By Palitha Pelpola –
“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” ~John Kenneth Galbraith
Gamini Dissanayake would have been seventy seven years plus old had he lived. But fate so decreed that he be gunned down twenty five years ago at the ‘tender’ age of fifty two (52), at his prime, reminding all of us about the very impermanency of human life and its fragile length of years.
Each year at his birth or death anniversary or at both, writers write, speakers orate and thinkers deliberate about this man whose span of political power exceeded the boundaries of narrow nationalism and parochial politics. When the ordinary mundane indulged in politics, Gamini Dissanayake sculptured a novel and moving spectacle of dynamic statesmanship. When others strained to drag him into the gutters and a garbage pile, where they found their own ‘comfort zones’, Gamini refused to go there; he rejected the lucrative but temporary cushions of power and embraced a fresh and creative drama of serving the people altogether.
In today’s context, Gamini’s philosophy of life in general and politics in particular has no relevance, for its very existence is denied every minute and hour by the charlatans of deceit and fraud. Some of those who eulogize about Gamini today are firstly hypocrites and secondly incapable and uneducated.
It is valid in the dark, chaotic and gloomy regions of power politics and it is even more compelling in the real corridors of power and corruption in Sri Lanka today. The House of Parliament is empty and lonesome; the collective voice of Cabinet of Ministers is muted and without any guiding voice; the paddy fields are barren and without life-giving water; the schools are without a teacher of any lofty standing, factory wheels are missing a pivotal cog and a link and political life generally is dull and boring. Such was the man’s power; such was his influence on worldly matters that mattered to man, common and of elite; such was his charisma, unmatched and unmatchable.
But life shouldn’t be like this. That exactly was what Gamini probed and inquired into; its complexities did not irritate him, nor did they divert his attention from the task at hand. Gifted with enormous capacity for diverse work, Gamini could chair over four different meetings on four different subjects at the same time and still reach decisions and issue instructions that would yield results of enormous weight and relevancy. Born with an uncanny eye for talent and ability, he chose the best for all billets, whether the jobs were the least consequential or most demanding; he made them rise independent of him and achieve excellence of their own making. When some leaders did not allow even a blade of grass to grow under them, Gamini made room for his supporters, juniors and subordinates to develop their own niches and sharpen their skills that would stand in good stead one day.
He was a perfect blend between tradition and modernity; an ideal equilibrium between extremism and liberalism. Never resorting to cheap and populist politics that is embraced by a great majority of politicians of today and yesterday, Gamini Dissanayake pursued practical and smart politics of the sublime. His answer to the question as to why he risked his political career by getting involved in the alleged authorship of the Thirteenth Amendment which recognized the rights of a minority in the country in order to bring lasting peace and co-habitation between the two major ethnic groups gave ample testimony to his candor and honesty and forthrightness: “why, isn’t my mother Sinhalese?” Gamini was offended by the questioning of his abiding commitment to the cause of the majority Sinhalese people! The interviewer was dumbfounded. He ought to have been.
Once, in the early Nineteen Eighties, we travelled to Nuwara Eliya with the late R I T Alles, the former Principal of D S Senanayake Vidyalaya, for a seminar. Alles was billed to deliver a motivational speech to the staff and students of Gamini Vidyalaya in Nuwara Eliya. I had to make the introductory address and was leaning forward, resting my lower body over the podium. All of a sudden I heard my name being called from behind: “Palitha, stand erect and speak”, Gamini shouted at me for everyone to hear. He saw the flaw and he corrected it then and there and I felt ashamed, yet I learned. He taught me the postures one should adopt when one delivers a speech. Since that day, each time I mount a platform to make a speech, I remember those words: “stand erect and speak”.
From Cricket to Mahaweli, Lands, computer studies and English education, Gamini made it a personal habit of his to render his best at all times and he did so without any fear or favor. When there were a couple of telephone calls from the Sirikotha, the UNP headquarters, asking him why he engaged Tissa Abeysekera, a well-known LSSPer to direct the “Gangawa Tharanaya” (Crossing the River) television drama for the Accelerated Mahaweli Program, he summoned me and asked me why I gave it to Tissa. I told him that in my judgment, Tissa was the best to do such a moving drama. He accepted and when the movie was done, he invited all UNP parliamentarians to come to the Liberty Cinema in Kollupitiya for a special screening of the Gangawa Tharanaya. That year the coveted award for the single-episode TV drama was won by Gangawa Tharanaya. The critics were silenced. His trust in his subordinates was total, without qualification.
He was instrumental in getting the music maestro Premasiri Khemadasa back into the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) studios after a lapse of several years since the master too, solely because of his political affiliations, was persona non grata at the SLBC during the early days of the UNP regime in the late Nineteen Seventies. Khemadasa provided music and melody for the songs for the Mahaweli and Swarnabhumi land grant programs. When talent counted, all politics and its shades and colors evaporated in Gamini’s presence. He did not indulge in parochial politics; nor did he seek revenge from those who had caused untold hardships to UNP supporters during the dark age of 1970-1977. For him there was only one way to move: forward.
Whether he moved with Rajiv Gandhi or Natvar Singh in the Indian political hierarchy, Margaret Thatcher or Judith Hart of the British Establishment or Gary Sobers or Rudy Webster of Cricket, to quote Rudyard Kipling, he ‘never lost touch with the common man’.
But many have tried to distort history and portray Gamini as an appeaser; some have even endeavored to tarnish his image with stories of burnings of libraries and ownership of apple yards. They have all failed as they ought to have. All such scorn and what not, has been answered in their own time, in their own intrinsic ways. Around him, charisma glowed; little fellows felt big and the big couldn’t help but bow. Today on twenty fifth death anniversary, people still remember him for what he did and specially for what he could not do as he was not spared another twenty to thirty years.
With Gamini’s death, Srima lost a loving husband, Navin, Varuni and Mayantha lost an understanding ‘Appachchi’ and the country lost an inspiring and charismatic leader, an honest and a forthright one and a brave and gallant one. In his presence, leaders of today would shudder and stutter, for there was no place for mediocrity in Gamini Dissanayake’s realm.
*October 24th is the 25th Death Anniversary of Gamini Dissanayake