By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“The root cause of unrest among our people is that we have reduced them to mere voting machines operating once in five years. This system must change; and change completely to make the people the real masters.”~ R. Premadasa, April 4th 1973 (republished Ceylon Daily News, Nov. 21, 1991)
In an interesting synchronicity, the 95th birth anniversary of Ranasinghe Premadasa falls in the 30th anniversary year of the zenith of his political career, his assumption of the Presidency in January 1989—a landmark occasion strangely ignored by the political formation he returned to power against all odds. It was a silence made all the more deafening and surreal because that political entity never assumed the highest political office in the land and the leadership of the country through popular election, since that day three decades ago.
Premadasa was a nationalist and a patriot who at age 18 had launched a monthly magazine called ‘Swadeshaya’. But that was not all he was. He was a patriot and a social democrat, with the two aspects being inseparably, organically, fused.
As a young politician Premadasa toured Russia and China in 1957, and upon return, published a sympathetic booklet about their respective development experiments, entitled “Athi Thathu” (‘Facts as They Are’).
As a Deputy Minister in the Dudley Senanayake administration of 1965-70, Premadasa had been the second Lankan politician ever, to reach out to Western Social Democracy– the first such being his erstwhile leader A. E. Goonesinghe who, as Prof K. M. de Silva documents, sought to link up with the British Labour Party. Premadasa returned from a visit to West Germany and close interaction with Willy Brandt. He sought the assistance specifically of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), the foundation officially affiliated with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), to set up the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI) for the task of labour education.
The distinctive perspective of Premadasa was sharpened by the April 1971 Insurrection. He attended every single sitting of the CJC main trial. His development paradigm was best exemplified in an April 4th 1973 speech to a Colombo Rotary Club, a speech he was so proud of and committed to, that he had it reproduced in 1991 in the ‘SAARC Summit special supplement’ of the Daily News during his Presidency, accompanied by an introduction in bold type which read: ‘The seeds of today’s concepts were sown years ago…President Ranasinghe Premadasa, then First Member of Parliament for Colombo Central was invited by the Colombo West Rotary Club to deliver an address on the topic ‘A Plan For Sri Lanka’ at a luncheon meeting of the Club. The speech was delivered when President Ranasinghe Premadasa was only an opposition member of Parliament and portrays the vision of a young politician of what he thought was the best for Sri Lanka.’ (CDN Nov. 21, 1991).
In April 1973, there was no one who would have bothered to ghost-write a speech in English for this lone wolf in the enfeebled opposition who had launched the Samastha Lanka Puravasi Peramuna in ’72, and unless they thought he had what it took to speak on a serious topic of this nature, the audience at the Rotary Club of Colombo West would hardly have indulged him. That speech takes as a desirable goal “Socialism without ulterior motivations and external interferences”. It is a short exposition of and platform for a ‘democratic socialist’ or some may say ‘social democratic’ Third Way, and a good quarter century before Prof Anthony Giddens! Though dating from the tail-end of his Puravesi Peramuna period, before he rejoined the UNP mainstream at JR Jayewardene’s invitation ( which was sometime after the latter succeeded to the leadership in late April 1973) its reproduction decades later under his Presidency — with the word ‘Socialism’ significantly retained, undeleted — underscores the continuity of his thinking and gives the lie to those who would cunningly dilute and distort the content of his economic philosophy. That he chose to reproduce it in the SAARC Special Supplement in 1991 indicates that this perspective is one he wanted the outside world to know about, and which he hoped to radiate in the region.
A lengthy excerpt from Premadasa’s crucial April 4th 1973 text is needed to comprehend the core of his development philosophy:
“Political power has been diffused among the people through the exercise of the franchise. In like manner the economic wealth of the country should also be diffused among the people. We should evolve a scheme under which the public sector, the co-operative sector, the private sector and a combination of all these three sectors – a joint sector – could function in competition with each other. Such competition will bring the maximum benefit to the people who need not become slaves of either a public or private monopoly. The government should ensure through its legislative and planning processes that the people participate in all aspects of development without allowing monopolies — state or individual.
The people’s participation should be enlisted in all matters relating to policy decisions and their implementation. The common people should be made to share the responsibility of finding solutions to their problems. That burden must not be presumed to be monopolized by a few. The common people should have a voice in making decisions and share in their implementation. It should be possible for employees and the people to own shares in any venture thus enabling them to participate in the management and even in profits. What is necessary to retrieve the economy of the country is a nationalization of this nature.
If the problems of foreign exchange, development and unemployment are to be satisfactorily tackled, a massive development venture has to be launched to provide the necessary infra-structure such as a network of roads, a network of electricity, a network of irrigation and a network of domestic water supply. With the launching of such a scheme large numbers of people could be gainfully employed. Together with development of the infrastructure the country’s agricultural and industrial ventures will automatically improve. As a result, foreign exchange could be conserved. People will get more money into their hands thus enabling them to purchase their requirements. The question of subsidies will eventually be eliminated. We can solve our problems. Scarcity of foreign exchange is no obstacle. To earn foreign exchange, we must increase production; to increase production we must develop our national resources, and if we are to develop our national resources, we must harness the human potential that we have in abundance. It is futile to go on bended knees to foreign countries begging for assistance.
We must trust our people who have placed their confidence in us. Going to them for the vote alone is not sufficient. In order to formulate and implement policies from the village level to the national level we must get the active participation of our people including the new generation. The root cause of unrest among our people is that we have reduced them to mere voting machines operating once in five years. This system must change; and change completely to make the people the real masters”. (People’s Participation in Government-April 4th 1973, republished Ceylon Daily News, Nov. 21, 1991.)
