( The World’s first Woman Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was born on April 17th 1916. This article published in 2019 July is being re-posted here without any changes to commemorate her 105th Birth Anniversary)
Germany’s defence minister Ursula von der Leyen has been elected president of the European Union (EU) Commission following a secret ballot among Members of the European Parliament. She is the first woman to be elected as President of the EU commission and will replace current President Jean-Claude Juncker on November 1st this year. With Ursula von der Leyen’s victory another traditional male bastion has fallen.
There was a time when women were kept out of politics and denied even the right to vote. The adoption of the universal franchise principle along with the spread of democracy has led to a situation where more and more women are participating in politics now as elected representatives. Many hold ministerial portfolios while some have reached the top as heads of State and heads of Government. It is currently estimated that 22 women are functioning as Presidents, Prime Ministers or Chancellors in their countries respectively. Though impressive this number is by no means enough. We have miles and miles to go before women are elected to office worldwide in proportion to their numerical strength.
Even as this process of women becoming political leaders progresses it would be worthwhile to recall how Sri Lanka known formerly as Ceylon made history by swearing in the world’s first woman Prime minister fifty -nine years ago. It was on July 21st 1960 that Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike assumed office as Prime minister. It is said that the British press had to coin a new description “Stateswoman” instead of the usual statesman after she assumed office.
To “Queen’s House” and “Temple Trees”
Large crowds lined up along the streets of Colombo to cheer the smiling lady as she was driven from her residence “Tintagel” at Rosemead place to the then Governor -General’s mansion “Queen’s House” in Fort and then to “Temple Trees” the prime minister’s official residence in Colpetty. The housewife was now Prime Minister. She was 44 at the time of her tryst with destiny.
Sirimavo known generally as Sirima was born on 17 April 1916 as the eldest daughter of Barnes Ratwatte Dissawe and Rosalind Hilda Mahawelatanna Kumarihamy. The Ratwattes were a Kandyan “radala”family of aristocratic lineage.She was the eldest of six children, two girls and four boys. Shortly after she was born, a rare event occurred. A herd of elephants forcefully entered the kraal or enclosure. It was perceived as a good omen.A well-known astrologer, Hetuwa Gurunanse, was summoned to chart her horoscope. The parents were flabbergasted to hear that their daughter would be the future queen of the country. For one thing Ceylon as Sri Lanka was known was then a British colony and George the Fifth was the king. Also, women were not given leadership positions then. The horoscope however proved right and the girl did become queen, but an uncrowned one.
Sirimavo was educated at Colombo’s St. Bridget’s Convent. She married Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike from a leading Low- Country Sinhala aristocratic family in 1940. He was the son of Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, the Mahamudaliyar of Horagolla Walauwwe, Attanagalle. Their age difference was 17 years. The marriage was hailed as a union between two patrician Low-Country and Up -Country families then. Solomon and Sirima had three children.The two daughters Sunethra and Chandrika were born in 1943 and 1945 respectively. The son Anura was born in 1949.He passed away in 2008.
Sirima was seemingly content to be a housewife and mother of three children for 20 years while her husband went on to win political laurels as minister, opposition leader and then prime minister. She had exposure to many political leaders, visiting dignitaries and foreign diplomats during this time, when she played the hospitable, charming hostess.Sirima was also involved with the work of the SLFP Mahila Samithiya then.
However according to some family members the outward image of being a simple housewife was deceptive. They say that she was very knowledgeable in contemporary affairs and also possessed great political acumen. It is believed that Sirima was greatly instrumental in influencing her husband to join the United National Party (UNP)and then pull out of it and form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) .
“Sirima, Kitchen, Kitchen”
SWRD himself never encouraged Sirima to be actively involved in politics. An apocryphal anecdote that was often related in those times was illustrative of this. Apparently SWRD, Philip Gunewardena and a few other senior Govt ministers were discussing the envisaged Paddy Lands Act in 1958 .The Act provided greater rights and concessions to the long-suffering tenant cultivators.There was however a large segment of semi-feudal, land-owning class supportive of the SLFP that resented the Paddy Lands Act . This discontent was reflected in the case of Sirima too. She surprised the gathering by participating in the conversation on the subject. When Sirima started berating Philip, her enraged husband shouted at her to stop saying “Sirima kussiya, kussiya” (Sirima, kitchen, kitchen).
