28 June, 2022


Politics In Sri Lanka: There Is A Bend In The River

By Ravi Perera

Ravi Perera

He did nothing common or mean, upon that memorable scene…” –  Andrew Marvell

SWRD Bandaranaike, one of our most controversial Prime Ministers is commonly credited with the aphorism  “a river does not flow backwards”. Since on our gravity bound planet no human being   from the time of Adam to now has observed a river flowing backwards one might think such an example somewhat superfluous. The Prime Minister was at pains to make the point that social “development” is progressive, a proposition   he would have been hard put to maintain in spheres such as public morality and corruption in our society today. But as busy as he was then in the midst of a much heralded labour to bring forth the “era of the common man” (1956-60) Bandaranaike can be forgiven for the use of a weak cliché to make a point.

On the other hand, certain commentators have in recent times advanced a revisionist history according to which Bandaranaike was not the principal driver of the flow of events in that era but was very much inspired, influenced and guided by persons such as D. A. Rajapaksa of Southern fame, the clear paucity in evidence of a pivotal role in the form of writings or speeches of such politicians notwithstanding. We of course have to concede that such a scenario is not an impossibility given that broad intellectual capabilities are least of the qualifications for leadership in our country. In view of these diverse theories   on our  not too distant history, we must  await a thorough and objective study of the complex social, political and personality influences that led to the ushering of the ‘common man’s era’.

SWRD Bandaranaike

The distance of five decades from those frenetic days, when evidently the river of social evolution flowed rapidly, has given us sufficient perspective to view those events dispassionately. By way of comparing and contrasting we also have the report cards of several other former British colonies   in the region such as India, Pakistan Singapore and Malaysia. It is noteworthy that some of these countries did not emulate our governing philosophies and methods and are today in terms of economic achievements much ahead of us. In terms of political and social stability too they seem stronger.

What exactly was meant by the term “common man “still remains imprecisely defined at best .Was it an economic definition given to describe a lower income group? Did it mean a socially backward segment disadvantaged by various factors?  Or was it a simple case of the average, or even less than that, being put on a pedestal? Obviously, we mean here an average quality   in a general sense, including in aspect, attitudes and even sensitivities. Looking at today’s  leaders of the movement  formally  initiated  by  SWRD Bandaranaike  , from Chandrika Bandaranaike  to Mahinda Rajapaksa, from Mervyn  Silva to Wimal Weerawansa , assuming they are genuine representatives  of the definition, one is still left  to wonder   what the common factor is.

On the other hand, could it be that  the  very opposite  of what the English poet Andrew Marvell meant when he penned those famous lines in “Upon Cromwell’s return” has become the standard of the Common man’s era? Have common and mean thoughts and actions come to represent a not so memorable scene?

By all accounts SWRD Bandaranaike, whether you like him or not, was an exceptionally gifted person. Just glancing through his collected essays and speeches we get the sense of a well-bred man of culture and learning, nothing common or mean. To illustrate we reproduce below a few lines taken randomly from some of his many essays.

“One thing about Oxford that always makes me marvel is the richness and variety of the activities that are crammed within its narrow confines. It is a little world, and a very complete world, of its own. In my last article I gave a glimpse of the scholarly side of Oxford life. The sporting side, in its own way, is quite as wide and as satisfying.”- Another colour in the dome of university life

“An old Ceylon friend, who met me in England, remarked with disappointment that I did not appear to possess the much famed Oxford accent or manner. ‘ No’ I replied ‘But I believe there are a few young men at Oxford who have acquired my accent and manner’ “- Lloyd George thrills the Union

“On my return, I lingered on Magdalen Bridge. The typical English scene, subdued and mellow in the evening light, faded from my eyes, and the glare and dust of my own country took its place: blue skies and dancing sunlight, with a white road winding amidst coconut groves and green paddy fields; dark, cool nights with star be-jeweled skies, alive with cries of innumerable crickets; the pathetic, huddled village huts, the dirt, the poverty, the disease. My country, my people.”- I leave the place of many memories

“I must say that I stand firm by the democratic parliamentary form of government, and I am sure that the vast majority of you do likewise. The attitude of this government to local bodies is dealing a grievous blow to the very principle of democracy in this country” The voice of the people must be heard-1953

“More than any other Asian country that recently regained its freedom; the circumstances in Ceylon were favouable for the achievement of rapid progress and development. Unlike in many other Asian countries the war had not produced conditions of confusion and devastation: indeed far from causing us damage, the war had greatly improved our economic position” – Some thoughts on independence day-1955

“We have reason to be grateful to Ponnambalam Arunachalam. He was the first Ceylonese to enter that citadel of British Bureaucracy, the Civil Service, through the open door of competition. Arunachalam’s long, efficient and distinguished service as a civil servant was a matter of great pride and solace to his countrymen” –Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam-1953

