By Vishwamithra –
Some interesting comments were posted in response to my previous column. They asked the question why only the Bandaranaikes and the Rajapaksas are singled out. Why not the Senanayakes, the Kotalawelas, the Jayewardenes, the Wickremesinghes and the Premadasas are aimed at for inglorious criticisms. Why? It’s a very valid inquiry. Hence this piece.
The latter, the Senanayakes etc. are the ones who belonged to the United National Party (UNP). Their macro picture appeared as painstakingly obscene to the ordinary man and woman in the country. Their approach and attitudes towards the rural masses, especially of those who were educated in Colombo elite schools and Oxford and Cambridge, barring a handful, at least the broad perception, is exhaustively abysmal.
The writer is too young to have been associated with D S Senanayake and Sir John Kotelawala. Yet the relatively close association he had had with the other UNP leaders such as Dudley Senanayake, J R Jayewardene, R Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and Ranil Wickremesinghe and as a keen student of history, does qualify him to be somewhat adequate to comment on their general and sometimes specific responses to the varied crises the country faced and how their principles and policies affected the slow but steady decline of the nation’s body politic.
D S Senanayake
Nepotism in Sri Lanka’s politics did not start with the Bandaranaikes. As a matter of historical fact, it started with D S Senanayake passing the baton to his son Dudley Senanayake instead of his nephew-in-law Sir John Kotelawala or more astute J R Jayewardene. Sir John’ father and F R Senanayake, the elder brother of D S Senanayake, were married to two sisters (part of the Attygalle inheritance) while the other sister, the third one, was married J R Jayewardene’s father’s brother. The Attygalle inheritance, in other words, was the inheritance of the country’s political destiny, at least in the first five decades, from 1948 to 1988. Despite the fact that Sir John was his nephew-in-law, D S was not happy with Sir John succeeding him. The result was an unwilling and unready Dudley assuming the summit of the nation’s reign.
The Attygalle inheritance was no accident. It was in fact a well-designed process of passing the political power from one generation to another without breaking the cycle of nepotism at its worst. Yet one distinct difference between the Senanayakes and the Bandaranaikes/Rajapaksas nepotism is that those who occupied the seats of political power from the UNP-end were, at least on paper, rather more qualified in every sense of the word than those who figured in the Bandaranaike/Rajapaksa succession story. In addition to the paper qualifications, the real consequences of the Senanayake/Jayewardene dynasty’s contribution to the wellbeing of the country’s economy and the social decorum was far too classier than the disposition of the Bandaranaike/Rajapaksa-clan displayed.
The Attygalle Inheritance in a nutshell
Mudaliyar Don Charles Gemoris Attygalle, a wealthy land and mine owner and his wife had three daughters and one son. The three daughters were: 1. Alice Attygalle whose son was Sir John Kotelawala, the 3rd Prime Minister of Ceylon. 2. The second sister, Lena Attygalle married Colonel T G Jayewardene who was one of the brothers of E W Jayewardene, who was J R Jayewardene’s father. J R Jayewardene was the 7th Prime Minster and 1st President of Sri Lanka. 3. The 3rd and the youngest daughter, Ellen married F R Senanayake, the elder brother of D S Senanayake, the 1st Prime Minister of Ceylon. What an inheritance- to repeat myself, the country’s destiny was in the hands of the Attygalle Inheritance! Don Spater Senanayake, D S’s father, was a close friend of Don Charles Gemoris Attygalle and a fellow graphite miner. They were truly in business indeed, in a more acute sense than one.
In addition to all this family inheritance, there is one other connection which we cannot disregard as trivial: J R Jayewardene’s mother was the sister of the media mogul at the time, D R Wijewardena whose eldest daughters’ son is Ranil Wickremesinghe.
One significant negative during the DS-regime was the disenfranchisement of the ‘Estate Tamils’ in 1948 by virtue of the Ceylon Citizenship Act. The Bill was passed by Parliament on 20 August 1948 and became law on 15 November 1948, just 285 days after Ceylon had gained independence from the British Raj. Only about 5,000 Indian Tamils qualified for citizenship. More than 700,000 people, about 11% of the population, were denied citizenship and made stateless.
Dudley’s tenures in office as prime Minister of Ceylon/Sri Lanka were rather forgettable ones despite the much propagated Green Revolution at the conclusion of which the country still remained dependent on imported rice. All through his time in office as Prime Minister, Dudley showed his Hamlet-like trait of indecision which caused him and the country very dearly, once during his first lap in 1953 Hartal riots and later in 1968 when the coalition between the UNP and the Federal Party broke asunder when Dudley could not uphold the pledges he had given to the Chelvanayakam-led Federal Party of ‘Northern Tamils’.