Dr. James Manor in his book on SWRD titled “The Expedient Utopian: Bandaranaike and Ceylon” refers to a very pertinent anecdote in this regard. Tea was being personally served by Sirimavo to her husband and some distinguished guests one evening. There was no spoon in the sugar bowl. SWRD had then shouted out – “Sirima! These gentlemen drink tea with sugar. For the sugar to get into the cup, there must be some instrument. You have not put a spoon in the sugar bowl.” As wife Sirima went to fetch a spoon dutifully, husband Bandaranaike quipped: ‘We have to think for them too.”.
Viewed against this backdrop it seems obvious that Sirimavo Bandaranaike would never have engaged in active politics if her husband were alive.It was after the assassination of her husband by a Buddhist monk, Talduwe Somarama Thera, in September 1959 that a reluctant Sirima was propelled to the political centre stage. The Sinhala Buddhist nationalist party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), founded by her husband, found itself leaderless and party seniors prevailed upon her to take over.But she did not agree immediately. Subsequent events, however, led to a situation where she had to relent and take over the reins to preserve her late husband’s political legacy. Party leadership and prime ministerial office was not something she sought or desired, but both trappings were thrust upon her.
In order to comprehend this fully it is necessary to revisit the past and delve deep into the political situation that existed decades ago.The circumstances of her ascension to power are rather interesting and indicative of how the element of ‘chance’ influences key events in history. It is also illustrative of the role played by conspiracies, intrigues and above all the caste dimension in Sri Lankan politics.The political drama that happened then is worth recounting briefly at this point of time with the aid of my earlier writings.
SLFP -led MEP Coalition
The SLFP-led coalition known as the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) had come to power in 1956 riding the crest of a Sinhala-Buddhist wave. There was, however, much dissension within its folds and the leftist wing led by Philip Gunewardena had left the Government a few months before SWRDB’s death.
The senior leader of ability and stature in the SLFP was Charles Percival de Silva (C.P. de Silva). Born in 1912, CP as he was known was an old Thomian and an ex-civil servant. He retired early as a Government Agent and entered Parliament in 1952.CP was Minister of Lands, Irrigation and Power in the cabinet and also Leader of the House. He was widely regarded as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s able deputy and potential successor.However, CP was taken ill after a cabinet meeting on 25 August 1959. He had drunk a glass of milk in the boardroom where the cabinet met. It was suspected that the glass contained some vegetable-derived poisonous substance. The intended victim was supposed to be the Prime Minister himself. CP’s condition proved so critical that he had to go to London for medical treatment.It was in this manner that fate played a trick on CP.
While CP was yet in London, his Prime Minister too was scheduled to go abroad in late September. S.W.R.D. was to go to Britain and the USA. Prior to his departure, S.W.R.D. made arrangements for Education Minister Wijayananda Dahanayake to be sworn in as Acting Premier to be in charge during his absence from the country. Had CP been in Colombo, he and not Dahanayake would have been acting for Bandaranaike.
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was shot by Talduwe Somarama on 25 September 1959. He passed away on 26 September. Dahanayake was sworn in by the then Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and became the fifth Prime Minister of the country.Daha, as Dahanayake was known, was a maverick. The one-time Sama Samajist was a popular politician regarded as an eccentric. He and Somaweera Chandrasiri had joined the MEP coalition as members of the ‘Bhasa Peramuna’. Later Daha joined the SLFP. His action in providing buns as a midday meal for schoolchildren earned Daha the nickname ‘Banis Maama’.
Upon hearing of Bandaranaike’s shooting, the convalescent CP discharged himself from hospital despite not having fully recovered and returned home. But it was too late and by the time he arrived in Colombo, S.W.R.D. had died and Dahanayake had assumed office as Prime Minister. The shrewd Daha met CP at the airport and accompanied him to Horagolla to pay last respects to their departed leader.Daha then took CP to the Governor-General at Queens House and got him sworn in as Agriculture, Lands and Irrigation Minister. Events had overtaken and negated CP’s rightful claim to the PM’s post. But his role as Minister in the Dahanayake cabinet was short-lived. CP was ejected from office in an overnight putsch by the new Premier.
