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Socialist survivor

Print edition : Oct 28, 2000 T+T-
Sirima Bandaranaike, 1916 - 2000.

SEVERAL years ago, when Sirima Bandaranaike was asked by a media interviewer if she regretted joining politics, her answer, after a long pause, was: "Yes". That was the time when she had been stripped of her civic rights by J.R. Jayewardene's United Nati onal Party (UNP) government, her daughter Chandrika had turned against her, and her party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), seemed headed nowhere.

But if she was indeed the reluctant politician, it was nowhere apparent during her two tenures as the elected Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, in the years before Jayewardene brought in the Executive Presidency, when she was all-powerful.

Thrust into public life after the assassination of her husband Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, Mrs. B, as she was affectionately known, took to her new role with the ease of a natural leader after a few initial hiccups, surviving a coup, an arme d insurgency and political exile.

Ailing and 84, she retired from her third tenure as Prime Minister in August this year, in a move that enabled her daughter and President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, to appoint a younger person to succeed her and to lead the election campaign that was to fol low.

Mrs. B's death on October 10, minutes after voting in general elections at which her party was seeking a second term, seemed as dramatic as her four decades in public life.

SRI LANKA will remember her mainly for putting the country on the world map, not just by becoming the first woman to be elected to head a country, but also for the role she played in setting up the Non-Aligned Movement along with other big leaders of the Third World. But at home, her economic policies proved disastrous, and were finally responsible for the stunning defeat of the SLFP in the 1977 elections.

Born on April 17, 1916 in a wealthy, landowning Buddhist family, Sirima was married in 1940 to the politically ambitious SWRD. After years of waiting in the wings, SWRD had had barely three years in his job as Prime Minister when he was felled by an assa ssin's bullet in 1959. He left behind a legacy of not only a country bitterly divided between the two main ethnic groups - the Sinhalese and the Tamils - on the issue of official language, but also a deeply divided SLFP which he had founded in 1951. It w as to save the party that Sirima stepped in a year later, coaxed by family and her husband's colleagues. Dressed in widow's whites, she rode a sympathy wave in the tear-jerker election of July 1960, winning a landslide victory. In the process she proved that practising politics needs no special qualifications - setting a lasting trend for the rest of South Asia.

As Prime Minister heading a coalition that included the Left parties, Sirima launched herself on a programme of socialist economic policies. Her first tenure, from 1960 to 1964, was marked by a series of nationalisation ventures. Her government was final ly defeated in Parliament over the move to take over Lake House, a newspaper group, which she accused of plotting against her.

She rode back to power in the 1970 elections and pursued her socialist polices with renewed vigour. And this time she managed to take over the Lake House newspapers. Under the banner of self-reliance, Sirima drastically curbed imports. It led to severe f ood shortages and the infamous "bread queues". Rice, a Sri Lankan staple, was banned from the diet except for two days of the week because local production was not enough to meet demand. Consumer goods also disappeared under the import restrictions. Anyo ne wishing to buy a new cycle tyre had to take the old one along to prove it was worn out; marrying couples were allowed only two sets of new clothes each. The implementation of a tough land reform law, for which she set an example by giving away 3,000 a cres (1,200 hectares) of her family lands for redistribution, failed to inject life into agriculture or make Sri Lanka self-sufficient in any way.

That the generaly leisure-loving Sri Lankans did not approve of spartan socialism became evident in the crushing defeat of the SLFP in the 1977 elections. The elections were won by the UNP led by J.R. Jayewardene, who overturned all her policies. And in the pursuit of his dream of turning Sri Lanka into Singapore, Jayewardene ushered in free market captialism.

The 17 years in Opposition that followed were difficult for Sirima. Her own political life was stilled for several years by a parliamentary decision in 1980 to strip her of civic rights for allegedly dodgy land deals after her government's introduction o f land reform law. But she kept the party together even in those difficult days.

When rehabilitated, a shrill campaign against the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, appealing to Sinhalese nationalism, and a promise to send back the Indian Peace-Keeping Force failed to win her the presidency in the 1989 elections against Ranasinghe Prema dasa of the UNP.

It was only in 1994 that her dreams of seeing the SLFP back in power came true, but by then she had been laid low by a paralytic stroke. Before the elections, she reluctantly handed over the reins of the party to her second daughter Chandrika, a new entr ant to the party and a one-time political opponent. A socialist to the last, she watched her daughter put on sale the assets of the country she had once nationalised and roll out the red carpet to foreign investors. Their relationship remained uneasy to the end. It was said that her retirement this August was forced on her by Chandrika.

However, Mrs. B remained leader of the SLFP till her death and tried her best to bring back into the fold her son and youngest of her three children Anura, who had joined the UNP in 1993 after losing his pre-eminent position in the SLFP to his sister. He r eldest daughter Sunethra has so far kept out of politics.

In her relations with India, Sirima was pragmatic. She managed to push through the Sirima-Shastri Pact which enabled Sri Lanka to get rid of half its Indian Tamil population. The pact was deemed necessary for good neighbourly relations, but neither that nor her personal friendship with Indira Gandhi stopped Sirima from granting the Pakistan Air Force refuelling rights in Sri Lanka during the 1971 Bangladesh war.

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