Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, the third Executive President of the country, passed away last Sunday. The tributes flowed, but understandably there was no national outpouring of grief, no thousands lining the streets to pay their respects; after all, the man led the country for only 561 days.
But the life and times of Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, 'DB' to almost everybody, serve to remind us of the perils and pitfalls of our peculiar system of government with an all-powerful Presidency and a proportionally represented Parliament being required to work in tandem. Cohabitation was the term used.
If one could be pardoned the cliché – for it fits DB more than anyone else – Wijetunga had greatness thrust upon him on a sultry May Day afternoon in 1993, when a suicide bomber blew up the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The Constitution dictated that Wijetunga, then the Prime Minister succeeded him and so, DB took the hot seat.
DB's appointment as Prime Minister itself was similarly fortuitous. He was never in the pecking order of a then powerful Cabinet under President Junius Jayewardene to be ever considered for such high office. So much so, that he was on his way out of active politics, Jayewardene dispatching him as a provincial Governor after the creation of Provincial Councils only to be yanked back to the spotlight. Premadasa, Jayewardene's successor, had a problem at hand. Two young stalwarts in the Jayewardene Cabinet staked claims for the job. Both were lawyers, they were young, they were efficient and they had public appeal. Premadasa neither liked, nor trusted either. He knew the Prime Minister he chose would be only a heartbeat away from the Presidency. So, he sent the helicopter to Getambe in Kandy to fetch Wijetunga and had him sworn in. It took the country by surprise, not least DB himself.
Some would of course contend that Premadasa, insecure about his standing within his own party despite the vast presidential powers at his disposal, always wanted someone less threatening than the two lawyer Ministers as his second-in-command. DB fitted the bill in as far as the ruling United National Party of the time went, at least for his seniority. And neither camp of the two lawyer Ministers would have been felt left out. In hindsight, this was to be a colossal blunder for the party: Both camps felt left out. Premadasa went further. He sidelined the two, giving them low profile ministries compared to what they enjoyed under Jayewardene as younger men. Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake closed ranks against the 'common enemy', attempted to impeach Premadasa, formed their own party, and the UNP was never the same again – and it still isn't.
|DBW: Greatness was thrust upon him
In the Premadasa Presidency that followed, Wijetunga was content to play the 'peon' role, Premadasa said he played under Jayewardene. As Finance Minister also, he presented the budget in Parliament but it was an open secret that the brain behind the budget was that of R. Paskaralingam, Premadasa's trusted confidant. Wijetunga was often lampooned for his subservience and earned the sobriquets, 'Deaf and Blind' and 'Dunnnoth Baragannam', the latter a reference to the many ministries Premadasa garaged with him till he found someone to take the posts. But DB never riled against anyone, deflecting his detractors with merely a charming smile.
In the early months in the hot seat, DB was to remark that the powers vested with one man like him were "too much". But he too, like his predecessors and successors began getting comfortable with the office, making no plans to change the system. As President, he was never known to abuse those powers in the vulgar way it has been done by some. His simplicity sometimes went to extremes that could even compromise the exalted office he held. On one occasion he telephoned a western ambassador throwing all norms of protocol to the winds, and asked him if he could issue a visa for a "good friend from my constituency". He remained the MP for Udu-Nuwara despite being the President of the Republic. The only problem was, when he called the same ambassador the next time around, he was told by the secretary to the envoy that "the ambassador was not in".
He earned notoriety – and the wrath of the minorities, perhaps unfairly, for remarking that that there was no ethnic problem in the country – only a problem of terrorism and suggesting that the minorities should consider themselves as creepers ('vel') around the 'big tree' that was the majority community. What he meant was that the minorities and the majority live as one big tree, protecting each other, but that was not the way it was interpreted by those not familiar with his 'gamey'-Sinhala or village talk.
President Wijetunga presided over the liberation of the Eastern Province – albeit without a fraction of the fanfare it now generates. In fact, Wijetunga was being hailed a hero for this and rechristened as 'Doing Bloody Well'! Yet, the decline of a party in power for such a length of time was inevitable. Its members were becoming fat and tardy, and few new faces were up for show. In March 1994, the UNP lost the Southern Provincial Council election. That must have rattled DB. He then gambled on holding general elections before the presidential elections later that year, when it was the latter that was due first – and lost.
This defeat must have convinced him not to re-contest the Presidency.
DB allowed free and fair poll — a luxury then as it is now — at the general elections in 1994, and in came Chandrika Kumaratunga into power. Untried, and un-tested, armed with a smile and little else, a new era was to begin – and what an era it turned out to be .
Arguably, Wijetunga's finest hour was the tail end of his presidency, when he worked with Kumaratunga as his Prime Minister. With the powers at his command, DB could have thrown many a spanner in the works of the Kumaratunga administration and tried to bring the UNP back into power.
But he chose not to, realising that the people had spoken at the elections and that their voice should prevail – an example that Kumaratunga herself didn't follow in her own Presidency, opting instead to scuttle the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP regime after two years. In that sense, Wijetunga was the greater democrat, perhaps the greatest democrat among our past Executive Presidents.
Wijetunga's benevolence towards the Kumaratunga government eased a lot of political tension and restored the faith that democracy will prevail. In a sense, that was Wijetunga's signal achievement, for had he chosen to obstruct Kumaratunga's coalition much blood would have been shed and more turmoil would have ensued.
In evaluating national leaders, it is often said that beneath the façade of a stern man there was a gentle human being. This cannot be said for Wijetunga, for he had no façade; what you saw was what you got: the farmer from Pilimatalwa who now happened to reside at President's House who, when the roof once leaked at the stately mansion, simply moved the bed to somewhere else in the room and enjoyed his sleep without bothering anyone or calling for somebody's head to roll for the lapse.
DB, we must realise, held plum portfolios: Information and Broadcasting, Posts and Telecommunications, Power, Highways, Agricultural Development and Finance to name a few. Yet, no one dared to taint him with allegations of corruption and he lived and died the simple Spartan human being, he always was.
It may well be that Dingiri Banda Wijetunga will not deserve more than a footnote when the post-independence political history of this country comes to be written. But then, sometimes it is the small-print that matters most.