“Off With Their Heads” Rant.
Dahanayake’s brief tenure as Prime Minister was a disaster. He did not enjoy the confidence of his cabinet. Likewise, the cabinet did not trust him. Five ministers including C.P. de Silva were removed from office by Daha on 8 December 1959. Two ministers resigned their posts on 10 December. Five more ministers were fired by the Premier on 10 January 1960.It was like the “off with their heads” rant by Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen.
While these antics were making the SLFP regime a laughing stock, the Government and party were fast losing credibility on another grave issue. Investigations into the S.W.R.D. assassination resulted in the arrest of Mapitigama Buddharakkitha Thero, the Chief Incumbent of Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara and driving force behind the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna or United Bhikku Front. Buddharakkitha Thero had been virtual kingmaker of the Government.
Buddharakkitha Thero was a close associate of the Health Minister and only woman member of cabinet, Vimala Wijewardene. The businessman brother of Finance Minister Stanley de Zoysa was also allegedly involved in the assassination conspiracy.
There was tremendous pressure on Dahanayake to dismiss both from cabinet. But he refused to do so. This led to rumours that Dahanayake was not doing so because he too was involved in the conspiracy.Finally on 21 November 1959, Wijewardene was arrested. Dahanayake had no choice other than to dismiss her from office. De Zoysa also resigned from office as his brother too was arrested on the same day. The rumour mills were working overtime and conspiracy theories were galore.
Under these circumstances the image of the party and the Government were rapidly eroding. Everything was shaky and party leaders and prominent supporters were deeply distressed about the future of the party leadership. They appealed to the grieving widow to enter politics and save the party. But Sirima Bandaranaike adamantly refused.
Since a by-election had to be held for Attanagalle constituency rendered vacant due to the Horagolla laird’s demise, the party leaders wanted Bandaranaike to contest. But she refused. After much persuasion she relented, but on the condition that she would file nomination as an Independent candidate and not as a SLFP candidate. She had been sorely troubled by tales of inner-party intrigues in her husband’s assassination and was reluctant to identify openly with the party at that time.
Prime Minister Dahanayake
The expected by-election never took place because Prime Minister Dahanayake dissolved Parliament on 5 December 1959. There had been a no confidence motion against his Government by the opposition. Daha won by a single vote, but knew the writing was on the wall. After dissolution Dahanayake remained head of a caretaker Government.Until Dahanayake’s advent, Parliamentary polls had been held in stages on different days. To his credit, Dahanayake ensured that islandwide elections would be held on a single day. A general election was announced on 4 January 1960. It was to be held on 19 March. The new Parliament would elect 151 members from 145 electorates with Colombo Central(3), Colombo South(2), Akurana(2), Batticaloa(2) and Muttur(2) being multi-member constituencies. Six MPs would be appointed.
The announcement of an election transformed the political climate. SLFP big-wigs were rattled. The mood in the country was against the ruling party and the Government. The chief opposition United National party (UNP) stock was rising after the re-entry of Dudley Senanayake into active politics.
Prime Minister Dahanayake, instead of sticking to the SLFP, had embarked on a political project of forming his own political party – the Lanka Prajathanthra Pakshaya (LPP). Other party stalwarts like S.D. Bandaranaike, I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla and K.M.P. Rajaratna had formed their own parties.The MEP was now led by Philip Gunewardena, who was also planning to form the next government by contesting in over a 100 electorates.The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was also planning to contest over 100 seats. Its Leader Dr. N.M. Perera was being referred to by supporters as the future prime minister. The SLFP with its hand symbol was virtually written off.
So desperate were some SLFP leaders that they went to the extent of approaching two former UNP Prime Ministers. Sir John Kotelawela was in retirement. But the party that succeeded in forcing him out of politics now sought his leadership in a remarkable twist of fate. Sir John was flattered but declined, preferring to shuttle between Kandawala and Kent rather than be active in politics.Then they turned to the UNP Leader Dudley Senanayake, who was amazed at the offer but promptly turned it down. Apart from his intense loyalty to the UNP, Senanayake also felt that the SLFP was a lost cause. He had no intention of abandoning a winning horse and taking over the reins of a loser.
