By Professor K. M. de Silva
September 17 is the 102nd birth anniversary of former Prime Minister and President, Junius Richard (J.R.) Jayewardene. On this occasion many will recall the United National Party leader’s historic political victory at the July 1977 elections.
Election Day, July 21, 1977, passed without much incident. As usual, the poll was heavy, with more than 85 percent of registered voters casting their ballots. Unusual for such a keenly contested election, it was a very peaceful one. J.R. walked to the polling booth closest to his home, accompanied by his wife, some of his domestic staff and his grandchildren.
That evening, he went to Royal College, his old school, where the votes for some of the Colombo electorates were to be counted. He stayed there till 10 pm. He was winning easily in his own electorate, and the news was coming in, from counting stations all over the country, of a sweeping win for the UNP.
Lalith Athulathmudali recalled the scene at Royal College that evening. As the news came in, everyone in the UNP was becoming more and more excited, more and more elated. At about midnight, J.R. got up and very quietly told the UNP candidates and counting agents, “I’m going home. It’s time for some sleep. I’ll need it for tomorrow.”
By this time he was certain of the sweeping win he had been planning for since 1975. Since it was certain he would be extraordinarily busy the next day with victory-related activities, including putting together his cabinet, he was sufficiently detached to know he should get sleep when sleep was needed.
For reasons that were never adequately explained, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Service delayed announcing the first result until 1.25 am on the morning of July 22. This was Samanthurai in the Eastern Province, which the UNP won handily. It heralded a string of UNP victories, all won by large margins. By dawn on July 22, the UNP had won 80 seats and the SLFP just two.
JR kept a diary of events for the period July 21 to September 26. I quote below the diary entry for July 22.
“At about 1 am results streamed in of overwhelming victory. At 10 am President W. Gopallawa rang me up. He said though he could not affirm me as Prime Minister till last result was known, he would be doing so as 1 had an overall majority.
“I met him at President’s House and issued a joint statement with other leaders of parties on peace, law and order. “Nuwara Eliya-Maskeliya results will not be known till 23 morning. By early morning it was clear that we had won 138 seats out of 168.”
J.R. was overwhelmed by the size of the majority the UNP had secured, far exceeding even his most optimistic expectations. The Marxist left was swept out of Parliament; every candidate of the old LSSP and CP lost their seats, almost all of them quite decisively.
The SLFP had fared worse than that: it had only eight seats out of 168 in the new Parliament. Of these, three were wins in multi-member constituencies in which the SLFP was virtually guaranteed a seat (because the UNP generally nominated only one candidate in a double-member seat, and two in a seat returning three MPs); one candidate won with 42 percent of the poll because a dissident UNPer entered the picture and gathered almost as many votes as the official candidate; of the others, three won by narrow margins of 1,000 votes or less, including a 366-vote win by the SLFP’s deputy leader, Maithripala Senanayake, who usually polled around 70 percent of the vote in his safe seat.
Only Mrs. Bandaranaike had a reasonably solid margin of victory in 1977, but her majority was slightly less than half what it had been in 1970. In Dompe, the other half of the old Bandaranaike stronghold of Attanagalla, Felix Dias went down in defeat at the hands of a newcomer. He lost by 2,397 votes, receiving 46.7 percent of the poll; in 1970, his majority was 22,373 with 77.5 percent of the poll.
To return to J.R.’s diary again, the entry for 23 July:
“I was sworn in as Prime Minister at President’s House today at 9.43 am. “Large crowds lined the streets from Braemar to the Fort. As Disraeli said when he became Prime Minister of England at the age of 70 in 1874, at last 1 have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.
“At 4 pm the Ministers and Deputy Ministers were sworn in. The cabinet meeting was held at 6 pm. Large crowds again lined the streets and came to Braemar.”
Those terse notes do not do justice to the excitement of the day, but they do reflect the low-key tone in which J.R. acted throughout these days. As for cabinet-making, he had very few political debts to repay. His main anxiety, he recalled in 1979, was for an early take-over of the reins of government.
He made little or no change in the structure or number of ministries he found on July 23. He merely appointed his own cabinet ministers and asked them to take charge of their ministries immediately in order to prevent any attempt at political sabotage by supporters of the former government.
All cabinet ministers of the previous UNP government who had contested on this occasion were appointed to the new cabinet, while many in the small band of UNP MPs in Parliament between 1970 and 1977 also entered the cabinet, or were appointed deputy ministers. There was also Cyril Mathew, returning to Parliament after a lapse of 12 years. Two newcomers to the party, Ronnie de Mel and Nissanka Wijeyeratne, were rewarded with cabinet posts, the former in the crucially important Ministry of Finance. Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali were given important portfolios to reinforce the party’s overall youthful image and to profit from the presumed energy of youth.
