the prevailing terrorist situation. Once again, the EC had to confront severe difficulties in managing the election. The extent of irregularities was on a massive scale. Chandrananda issued a most significant report on this election, 450 pages long and published as Sessional Paper No. IV of 1993. Chandrananda’s reports on these elections are models of logical analysis. In 1988, EC had to organize the first elections to the provincial councils of Sri Lanka. They were held on four separate days, spread over eight months. In his report on these elections, Chandrananda pointed out that holding these elections over an extended period resulted in an advantage to the political party which won the elections on the first day. His recommendation was that to ensure the legitimacy of the electoral process, these provincial elections too should be held on the same day.

As defence secretary for seven years in the late 1990s, Chandrananda made an enormous contribution in creating a new defence structure to meet the critical situation arising from the civil war. His task was to put in place a re-invigorated defence establishment, particularly after the IPKF intervention in Sri Lanka. The lines of authority and decision making had also become blurred, with personnel from the armed forces managing the affairs of the defence ministry. Civilian control of armed forces which was an accepted practice in Sri Lanka until the mid 1980s was eroded by the appointment of army officers to be defence secretaries. Chandrananda was the first civilian defence secretary in over 10 years. One of his main contributions in the defence ministry was to establish transparent procedures in defence procurement. During his tenure, he handled over 450 tenders running into several billions, through cabinet appointed tender boards. He saw to it that all proceedings of tender boards were duly documented at the end of his tenure; there were 23 volumes of these proceedings. Chandrananda worked with people of the calibre of Lakshman Kadiragamar, John Gunaratne, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara and others in the foreign ministry to ensure that military operations were conducted according to established and universally accepted rules and that human rights were safeguarded. He saw to it that court martials were set up to deal with any excesses by the defence forces.

Chandrananda had two interests in his life- his work and his family. He was blessed with a very closely knit family. His wife Dayani, herself a leading public servant (she was Commissioner General of Inland Revenue and Chairperson of the Bank of Ceylon) supported him at all times, amidst much tension in his working life. His children and their spouses- Kumari and Gunendra and Dushan and Lumbini – were a great strength to him. What is also notable about him was that he was very close to his six brothers and sisters- Yasoma, Deshabandu (he rose to be Registrar-General), Prasad, Sarathchandra, Kumudini and Soshali – and their extended families. The officials who worked with Chandrananda in the defence ministry and at the elections department tell me that he was unflappable and kept a cool head amidst continuing tensions during those years. He was a great public servant.

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