By Ravi Perera –
“The more things change, the more they remain the same…” old proverb
In 1977 TDSA Dissanayake wrote a book titled “J R Jayewardene of Sri Lanka” which makes interesting reading even after thirty six tumultuous, if not disturbing years since. As the title suggests the book is dedicated to the astounding victory of the JR Jayewardene led United National Party (UNP) at the General Elections of 1977.Evidently the elections were held in a fair manner and the verdict of the voter was unambiguous. Developments that followed proved these elections to be a watershed event. The new government gave the economy of the country an entirely different orientation to the heavy State controlled economy of Srima Bandaranaike, which was more or less stagnant. The 1977 electoral victory also led to the 1978 Constitution, with far reaching and troubling consequences. It is noteworthy that the new Constitution named us a “democratic and socialist” country, in case anyone had a doubt about its true character! In the flush of that victory none could anticipate the inferno that was to follow from the simmering ethnic tensions of the time.
But this was all in the distant future when TDSA Dissanayake brought his book out. In 1977 the UNP was basking in the glory of a huge public mandate which even their stoutest supporters had dared not imagine possible. Since the landslide of 1956 it was the SLFP of the Bandaranayakes, with their left allies, who had obtained such sweeping mandates, the most stinging, being the 1970 victory of the Coalition. In 1977 the pendulum swung in the opposite direction and naturally all the honour went to the UNP and its then 71 year old leader. It was the UNP’s finest hour.
Much of the book is based on the author’s opinions and perceptions in the sense that there are only a few references to verifiable records to back his version. Today most of the main actors of those hopeful and eventually betrayed days are no more. And of course the volume of political biography is negligible in this country. Even the little writings produced on the subject of politics are inevitably partisan or just plain eulogies.
As a political functionary the author appears to have had access to the top leadership of the UNP. There is an unmistakable triumphalism in the narration which is understandable in the context of a peoples march against a very unpopular government. There was little to be admired in the Bandaranayke government of 1970-77, either in form or substance.
On the other hand, the author’s treatment of JR Jayewardene, the leader of the resurgent UNP is uncritical, to say the least. If there were warning signs of hubris or seeds of the eventual corruption of character then present, we will not know. Despite TDSA Dissanayake’s close association with the other major personalities of the UNP there are no psychological insights provided into their true nature either. He does not even contemplate the possibility of the corrupting effect that power and money were to have on them before long. In describing the 1977 campaign of the ambitious Gamini Dissanayake the language is mawkish “Shrima Dissanayake also accompanied her husband (Gamini Dissanayake) and looked after him because he had lost as much as 15 lbs during the past few months due to vigorous campaigning. Their three little children were distressed at the prospect of both parents being away from home and in their loneliness often cried out loudly”
However, the book gives us useful insights into the concerns, the pre-occupations and the way of thinking of the leaders as well as of some of the fellow travelers of that era. While some of this would look quaint in today’s context, certain behavioral patterns seem to confirm that culturally little has changed in this country in nearly half a century.
For the purpose of economy of space I will restrict quotations from the book to aspects of economic outlook and perceived political corruption among the rulers. Looking at the economic changes that came about subsequently one begins to wonder whether there was a master plan in the heads of the top leaders or whether they just adopted piecemeal reforms copied from foreign models willy-nilly and these later paid dividends. In 1977 the economy was in such a parlous state that any opening was bound to prosper. Of course those in power can claim credit for any success even if unintended, while disclaiming responsibility for failures of their other actions.