Another move contemplated by SLFP leaders was that of enlisting Professor G.P. Malalasekara. The former Principal of Ananda College had been active in the Buddhist movement and was widely respected. He was then the country’s Permanent Representative to the UN at New York. It was felt that a non-political personality would do good to boost the party fortunes. But he too did not accept.
The attempts by sections of the SLFP to rope in a new leader from either the UNP or elsewhere are documented in the publication ‘The Inside Story’ by Hugh Fernando. This former MP for Nattandiya was at one-time Speaker in Parliament. He is also one of the few liberal democrat Parliamentarians we have had in Sri Lanka.
Leadership of C.P. de Silva
Meanwhile, C.P. de Silva was doing his best to keep the party together and bring about a political renaissance. Given his qualifications and experience, the mantle of leadership should have been rightfully his. He would indeed have been premier, but for his absence due to illness caused by food poisoning. Also, being away in London, CP was not tarnished by any suspicion of involvement in the S.W.R.D. assassination.
Despite this, several moves were on within the party to have a new leader. There were overt and covert reasons for this. The public reason given was that CP was not a charismatic mass leader. Though his efficiency was accepted, it was argued that he would not be able to attract the masses and win elections. There was some truth to this assessment.
There was, however, another less-publicised reason. Notwithstanding his impressive credentials, CP had a minus point due to the socio-political environment of the country. He did not belong to the numerically large Govigama caste. CP de Silva was from the Salagama caste associated traditionally with cinnamon peeling.The Govigama caste – traditionally farmers and cultivators – was the single largest caste in the country. Its members claimed they were at the top in the caste pecking order. Although castes originated on the basis of traditional occupation, the anachronistic social stratification remained a hidden yet effective factor in politics. Though members of most castes had shed their traditional occupations and taken up other forms of employment the caste factor still prevailed.
However much people argue that casteism is extinct and find it unfashionable to discuss it publicly, the fact remains that caste is indeed a factor to reckon with in politics. This is particularly so in the case of hierarchical leadership. Apart from the exception or aberration of Ranasinghe Premadasa, every single prime minister, president or governor-general (apart from Lord Soulbury) in this country has been from the Govigama caste.It could be seen, therefore, that sections of the SLFP had their reasons to seek a substitute for CP. Despite these efforts, CP established his party leadership as there were no possible replacements at that time. So the party geared itself up for elections under CP’s command. He was projected as a potential premier.
As the electoral campaign got underway, it soon became obvious that the SLFP was heading for definite defeat. Crowds dwindled and there was a visible lack of enthusiasm among party cadres. Without S.W.R.D., the party was like a rudderless boat. The circumstances of his assassination and the rumours circulating of an intra-party conspiracy saw demoralisation set in.
It was at this point that the pragmatic C.P. de Silva realised the urgent necessity for someone to revitalise the party and inspire the voters. Who but the tragic widow of the departed Leader could do this? So CP and other SLFP leaders persuaded Sirima Bandaranaike to address election meetings. A reluctant Sirima hesitantly agreed. She started addressing public meetings.
The ”Weeping Widow”in White
This altered the situation dramatically. The widow dressed in white began talking to the people directly and personally. She was not a powerful orator but had plenty of charisma. She spoke simply and eloquently about her “Swami Purushaya” (Lord Husband), his ideals to help the people and how he was brutally killed.She would often break down and cry. The opposition de-cried this emotional display as a calculated act aimed at garnering sympathy. She was referred to as the “Weeping Widow” by English newspapers. She was mocked and ridiculed. But the tide was rapidly turning.
Huge crowds flocked to her meetings voluntarily. A significant feature was an unprecedentedly high turnout of women particularly in the rural areas. They empathised with her. Tears glistened in their eyes when Sirima Bandaranaike broke down. They sobbed loudly and wept uncontrollably when she cried. Despite her lack of eloquence, Mrs.Bandaranaike moved crowds.
When elections were announced, the SLFP had been discounted as a winner. But as election day drew near, it was clear that the party was doing very well. When results were announced, the UNP had come first with 50 seats but the SLFP came a close second with 46 seats.The LSSP and MEP had 10 each. The LPP of Dahanayake had only four. Many smaller parties were wiped out. It was broadly acknowledged that the late entry by the “Weeping Widow” into the SLFP campaign had caused the SLFP revival.
