ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 47

Epitome of a pragmatic politician

Lalith Athulathmudali’s death anniversary falls tomorrow

By S.V.D. Kesarralal Gunasekera

“..some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them” – William Shakespeare

If there was one Sri Lankan to whom all these statements apply, it is none other than Lalith Athulathmudali, whose fourteenth death anniversary falls on April 23, 2007. Today, when the country is yearning for real leaders we feel his absence; who was born great and achieved greatness and to this day the people of this country thrust greatness upon him. Having had the good fortune of working so closely with him, I take this day to reminisce about his unparalleled brilliance and intellect.

The person

Lalith Athulathmudali was a lawyer by profession when he entered politics; a field to which he was no stranger. He was a great orator who had command over both English and Sinhala and had a sharp mind which made him a fast learner of any subject. He held important portfolios such as Trade and Shipping, Defence, National Security, Agriculture, Food and Cooperatives, Education and Higher Education. In each of these fields, not only did he master the subjects but was able to make significant improvements.

Underlying this mastery was a keenness to serve the people and a drive to find the best and most practical way to achieve the goals he set for the respective ministries.

A true leader

He was a true leader, who commanded every person in his ministries and received the respect and awe of all his staff. But his forte as a leader, as I saw it, was the ability to delegate authority with confidence and allow himself enough time to strategize for further improvement. He placed high confidence in his team that the people serving him had to strive for excellence too.

Once he had entrusted someone with a task, he did not interfere, and this was the winning streak. This gave him time to meet people. He listened attentively to people who came to him in need, be it a farmer, labourer or government servant. He could relate to and communicate with people from all walks of life. He had early hours of the day reserved for people and the rest of the day was dedicated for government and business people. Alas! Today’s politicians are afraid to delegate and neither have they the time to listen to people.

How did he draw people to him and make them so loyal? Mr. Athulathmudali never ‘pulled up’ his personal staff in public. He pointed out their mistakes in private and defended them in public, like a father would care for his children. And he also had the good fortune of having people of great capacity and integrity such as Lakshman de Mel (Secretary, Ministry of Trade and Shipping), Dharmasiri Peiris (Secretary, Education and Higher Education and Agriculture, Food and Cooperatives), and late Gaya Cumaranatunga and Harsha Wickremasinghe serving as ministry additional secretaries. Mr. Cumaranatunga was so cautious that when he did not want any confidential information of meetings to leak out, he wrote down the minutes in Latin.

Mahapola scholarship concept

One of Mr. Athulathmudali’s footprints that time cannot erase is the Mahapola concept. The reason behind the scholarship was that his father passed away when he was just about to leave for studies abroad. He made a request to the government and the late Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike presented a proposal to Parliament through which he was provided a grant. The creation of the Mahapola scholarship was his way of repaying that debt.

Initially Mahapola set out to provide scholarships for 422 undergraduates and part of the funding was his personal contribution. But the collecting of funds was not an easy task. Therefore he came up with the plan for the Mahapola Lottery which sold five million tickets every year and fed into the Mahapola Trust Fund.

The creation of the Development Lottery was the brainchild of the late President J.R. Jayawardhene and Mr. Athulathmudali. It should not be forgotten that Dr. Wickrema Weerasooriya played a big role in the setting up of the Development Lottery Board which provided 50% of its earnings to the President’s Fund and the remaining 50% to the Mahapola Trust Fund. What is unique about this is that Mr. Athulathmudali ensured that the Mahapola Scholarship Scheme was sustained so that students could benefit for many many years to come. Up to date, 150,000 students have benefited from this scheme.

Mahapola trade fair

Similar to the scholarship scheme, he also wanted to help out school infrastructure; hence the concept of Mahapola trade fairs came into being. These seven-day trade fairs gave the small scale entrepreneurs the space and opportunity to sell their produc. There were also stalls of different ministries which were disseminating information to the public. What contributed most to making these trade fairs a success was Mr. Athulathmudali’s ability to mobilize a vast number of people and have their commitment.