“Nehru is one of the few statesmen of the world who have a background of culture and learning, and who are thinkers besides being also men of action. Such men are necessary as leaders, particularly at a troubled period of world history such as this”- Birthday Tribute to Nehru 1959

As we argued Bandaranaike’s political legacy will forever remain controversial. A country which was so favourably placed at independence was turned into one of the most troubled nations during the stewardship of our early governments. But the man’s personal qualities, borne out by his speeches, writings as well as conduct as a public figure is a pride to this day to a nation yet functioning far from  its full potential. Even his most intractable critics never accused Bandarnaike of corruption or violence of any sort. One cannot even conceive of crime or bribery in whatever   form in such a character. There are no allegations that he abused power, exploited the public service or used public assets for personal or political purposes. You have to only study the freedom enjoyed by the media then, which was often vitriolic towards him, to have a measure of the man.

Many things that happen openly now would have been considered to be in bad taste by him. It is not said by anybody that he interfered in an improper way with the independence of public servants or government organs. We have not heard of a single family member whom Bandaranaike imposed on us.  The river flowed that way only later.

How a political movement launched by a man with high ideals developed by the world’s best in both culture and thought can end up so warped and corrupted is one of the several tragedies   of our times. It was these great ideals that a young Bandaranaike imbibed as a student that apparently led him to a career in politics. As was the general case then, he not only enriched the field of politics with his rich personality but also put his own money where his mouth was. There is no doubt that had he not taken to politics Bandaranaike would have been a much wealthier man.  But the result of all that labour and investment that went into creating   the common man’s era now seems definable only as a reign of thoughts and acts both common and mean.

It is true that a river cannot resist gravity and will not therefore flow backwards.  But even a clever man like SWRD Bandaranaike could not have anticipated the sharp bend the river has taken since of late.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Fine article. I think the answer to your last paragraph, i.e. politicos being corrupt & selfish, started in late 70’s, more precisely after 1977 it took core of politics, perhaps with socialist system being taken a back seat , finally kicked out as a model of development all over the world & replaced by capitalism, paved the way for new era of politicos whose sole ambition was to make money in billions, ready to sell even motherland, if they can remain in power & continue with money making.

    It wouldn’t be a exaggeration, even the terrorism, both separatist & southern, were perhaps brought in by politicos who followed Machiavellian theory & considered “war is an extension of politics” & used the war as a tool for remaining in power & making money & even the separatist war which brought no any threat to governance was waged half heartedly, perhaps continuance of it brought desired results for politicos in governance & the rest is history, the whole country suffocated for some 35 years, if not ,southern terror would never have started & separatist terror would have been brief & sorted out in a few months.

  • 0


    Thanks for drawing the contours of the decline in the quality of our leaders over time, to reach where we are now. Though SWRD was a cultured intellectual from the aristocracy of the day, he definitely identified with the travails of the ordinary folk. Unfortunately, by intent or accident he chartered a political course that was vote-winning but detrimental to the cause of a united and qualitatively better Ceylon, now Sri Lanka and the degradation of social norms and ethics. He was an intellectual, who donned the garb of populism to gain power . I do not think he was comfortable in the new garb, although this set us on a slippery slope. He entrenched opportunism as the governing principle in our national polity. He in his populist approach to governance also brought in men like Themis ( no insult meant to the person) into parliament. Although Themis was unfortunately the butt end of many jokes and derision in that parliament, he opened the way for the majority in today’s parliament becoming qualitatively worse. While the elitism of the early independence era had to change, it did not indicate that lumpenization should be the substitute. What was an enlightened and civilised dictatorship of the elite has been transformed into an idiotic and violent dictatorship of the lumpen. The results are manifesting all around us. A benign problem has been substituted with a cancerous one! We as a nation are singularly incapable of following the middle path!

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 0

    SWRD WAS NOT GIVEN THE LEADERSHIP OF THE UNP AFTER THE DEATH OF DS AND IT WENT TO DUDLEY AS HE WAS THE SON.Many are of the opinion that it should have gone to SWRD as he was the most senior.However if he got the leadership at that time our country would have been different today.SWRD wanted to come to power at any cost and he new the only way is to cater to the common man or the less privileged.At that time people thought that the UNP is only for the rich or high class.He was succesful in winning hands down in 1956 and the UNP got only 8 seats.JRJ who contested Kelaniya lost by 22,000 votes to RG.100% of voters belonging to non govigama caste voted for SWRD as they thought that they were suppressed
    and they will have a place in society only under a govt. formed by SWRD.
    bUT after he got power he had no idea how to run the country.