It was a hung Parliament and neither the UNP nor SLFP had an absolute majority. The third largest party in Parliament was the lLankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) called the Federal Party (FP) in English. The FP had 15 seats. It soon became clear that the FP had the power to make or break a government.Both the UNP and SLFP commenced negotiations with the FP. After protracted negotiations, the FP decided to support the SLFP on the basis of an unwritten understanding. C.P. de Silva led the SLFP negotiating team. He told the FP that he drove a hard bargain, but would stick to it.
It was soon clear that the newly-formed UNP Government under Senanayake did not command a Parliamentary majority as most parties in the opposition were anti-UNP. Senanayake, however, enticed a few independents and breakaways from the LPP. He also had six appointed MPs. But these were not enough. Had the FP supported the UNP, a majority could have been cobbled together.
The acid test was the Speaker’s election. The combined opposition candidate was T.B. Subasinghe. The UNP fielded Sir Albert Peiris. The opposition candidate with 93 votes defeated the Government candidate, who had 60 votes. This was the first time it happened. There was a repetition in 2004 when the opposition’s W.J.M. Lokubandara became Speaker ,winning by one vote.
Sir Oliver Goonetilleke
The Speaker’s election was followed by the Throne Speech on 22 April. The Government was defeated again by 86 votes to 61 with eight abstentions. Senanayake advised the Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections in July. The lifespan of the UNP Government had been only 33 days.
In terms of the Constitution as well as Parliamentary convention, the Governor-General was bound to invite the person who commanded a majority in the House to form the next government. C.P. de Silva went to Queen’s House and informed Sir Oliver that he had the necessary majority as the FP was supporting him.
Sir Oliver Goonetilleke then summoned the FP to ascertain whether the party had indeed extended support to the SLFP. The FP leader SJV Chelvanayagam confirmed it. But Sir Oliver was not satisfied. He asked the FP whether the party would provide unconditional support to CP de Silva for a minimum of two years. Chelvanayagam replied that they would do so for even 5 years.Then Sir Oliver said he wanted to consult other opposition parties also and asked the FP to call on him again.
In the meantime Sir Oliver ‘did the dirty’ by formally dissolving Parliament on 23 April. He did not consult any other party as he told the FP. Fresh elections were announced for 19 July. Sir Oliver’s decision was sharply criticised as C.P. de Silva had sufficient support to form a majority and should have been given an opportunity to prove his majority on the floor of the House. This was denied and thus C.P. de Silva was deprived of the PM post again.
When FP leaders called on the Governor-General they were presented with a fait accompli. When they remonstrated, Sir Oliver sought to justify his action saying he was not firmly convinced of a SLFP-led majority. He pointed out that Chelvanayagam had avoided a direct commitment to his question. Sir Oliver said he had exercised his prerogative as Her Majesty’s Representative to prevent a potential constitutional crisis and prolonged political uncertainty.
Sir Oliver, however, revealed his mindset while conversing with the FP leaders by blurting out that he could not allow a non-Govigama man to be prime minister. The reference obviously was to C.P. de Silva of the Salagama caste. It was revealed later that Sir Oliver had edxpressed similar sentiments to LSSP leader Dr.NM Perera also.The caste dimension in politics had worked against C.P. de Silva. It was, however, argued by some that Sir Oliver had acted partially due to his UNP background and close links to the Senanayake family and not due to caste bias.
Change in Party Leadership
With fresh polls looming ahead, C.P. de Silva felt it was time for a change in party leadership. Realising the vote-winning capacity of Sirima Bandaranaike, CP launched an ‘offensive’ aimed at compelling her to take over the party.Among those who were associated in these efforts were A.P. Jayasuriya, Badiuddhin Mahmud and D.A. Rajapaksa (Mahinda Rajapaksa’s father). After much persuasion, Bandaranaike agreed to be Party Leader and spearhead the electoral campaign.