Exporters’ forum

He created history by setting up Sri Lanka’s first Exporters Forum, bringing together exporters from all over the country to discuss their issues. As Minister for Trade he admitted that the open economy was too open but given the years of a restricted economy prior to UNPs election in 1977, he knew that it was inevitable. Therefore he was keen to strengthen Sri Lanka’s exports. As these meetings which were regular and systematic, any exporter could approach the Minister and he did not procrastinate in making decisions. Exporters benefited tremendously and they felt they had the support of the State in their business ventures. He also set up Export Production Villages and encouraged village level individuals and groups to have production lines which are still in existence. But whether they still receive State patronage is a question.

Ports and shipping

It is sad, but when the Sri Lanka Ports Authority celebrated 25 years in 2004, not a single reference was made in their 3 page supplement to Mr. Athulathmudali, who was the driving force behind bringing the Port Tally Corporation and Port Cargo Corporation together and forming the Sri Lanka Ports Authority through an Act of Parliament. When he took over Trade and Shipping in1977, Sri Lanka was placed 169th in the world for shipping ports. But within 12 years he was able to bring the Port to the 29th position in the world, a feat none can match.

On national security

When Mr. Athulathmudali was entrusted with the newly created Ministry of National Security, he had no special training on the subject, but he was a Minister who could even brief the Heads of the Armed Forces on matters of national security. I still recall one such briefing he had with the commanders of the security forces when the LTTE launched its suicide bomb attacks. His message to them was very clear and simple; it was not about how to counter suicide attacks or how to catch the suicide bombers, but how to stay alive.

He laid out four instances at which a VIP could fall prey to a suicide bomber; when you are leaving home in the morning, when you are going home after work, when you come to office and when you leave office.

It is not rocket science, his assessment was based on the fact that the suicide bomber will monitor you over a period of time before launching the attack and that he or she will not stay in one place. His simple advice to the heads of security forces was to keep on changing the times of arrival and departure. He also stressed that the top brass should not travel together and that they should often change their vehicles. His words of advice are valid even today.

The Ratmalana Electorate Development Foundation

The founding of the Electorate Development Foundation in 1980 gave the people of his electorate hope for life. Mr. Athulathmudali’s vision was to give people different vocational skills. He started a driving school, English and stenography and secretarial classes. Always practical and far-sighted, Mr. Athulathmudali obtained a dealership from the Petroleum Corporation and the profits of the petrol station went to fund the activities of the REDF. He was also supported by the businessmen in the electorate in this venture.

Democratic United National Front (DUNF)

The political context in the late 80’s forced people like Mr. Athulathmudali to bring in an impeachment on the then President. It was not done for personal gain but in a bid to restrict dictatorial leadership. However, he was removed from the United National Party as well as Parliament. But he together with the late Gamini Dissanayake was able to create the DUNF in 1991. At the 1993 Provincial Council Election, even after Mr. Athulathmudali’s death, the Party was able to secure 975,000 votes. This showed the confidence that people placed in him.

On the ethnic issue

He was of the firm belief that there should be a negotiated settlement for the armed conflict. And he reiterated that the State had to weaken the LTTE to get them down for talks. But he made it very clear that by weakening he did not mean killing people. He had the utmost respect and care for human life and was deeply concerned when lives were lost. To him whomever we lost was a tragic loss for the country. He was particular that there should be minimum sacrifice of human lives and when a negotiated settlement is reached one day, that the people of the nation should not feel that the sacrifices made by those who are no more, were in vain.

A tribute

There can be volumes written about the late Mr. Athulathmudali for he continues to be a legend in this country. His intellectual brilliance together with a necessary arrogance saw him shine both locally and internationally. His wit and humour made those around him feel that he was one of them. But there was one strict order which all his subordinates had to adhere to; he never wanted anything named after him. Therefore, significant achievements he made for the country were given to the people. That alone has made his name synonymous with his work. And he was a leader who could walk freely in any part of the country. These are just two reasons why he is still alive in our memories.

The greatest tribute we can pay him today is to at least try to follow his advice and the path to inner freedom he showed us. I conclude with this quote taken from the long essay he wrote after his near-death experience; “Life is never to be given away, it can only be taken from us”.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.