J.R. tried hard to play down the drama of cabinet making. Those he had chosen to appoint were invited to join him at tea at President’s House at 4 pm. When they arrived, they were handed envelopes, each containing a note assigning them to a ministry or ministries.
Mr. Premadasa knew what he was going to get. Two senior parliamentarians, E. L. Senanayake and A. C. S. Hameed, had asked for ministries of their choice and they got what they wanted. All the others had no notion of what they would get. J.R. made it clear to his ministers that the key appointment of a secretary to their ministries was his prerogative, and that he would accept no advice or influence on that.
The crowds had started converging from the evening of July 27, 1977. The next day the Prime Minister, known to the people as J.R., was due to participate in what had now become the traditional ceremony of affirmation at the historic Temple of the Tooth, the Dalada Maligawa, the repository of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha, the most sacred relic of Theravada Buddhism, preserved in a many-layered golden casket, the palladium of Sinhalese rulers of the past for more than 1,500 years. Every new Prime Minister since Independence had made the same journey to Kandy.
On this occasion the ceremony would accommodate the new cabinet and the new MPs, amounting to 138 legislators and reflecting a parliamentary victory unprecedented in scale, even though most people had expected the UNP to win. The party had been in the Opposition for seven years since May 1970 and, if one was to count the period since the early part of 1956, for 16 years out of 22. The jubilation among UNP supporters was therefore understandably vociferous and unconfined.
In the early afternoon of July 28, 1977, the new Prime Minister climbed the stairs from the inner courtyard of the Dalada Maligawa to the balcony of the octagon, the Pattirippuva, overlooking the lovely Kandy Lake. The haunting wail of conch shells, the vigorous drumming of temple drummers, as performed at sundown daily for five centuries, and the soothing ritual chants of the assembled monks from the Malwatta and Asgiriya temples, the island’s most prestigious, rang in J.R.’s ears as he mounted the stairs.
Kandy is accustomed to crowds. Every year, for a fortnight in July and August, enormous crowds line the streets every evening for one of Asia’s great spectacles, the Esala Perahera, a procession associated with the Temple of the Tooth. The number of visitors to Kandy each day can go up to 300,000 or more. There have been occasions when police estimated crowds at 500,000.
The crowd that gathered in Kandy on the morning of July 28 far exceeded this figure, and was indeed more than treble that. Kandy, normally blasé about large crowds, had never seen anything like it.
As J.R. walked from the Queen’s Pavilion to the temple, the crowds lining the streets broke into unrestrained cheers for the man who had brought them an unparalleled victory. No one in the country’s volatile political history has achieved as complete an electoral victory as J.R. did in July 1977.
For the first time a winning party had secured a clear majority of votes at a general election, something that had eluded S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in 1956 and his widow, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in 1970, victors in two previous landmark election triumphs.
Besides, every Marxist candidate had been defeated. For the first time since 1931 there was no Marxist representation in the national legislature. This, however, gave J.R. little personal satisfaction, for the defeated Marxist leaders were his personal friends, men whose talents he admired and whose speeches he enjoyed listening to and refuting, and whose company he appreciated. But the political message was clear: their share of responsibility for the country’s parlous economic condition had eliminated their doctrinaire arguments from political contention, at least for now.
J.R.’s appearance on the balcony of the octagon was greeted with rapturous acclamation. His personal response was one of warmth and satisfaction, but the tone of his speech was characteristically unemotional. To the massive and exultant crowd, he spoke of the need to look beyond party ties to the national interest, and of the virtues of moderation and good sense. He promised much and asked for more. The intelligent listener would have noted throughout his speech a tone that was more religious than political; Buddhist sensibilities had overcome the ephemeral passions of the victor in a long and hard struggle against a formidable opponent.
Few people in Sri Lanka’s politics have had a deeper understanding of the past than J.R. For him, the octagon of the Maligawa represented a vital living link with the roots of Sri Lanka’s past.
In participating in this ceremony, he saw himself as striving to link the present with that past; he was also seeking to be what Sinhalese rulers in the past had endeavoured to be – one with the people.
And to be one with the people, nothing could be more appropriate than to remind them of the great virtues of Buddhism, where at the moment of one’s greatest triumph, one needs to remind oneself of the emptiness of it all, its intrinsic ephemerality.
J.R. had no use for exaltation or vociferous celebration. His victory had come to him after decades of hard work.