A couple that played a crucial role in persuading and convincing Srimavo Bandaranaike that she must enter active politics and lead the party were the then Attanagalla MP James Peter Obeyesekere and his wife Sivagamie Obeyesekere. Obeyesekere and SWRD Bandaranaike were first cousins. SWRD’s father and JP’s Mother were siblings. JP and Sivagamie known as Siva had resolutely backed SWRDB in his politics and were founder members of the SLFP. Their stance and support provided much strength to Sirimavo at that point of time in helping her arrive at the life changing decision.
Unlike the Obeyesekeres . many other members of her extended family were unhappy over Sirimavo’s decision. Academic and relative Prof Yasmine Gooneratne in her memoir “Relative Merits” writes thus – “Most conservative members of our clan, reacted with deep misgivings when on the death of her husband, Sirimavo was persuaded by senior members of his party to enter politics. Even uncle Paul Deraniyagala who had been Solomon’s best man when he married Sirimavo shook his head gravely over the idea of his cousin’s widow in national politics..”She can’t achieve anything by it,” said Uncle Paulie. “What does she know of politics. In Solla’s time, Sirima presided over nothing fiercer than the kitchen fire. And think what Ceylon’s like -would people ever tolerate a woman at the top? She’ll end up by spoiling her personal reputation and ruining the family name.”
Sirima however went to prove her relatives wrong. Though reluctant initially , she took to politics like duck to water once her mind was made up. Furthermore she excelled in politics. Maureen Seneviratne expressed this succinctly in her book “Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the World’s First Woman Prime Minister: A Biography” . Maureen Seneviratne compared the politics of both husband and wife and noted thus “If Mr. Bandaranaike’s stature as a politician and leader was built up over decades of campaigning, Sirima donned hers like a cloak that had been lying in her wardrobe for years, unworn, but which had been pressed and kept ready for wearing at any given moment.”
Her husband SWRD Bandaranaike’s pocket borough Attanagalle had been demarcated into two seats in 1960. Sirima Bandaranaike’s cousin J.P. Obeyesekera had contested Attanagalle and nephew Felix Dias Bandaranaike the newly-created Dompe electorate. Though she could have contested either electorate and romped home the winner, she opted not to do so.
It was stated then that she did not want to contest because the UNP had devised a plan to field a woman called Missily Silva to oppose her. The woman’s husband David Silva had been shot dead by the Police during the 1958 anti-Tamil violence. The idea was to pit one widow against another and cause embarrassment.This, however, was not the real reason for Ms. Bandaranaike deciding not to contest. The main reason was that she wanted to devote all her time and energy to the campaign trail, canvassing votes for party candidates instead of focusing on her own election. As the campaign unfolded it became obvious that Sirimavo had made the correct decision.
The Sympathy Wave Strategy
The sympathy wave strategy was adopted for this campaign too. Previously it had been emotional and spontaneous. This time it was deliberately contrived. Bandaranaike began addressing public meetings on a mass scale. Once again people, particularly women, gathered in large numbers to see and hear her. The emotions of the crowd were carefully manipulated.Sirima Bandaranaike continued her campaign style of crying at times when memories of her husband’s assassination were referred to. Predictably, the ‘Weeping Widow’ phenomenon did strike a responsive chord in the audience.
Moreover, the SLFP used to screen 16 mm films at meetings showing vignettes of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and family. Pamphlets and leaflets about the man and his mission along with photos of his death were widely distributed.The campaign theme was the focus on S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s martyrdom. The point was driven home that he had ushered in the social revolution of 1956 that gave the common man a place in the sun. It was pointed out that the mission was incomplete.
The ‘Weeping Widow’ now appealed emotionally to the electorate to vote for her party so that she could accomplish her husband’s unfinished task by forming a people’s government. Mrs.Bandaranaike was projected as the future Prime Minister.The appeal resonated well with the masses. The campaign succeeded to the extent where the people saw Sirima Bandaranaike as a continuation and extension of her husband’s progressive policies. She was perceived as the sole instrument through which the 1956 revolution could achieve its avowed objective and establish an ‘Apey Aanduwe’ or ‘our government’.
With Sirimavo Bandaranaike at the helm, the SLFP experienced a renaissance. Several who had quit and joined other parties for the March polls now returned to party folds. The fissures and cracks in the party were mended. Above all, the negative image that prevailed after Bandaranaike’s assassination about SLFP disunity was transformed. Influential sections of the Buddhist clergy too became supportive again.The SLFP was also able to harness broader support of the anti-UNP, left forces. There were two no-contest pacts with the LSSP and CP. The leftists found it easier to align with Bandaranaike than the rightist C.P. de Silva. The FP also asked Tamils living outside the north and east to support the SLFP. This understanding with the left parties and FP was viciously attacked by the UNP.