“ JR Jayewardene was convinced that capitalism was at the end of its period of usefulness in Sri Lanka as the capitalist class , both foreign and local were parasites on society”- Pg. 35
“The Business Acquisition Act of 1970 sounded the death knell of capitalism in Sri Lanka. The UNP under Dudley Senanayake opposed the Act. The UNP under JR Jayawardena welcomed many of the acquisitions made under it”-Pg. 37
“In his endeavour to create a just and free society, it was the opinion of JR Jayawardena that those who invest their money or skills in a business venture should equitably share its benefits. Accordingly the decision to nationalize the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills was welcomed by him”- Pg. 38
“ JR Jayewardene was astonished in 1973, when Srima Bandaranayke made a successful bid to stage the fifth Non-Aligned Summit in Colombo at a time when the rich and poor alike were bearing greater burdens in their day to day living…” -Pg-67
“ Such are the facts in foreign affairs , a fool’s paradise in which Srima Bandaranayke reveled and a field according to JR Jayawardena which should occupy nothing more than a position of low priority in any good government of Sri Lanka” –Pg. 66
TDSA Dissanayake’s observations on Srima Bandaranayke’s manner of governing are most interesting.
“In patches the management of the government by Sirima Bandaranaike was both novel and comic. It consisted of her next-of-kin being appointed to positions for which they were ill-equipped, if not altogether unsuited. Her three children, Sunethra, Chandrika and Anura were sent to the prestigious universities of oxford, Sorbonne and London and it is not surprising that their performance there was mediocre. Yet when they returned to the island they were given high appointments which in theory carried great responsibility and ….the influence of a Cabinet Minister”-Pg. 58
“ Of the four brothers, Mackie was her private Secretary , a post he held since 1960, Seevali who like Mackie is a doctor, was made Director General of the Export Promotion Secretariat, Clifford an obscure planter was appointed Chairman of the State Plantations Corporation, and Barnes once a member of the minor judiciary was made a Supreme Court Judge…” –Pg. 59
“This ludicrous state of affairs seeped into every State owned Corporation till Srima Bandaranaike had practically run out of cousins, nephews, nieces, in-laws etc. Even more ludicrous was the disproportionate publicity given to SWRD Bandaranaike. The government controlled press and radio made it appear that he was responsible for ushering in everything in Sri Lanka except perhaps for founding the Sinhala race and introducing Buddhism into the island. Moreover the Srima Bandaranayake administration named after him every conceivable type of public property …” –Pg. 59
“ JR Jayawardena looked upon these frolics with grave concern especially as he himself has particularly close relationships with his brothers and sisters and several other relatives though not one of them has received the patronage of the State through him…”- Pg. 59
“She and her family set out to control the machinery of the State as if it was a family heirloom and surrounded themselves with an assortment of sycophants, courtiers and adventurers. It caused effects which were partly comic and partly tragic” –Pg. 138
In spite of that absolute rejection of her policies by the people, Mrs. Srima Bandaranaike’s political career did not end in 1977. The SLFP persisted with her leadership in one form or the other until in 1994, when after 17 long years, under her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike’s leadership the party came back to power again. Chandrika Bandaranaike when elected President, appointed her mother Srima Bandaranaike Prime Minister, although in view of her feeble condition it became a mere symbolic office. For the SLFP, until quite recently, there were no other ideas except for those of the Bandaranaike’s ‘and no other leadership save for that of the Bandaranaike’s.
And what of JR Jayewardene, the man of the hour in 1977?
“JR Jayawardena is a staunch old Royalist and lustily sings “the school of our fathers” the Royal college anthem, whenever he has an occasion to do so.” –Pg. 83
“ ..but his fondness for old Royalists in UNP circles went to the extent of being politically unwise, for instance of the younger generation of the members of the UNP, Gamini Dissanayake, Daham Wimalasena, Lalith Athulathmudali, Wickrema Weerasooriya, Ranil Wickremesinghe ,Tyronne Fernando, Navin Gooneratne and I (i.e. TDSA Dissanayake, the author) had the ear of JR Jayawardena. Except for Gamini Dissanayake the others are Royalists.” –Pg. 84
In his epilogue the author writes
“Pursuant to his election pledges JR Jayawardena has given the highest priority to ushering in a just and free society. He has extended to his defeated foes magnanimity unprecedented in recent times. He has extended the hand of friendship even to those who heaped calumny upon him……..Thus has begun a new era in Sri Lanka under a colossus that bestrides the contemporary scene (written on 18 August 1977)-Pg. 140