Noteworthy too in establishing continuity of thought, is the fact that one of his last acts as Prime Minister was to pen and publish an introduction to the Sinhala translation (by Janadasa Pieris) of Gorbachev’s Perestroika, a work in which Gorbachev defined his project as a ‘reformed, democratic Socialism’.
There was no learning curve necessary for Premadasa who displayed remarkable lucidity and far sightedness even at the moment of greatest hubris of Sri Lanka’s capitalist class. The quote that follows is from the cover story of the Far Eastern Economic Review (Hongkong) of May ’77, where Mervyn de Silva, my father—who died 20 years ago this week– comments on what would be the last days of the Bandaranaike-led United Front administration, providing a snapshot of the various May Day rallies and of the Opposition UNP’s campaign. Interestingly Mervyn de Silva’s quote from Premadasa is the only quote from any UNP leader and indeed from any politician other than Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in his report:
‘R. Premadasa, Jayewardene’s newly appointed deputy and the party’s rising star, smartly spotted the mixed blessings of the vast influx into the party’s ranks of jobless, disaffected and alienated youth. In an obvious reference to the 1971 insurrection which came only 11 months after Mrs. Bandaranaike’s United Front Government came to power, Premadasa said: “Those young hands applauding us now may manufacture the bombs that will kill us if we, too do not change our ways of living and leadership”. (Mervyn de Silva, Far Eastern Economic Review, Hongkong, 20.5.’77. p17-19.)
This is proof of Premadasa’s perspicacity and prophetic vision, his far from complacent state of mind about the triumphantly ascendant administration of 1977, and the alternative course which he thought the party and the incoming administration must take after victory. For Premadasa, the 1977 victory was and remained an unfinished revolution. In his Feb 23rd 1978 Parliamentary speech assuming the Prime Ministership, an occasion which any other individual would have regarded with smug satisfaction and chosen not to strike a discordant note on, he spurned conformity and etiquette, and rang the alarm bells loudly:
“Our people are facing untold hardships. The efforts of our youth to obtain opportunities for work, economic progress and social security have been unsuccessful. The forbearance and fortitude of our people who are shouldering great burdens of the cost of living, must not be mistaken for weakness. This atmosphere of poverty is about to overwhelm the limits of their patience. If so, none can tell what might transpire. Policies must be formulated, implemented… bearing this in mind.’’ (‘Prabuddha Shakthiya’, p170, published by B. Sirisena Cooray, June 1978, MD Gunasena & Co.)
1978 was the ‘moment of hegemony’ when the center-right governed with a greater degree of popular consent than any Lankan administration had or would. Premadasa was no conformist who went with the herd instinct and the commonest denominator. He was no ‘free market fundamentalist’ who shared the hubris of the ‘Open Economy’, even at the time the marketplace was working its magic the most! But the administration chose to collectively ignore his warning and did exactly that which he cautioned against.
The Feb 1978 parliamentary speech reveals the distance between what Premadasa envisaged and that which was actually implemented after 1977. By 1977 the economy was stagnant, even sinking, but there were two projects, two possible and alternative political economies, to unleash the necessary growth of the productive forces: the path of the dominant elite, i.e. of dependent and unequal growth, and the path of Premadasa i.e. that of national, people-oriented and democratic development. We know which path was taken and with what results.
Premadasa’s Presidential election-winning manifesto of 1988, ‘A New Vision and a New Deal’, was authored while he was returning from China having witnessed Chairman Deng Xiaoping’s new policy in action and grilled Ambassador Charlie Mahendran about how Deng was able to turn Mao’s model around while retaining aspects of Mao’s achievement. The election manifesto was written in adjacent hotel rooms in Hong Kong, where candidate Premadasa paced up and down, expressing his thoughts on development and Susil Siriwardana who had been requested to join him, produced seven consecutive drafts before Premadasa, ever the perfectionist, finally approved the eighth.
The Chief Guest at the ruling UNP’s Convention during the short Premadasa Presidency was a high-ranking delegate of the Communist Party of China. The entire stock of textiles that made the free school uniforms program of President Premadasa possible, was a gift from the government of the People’s Republic of China.
At no stage of his career did Premadasa ever confuse mere high growth with genuine development, nor did he make the opposite error and confuse welfarist equity and low growth with authentic development. Neither high growth rates alone nor decent welfarist equity figures alone amounted to real development, in Premadasa’s understanding. He neither opted for growth first and equity later nor equity first and growth later. Only the combination, simultaneity, parallelism, fusion, synthesis, of high growth and increasing social equity (or rapid growth and rapidly narrowing social inequity, which is to say the same thing), was worthy of the term ‘development’ in Premadasa’s consistent understanding.
During his Presidency, Premadasa would commend and implement a ‘people-ized development’ through a ‘carefully regulated market economy’, to use his own terminology. Hardly the credo of a ‘commoner’ admiringly wedded to conventional liberal democracy and a free market economy! It is irrefutably clear that from the outset and at its root, Premadasa’s development model was neither derived, determined or driven by external agencies nor top-down, technocratic and corporate-centric. Indeed, it was the very opposite: “The people’s participation should be enlisted in all matters relating to policy decisions and their implementation…The common people should have a voice in making decisions and share in their implementation.” (People’s Participation in Government-April 4th 1973, reproduced in Ceylon Daily News, Nov. 21, 1991.)