Gone is a gentle giant in Sri Lankan politics with the untimely demise of Anura Bandaranaike, MP. Born in the purple, yet not fated to rule, he stood head and shoulders above other politicians of his day. His impressive political career spanned four eventful decades which saw many an up and down in his life. Elected to Parliament in 1977, he went on to become an Opposition Leader, Minister, Speaker and Prime Ministerial candidate.
As the scion of a legendary political family, which probably set a world record by continuously heading a political party for over five decades, Anura took to politics like a duck to water. His baptism of fire occurred at a tender age. Politics was a true calling for Anura, not a profession. He chose to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious parents Prime Ministers S. W. R. D. Badaranaike and Sirima Bandaranaike.
At the very outset, he was dumped in the deep end of parliamentary politics. He had to shoulder the gargantuan task of battling a monolithic UNP regime with a steam roller majority and a penchant for railroading the Opposition into submission at every turn. Anura and a handful of SLFPers who had survived the near whitewash of 1977 held out valiantly. He led battles against the JRJ government from the front and bore the brunt of ferocious onslaughts from the UNP heavyweights like Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, a brilliant strategist and iconoclastic orator capable of tearing his opponents to shreds. The exchanges between the duo were interesting, though full of double entendre and fustian.
Anura s fetish for extensive research prior to parliamentary debates was monumental. His private library easily compares with the best in Asia. His fiery oratory and intellectual thrust and parry were a treat to both sides of the House. He may have deviated once in a way to smite a rival with the sledge hammer of rhetoric, but, over all, he never compromised the quality of his speeches and upheld the standards of debate and parliamentary decorum.
Once, during a vote of no confidence against the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, Anura demonstrated his oratorical skills from the UNP benches, quoting as he did heavily from various sources to drive his point home. His spellbinding speech was greeted by his colleagues with rapture. Then Kadir stood his full athletic height, adjusted his coat, rolled his eloquent tongue over his firm lips, and cracked his characteristic grin. There was pin-drop silence. And then fireworks began! `The difference between you and your illustrious father, Mr. Bandaranaike,` said a smiling Kadir, `is that he was quoted by others and you are quoting others!` Anura kept smiling and enjoying Kadir s brilliant speech at his expense. Kadir ended his defence thus: `Mr. Bandaranaike, I am braving real bullets and bombs of terrorists and do not for a moment think I will run away fearing your popgun oratory!` Anura was still smiling.
Today, Parliament has lost both men. How tragic!
A continuous stay in Parliament for thirty one years was no mean achievement and it was as the Speaker that Anura did Parliament proud most. He will go down in history as the Speaker who pitted himself against the Judiciary to uphold the supremacy of the Legislature. On June 20, 2001, he rejected two interim orders of the Supreme Court seeking to restrain the Speaker from appointing a PSC on a motion to impeach the Chief Justice. He held that the two orders amounted to interference in the internal affairs of parliament and the SC had no jurisdiction to issue orders to restrain the Speaker. He also held the scales even on other matters during his tenure as the Speaker and earned accolades from his friends and foes alike.
However, as is the way with all human beings, he was not infallible. He made mistakes and failed to avoid pitfalls and pratfalls. Among his blunders which he later regretted was a tussle with his mother Sirimavo over the party leadership in the early 1980s. He also should have known better than to pull the carpet from under the feet of the SLFP Presidential Candidate Hector Kobbekaduwa, who was vying with JRJ against numerous odds at the 1982 Presidential Election.
His pugnacity, which the party hangers on in his shadow abused to achieve their sinister ends, also cost him many an opportunity, in spite of being the so-called heir apparent of the SLFP, to lead the party and, perhaps, the country. His crossover to the UNP following his sister Chandrika s comeback in the early 1990s ruined his political future. Although he returned to the party s fold later, others including his chum Mahinda Rajapaksa had overtaken him and established themselves in the party by that time.
However, if not for Anura s strategic thinking that paved the way for a coalition between the SLFP-led PA and the JVP, the SLFP led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga would not have been able to capture power in Parliament in 2004 after its defeat in 2001. (By an odd quirk of fate, it was Mahinda Rajapaksa, an opponent of an electoral alliance with the JVP, who stood to gain from the new alignment of political forces.) Anura again made the mistake of letting himself be swayed by those who sought to dig Mahinda s political grave by collaborating with the UNP. Had he thrown in his lot with Mahinda unwaveringly at the last Presidential Election, he would have become Prime Minister the fourth PM from the Horagolla Walawwa.
He again took the wrong political turn by joining forces with the SLFP dissidents last year and lost his ministerial post. Having come back and accepted his portfolio, he blundered by defecting to the Opposition at the last budget vote at the behest of SLFP dissidents and the UNP. He and his President friend patched up differences later on but his ill health prevented him from being sworn in as a minister.
There is a tide, as Brutus said, in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Anura omitted it and his voyage of life ended in shallows of politics and he lost his ventures.
These mortal failings notwithstanding, Anura remained a gentleman in politics to the last. When the chapter on the present-day Sri Lankan politics is written, special mention will be made of him as one of the rare politicians who neither robbed public funds nor aided and abetted crime.