Two colourful posters were put up by the UNP attacking on these electoral arrangements. One showed Mrs.Bandaranaike standing with Dr. N.M. Perera and Pieter Keuneman and hailing a Red ‘Communist’ dragon. The inference was that the country would be devoured by alien communism.The other poster showed Sirima Bandaranaike carving up a slice from a cake shaped like the Island. CP stood behind her. The slice was of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. S.J.V. Chelvanayagam and his Deputy E.M.V. Naganathan were at the table with an outstretched tray. The insinuation was that Bandaranaike was going to divide the country and hand over the North and East to the FP.
Crude Vulgar “Sexist” Attacks
Apart from these devices, the UNP also used the gender card. It was propagated that a woman was incapable of governing and that a woman’s place was home. It was said that she should look after her fatherless children instead of entering the unfamiliar area of governance. There were also crude, vulgar attacks like the one by Ranasinghe Premadasa, who said the PM’s seat in Parliament had to be purified once a month, implying menstrual periods.
The last laugh was, however, Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s when the results were announced. The SLFP won 75 seats. The UNP had only 30. With the six appointed MPs, the SLFP had 81 out of 157 seats with a slender majority of five. On July 21st 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike drove triumphantly to Queen’s House for her inevitable tryst with destiny. The “Tintagel” Housewife’s political journey had reached the Prime Ministerial destination of “Temple Trees”.
When she was sworn in as Premier, Sirimavo was neither a Member of Parliament nor Senate. She was required by the Constitution to be a member of the Lower or Upper House within four months or forfeit the PM’s post. Everyone expected kinsman J.P. Obeyesekera to resign the Attanagalle seat which he won in March and July 1960 for Sirimavo to contest the ensuing by-election and enter Parliament. Though Obeyesekere was willing to do so,Sirimavo surprised all by opting to become a Senator Rather than becoming an MP.
MP de Zoysa resigned as Senator and created a vacancy. On August 5th 1960 Mrs.Bandaranaike was appointed as Senator by Governor -General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke to fill the vacancy caused. Sirimavo thereafter functioned as Prime Minister from the Upper House. Subsequently in 1965 Sirimavo Contested from Attanagalla and won with a sweeping majority.She contested the 1970 and 1977 Parliamentaary elections also from Attanagala and won. JP Obeyesekere gave up the Attanagalla Constituency and replaced Sorimavo in the Senate. While JP Obeyesxekere remained a Senator,his spouse Siva Obeyesekere contested and won the Mirigama seat in 1965 and 1970. She also served as Cabinet minister of Health. Interestingly the Senate was abolished by the Govt headed by Mrs. Bandaranaike in 1971. It was indeed an irony that Sirima Bandaranaike who ruled the country as Prime Minister while being a Senator, abolished the same institution that had once enabled her to be PM
When the relatively young and inexperienced Sirimavo led her party to victory at the polls and went on to become prime minister, the precedent was established for two major developments. On a regional level, it was effectively demonstrated that dynastic politics had come to stay in South Asia. At a global level, Bandaranaike pioneered the arrival of women as heads of state. In Sri Lanka Sirima was referred to as “Mrs. B”, “Queen Bee” and “Madam Bandaranaike” in English, “Mathini” in Sinhala and “Ammaiyaar” in Tamil.
Longest Serving Prime Minister
Apart from being the first female premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike has also been her country’s longest serving prime minister. Her first term was from 1960 to 1965. Her second prime ministerial term was from 1970 to 1977. During these terms of office Sirimavo was head of the govt and effectively ruled the country as the executive presidential system had not been introduced then. In later years she functioned as PM under an executive presidency from 1994 to 2000. Altogether she served as PM for a total of 18 years. No other has been premier for so many years in Sri Lanka.In addition to being prime minister, Sirimavo has been leader of the opposition during 1965-70 and 1989-1994.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Article was written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of July 20, 2019. It can be accessed here-