Dudley Senanayake was loved by the masses, but more as a harmless gentleman in politics than as an astute political leader. Except in 1952, soon after the demise of his father D S, Dudley-led UNP could never muster the support of the majority big enough to form a stable government. Each time his Party won, it was a plurality-based victory, never an absolute majority; Dudley’s approach to politics was always within the existing context; he neither thought nor acted outside the proverbial box. His hesitancy to act decisively when such steadfastness was demanded let him down and consequently his style of leadership could not effect far-reaching changes that were necessary in the steady march of the socio-political process of a developing country.
J R Jayewardene
J R, as he was commonly referred to, was a unique leader. His approach to politics was always devoid of any doctrinaire attire. His realistic methodologies and utterly skillful application of common sense earned him a matchless reputation of a strategic, cunning politician. But as a leader, to quote Shakespeare’s King Lear, J R was ‘more sinned against than sinning’. More misunderstood and feared, by his peers, J R was one political leader whose contributions to Ceylon’s socio-political and economic growth was equally matched by a gross underestimation of the ill-effects of some of the changes that he brought about in a nation’s story.
With the opening of the economy and freeing it by removing the socialist shackles, in 1977 J R brought about a change that can never be reversed. The changes that took root in our society as its economy advanced from a one inhibited with far-outdated socialist theories to a fully-fledged open capitalist one had their own vicarious ill-effects whose underpinnings are obviously visible today. Their manipulations by a sinister and more focused set up of political cabals of today are devouring our national resources to the fullest.
Yet the most inglorious hour of the J R-rule was the immediate aftermath of the infamous 1983 July riots. His failure to take decisive and quick action to control the Sinhalese mobs contributed immensely towards unsettling of hearts and minds of our Tamil minority and ensuing war between the Prabhakaran-led Tamil militants and the government’s security forces bogged us down for nearly three full decades. Yet, the Thirteenth Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution remains the only concession our Tamil minority received from their Sinhalese brethren. That may be why Northern Tamils continue to vote for the UNP.
The concept of ‘common man’ introduced by S W R D Bandaranaike and the Thirteenth Amendment coupled with the opening of the economy introduced by J R Jayewardene are three socio-political changes that have had most far-reaching consequences. The polarization of the electorate along ethnic and wealth lines took place as direct results of these changes that were introduced by two leaders who governed our country.
However, it is no exaggeration to say that J R took power two decades too late. Had J R come to assume the political leadership of the country soon after D S’s death or even in 1956, our nation would have been much more different from what it is today. The introduction of the Presidential and Proportional Representative (PR) system to our country may have had their desired effects as in the implementation and completion of the massive Mahaweli Development Program, yet the abuse of power by J R’s successors, as has been seen today, is far too destructive and undesirable for it be called a necessary or suitable system of government Sri Lanka needs today.
R Premadasa and Ranil Wickremesinghe
R Premadasa, while promoting himself as the champion of the poor and yet conducting his personal life as a greedy master who missed out on an array of luxuries in his early childhood, spelt the certain decline in our country’s culture; rewriting of history in accordance with the whims and fancies of those who occupied the cushy echelons of power became a norm and his iron-grip on his subordinates, especially one particular Minister by the name of Ranil Wickremesinghe, lend sufficient evidence of a political party on fast decay. Ranil Wickremesinghe is a creation of the political culture set forth by Premadasa and Ranil’s subsequent conduct as the leader of the party in the wake of the assassination of Gamini Dissanayake who was the only ‘liberal’ politician after Dudley Senanayake in the country, is truly abysmal.
Premadasa, despite his focused-agenda towards poverty alleviation, was the first narcissist that Sri Lanka knew at the time; his overwhelming obsession with himself and his self-glorified ‘one-man show’ gradually ate into the well-groomed persona of the UNP and began consuming all its good qualities and threw out the most base and ‘fundamentalist’ natures of a political party dominated by street thugs and half-past-two thirty politicians. Ranil Wickremesinghe, due to his own lack of political acumen and social disposition began his tenure by impregnating the party hierarchy with his old school friends from Royal College, Colombo. Totally unfeeling, insensitive and lacking in empathy, Ranil Wickremesinghe portrayed an example of a bad leader whose negatives could not be overcome by any act of kindness and affection. Ranil showed the people of Sri Lanka as to how not to lead an organization leave alone a political party that could boast about many a significant achievement.
More than anyone and anything else, Ranil Wickremesinghe should be held answerable for the rise of the most corrupt, fraudulent and shady regime of the Rajapaksa brothers. With all his so-called political acumen and savvy, Ranil Wickremesinghe single-handedly destroyed the UNP. Period.
Both Maithripala Sirisena and D B Wijetunga are thoroughly forgettable leaders whose names might not enjoy the disgrace and embarrassment of a footnote in history.
In short, ever since independence, Ceylon has been at the wrong end of a wrong process. The decline is palpable and its effects are emerging, especially in the wake of the entry of a pandemic in the massive proportions of the Covid-19. A receding horizon beckons no one.
‘I am ahead of the winds;
Meandering through the meadow,
Whose blooms are fading away and the fragrance is yesterday’s memory;
But how can I be apathetic, for soldiers of fortune are consuming our land!’
*The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org