  • 0

    There is a lot of talk of SWRD but what did he exactly achieve.nothing in fact.He was only in power for a short 3 or 4 years but the way people talk about him you will think he had been running the country for at least 20 years.A very overblown historical character whose contribution to the country is nil.This reminds me of the herd mentality,when one person starts talking about SWRD another follows and then another.The less we talk about him the better because others have had much more impact on the country than him.For example his dumbarse wife took the country in reverse gear so fast that it was absolutely breathtaking.Her successor opened up the economy when others in the region did not know what open economy meant.He also was the nourishing agent for the LTTE.So We can certainly talk a lot of sirima and JRJ ,two characters who had tremendous impact on the country,but SWRD please give it a rest because his tenure was so short i can hardly see what impact he had on the country,other than starting the race ball rolling and then getting shot dead.That was the only thing he did that you can talk about unless you want to talk about how dignified pukka sahib he looks with that stupid pipe.Whenever i ask sinhalese about SWRD they are also perplexed at what he has done for the country that warrants so much prominence for him.I think it is a more a crefully developed cult figure that was developed at that time.

  • 0

    Had the ’56 general election being conducted in one day, certainly the result would have been different. Besides, although the SLFP led MEP won the early pass the post system, on the whole vote count in the country they had lost. This is what gave rise to the current proportional system that enabled even for the JVP to be represented in Parliament.

    The diminutive Banda suffered from a complex, although he was more educated than the rest. He was responsible for bringing the riff raff like the postal peon Thamis to the August Assembly of the country. This man Thamis had addressed Sir John as John in Parliament and paid the price of receiving a thundering slap across his face. Therefore is it surprising that afterwards lavariya sellers and Co-op goods weighing catchers are Ministers in Parliament today. Let alone the development of the country, see how wealthy these non pod politicians and their families are today, who did not have a proper house to live, nor owned a vehicle to travel, but today living in the lap of luxury?

    In 1955 when Banda was canvassing for his party he had mortgaged the house ‘Tintagel’ he bought from Dr. Lucian De Zilva at Rosmead Place, for Rs. nine lakhs. Rs. nine lakhs was a lot of money then. Banda did not have time to redeem the mortgage as he was assassinated. However by 1962 Mrs B had redeemed it through the People’s Bank secretively and from where the funds came, your guess is as good as mine.

  • 0

    The statements made about Banda and his successors and his immediate predecessor – Kotelawela – are accurate. They were, without exception, a disaster for this country.
    D.S. & Dudley, despite their shortcomings, the former with his particularly racist settlement policy in the matter of agricultural development, were the only ones to contribute to any real development in Sri Lanka. J.R’s contribution, like the Curate’s Egg was “good in parts” but hamstrung by a monumental lack of anything resembling vision and a predilection of subterfuge laced with malice.
    Sri Lanka deserved better, particularly given the quality of the educated elites that it had available to it post-1947.
    The biggest tragedy, though, is the fact that JR’s Constitution and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s “improvements” have led to a level of venality and incompetence that few could have anticipated, most through the establishment of what could and should have been the only improvement on the Ivor Jennings-designed constitution – proportional representation which has been turned, thanks to our “Sinhala Buddhist” geniuses into the most grotesque of electoral systems!
    Is it too late for sanity and good governance to return? Who knows!

  • 0

    A good article.The praising of Bandranayake is faint and that too only personal aspects. As a politician he was a failure. But the point the writer is making about the present leaders is very valid. No standards at all. Why did Sri Lanka come down to the level where Duminda Silva is a public hero and a Minister overlooking the Defence including the Police ? Would Bandaranayake have allowed such a thing ? What about Ranil and the present UNP ? Do they offer a clear alternative ?This article must be read by all looking for answers to such questions.

  • 0

    Speaking of SWRD and his policies, the SLFP led govts have always advertised that they were for the poor and not for the whole society. Further there is nothing significant the SLFP led govts have achieved, compared to the UNP records of River Valley development, settlement of thousands of families in new Colonizations, Electrical Power generation,Industrial development, Employment generation creating Free Trade Zones, Enhancing Education in the Information Technology to move with the modern world.

    Soon after SWRD’s victory in ’56, there main concern was to destroy the back bone of the Private sector to cripple the UNP vote base, embarking on a Nationalisation Policy, starting with the Nationalisation of the Transport Industry. They went on to Nationalise anything and everything they believed would help the UNP financially. To these Nationalised ventures they packed their party stooges providing employment that they were run to the ground in the end that necessiated to be privatised again. Mind you all these were profit making Institutions before they were Nationalised. After SWRD, the wife taking over, ran the rest of the Economy and Country down with their Socialist Policies that they created a new Dughi class, by the mid ’70s, eating off dustbins to fight off starvation, to make it a Shad Maha Balavegaya instead of the Panch amaha Balawegaya which old Banda started with. So much for the Bandaranayake legacy that has been a curse, the country is still paying back.

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