Statesman par excellence

Dudley Senanayake’s birth anniversary falls tomorrow. Here Ilika Malkanthi Karunaratne reminisces on his strength of character and exemplary qualities

As we approach Dudley Senanayake’s birth anniversary this year, it seems that his unique qualities are missed more than ever; particularly now, when MPs seem to cross over for the flimsiest of reasons, at the drop of a hat, when carrots are dangled before them. Politics and politicians seem to have degenerated so much that my mind goes back to the man who stayed loyal to his party throughout his life.

Even when he was intrigued against and harassed, he preferred to step aside, stay out of it all, watch from the sidelines, rather than join another party or work against his party. He was offered a high position by the late S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, in 1956, but declined, as his love for his party was too great.

He returned to lead the party, which had been reduced to a mere seven MPs, when somewhat ironically, he was persuaded to do so, by some of those who had intrigued against him. I must hasten to add here, that the late S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike too, did not cross the floor for personal gain. He crossed from the then government to the opposition on a matter of conscience, as he could not agree with the then UNP leader on certain issues.

Today, crossings are the order of the day. The burning issues facing the government and the people seem less of a priority to the powers that be, than trying to buy over MPs from the opposition with promises of high office. Surely one joins a party, because one believes in its policies, enters Parliament to serve the people and the country, and not for personal advancement.

This is why the rare qualities possessed by the late Dudley Senanayake, perhaps rarer than one in a million, are still a treasured memory in the minds of the people. This is why he will always be the knight in shining armour of Sri Lankan politics. He was a reluctant politician, who was not attracted by the grandiose splendour of office, was not power hungry, and did not believe in lies or false promises to win votes. There were those who faulted his PR, as they do with the present UNP leader, as he too, did not believe in false smiles and insincere pats on the back. One cannot run a country on PR. It requires brains, vision, a sense of history and dedication to country before self.

On the other hand, he was shy by nature, but had an unforgettable uproarious laugh, and was a marvellous raconteur, who would keep listeners enthralled for hours on end.

In his political thinking, he was very much a liberal democrat, and strode the political scene like a colossus, till his demise. One of his finest qualities, was his ability to forgive, and he would always explain the need for forgiveness. He was able to understand that each one of us had good and bad qualities, and would say that we should forget a person’s human weaknesses and appreciate the good in them. He had incredible warmth and humane qualities, and as a leader, was always ready to listen to another’s viewpoint, even if it was contrary to his own.

He was genuinely concerned about his loyalists, and never hesitated to voice his appreciation. I recall the time when there were problems between him and the late President J. R. Jayewardene. Most of us among his loyalists were very angry when he decided entirely on his own, to hand over the post of Leader of the Opposition to the latter. But he stood his ground on this, explained his reasons for doing so to us, and asked for our continuing support. This is why I completely disagree with the view that he was indecisive. Earlier on too, he dealt decisively with the rice subsidy on two occasions and the question of national unity in 1965. These steps needed a great deal of courage, perseverance and persistence to move forward against resistance, which required responsible leadership. He met the challenges, the danger, the dilemmas and sometimes even the despair of political leadership with dedication.

At Parliamentary wit, Dudley was a Master of the Game. I have never heard another with his remarkable humour and witty repartee. The late Felix Dias Bandaranaike and Stanley Tillekaratne were more often than not his victims. But he was never malicious and one would often see him cross the floor, and chat with those who criticised him or who had been the victims of his sharp wit. It is to the credit of all those in politics then, that one accepted each other’s differing beliefs, respected the right to disagree and one did not assault and kill those with opposing views on politics.

I would go to all debates in Parliament when he was due to speak. Now I avoid Parliament as the standards have fallen so badly; he would have abhorred both the behaviour and the language used in this most august assembly, which has deteriorated to an all-time low, together with values and the principles of politicians.

It must never be forgotten that Dudley shone in a parliament, which had such outstanding parliamentarians of the likes of Dr. N. M. Perera, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Pieter Keuneman, Dr. S. A. Wickremasinghe, Philip and Robert Goonewardene, most of them educated in British universities and possessing wit and humour of a particularly high standard. The Parliament of 1965 had the crème de la crème of Sri Lanka’s politicians. The divisions of race, caste and religion would anger him no end. I recall a conversation with him when he was very angry that a young politician, who is no longer alive and who entered politics in 1970, had remarked that the late President R. Premadasa, would never be able to grace the highest office in the land, because of his caste. He told this ambitious young MP in no uncertain terms that he should not be in politics if he thought this way!

His standards were very high, and he had a record of unchallenged integrity, which perhaps no other leader has except the present leader of the UNP. In 1965, he refused to give a cabinet post to an MP, because of an unpaid bank loan, which was minute compared with what one hears of now. He was a man of extremely cultured interests; photography, music and reading were his main hobbies. His tastes were simple and his needs were few, except when it came to food. He had an enormous appetite, and his table manners could be faulted as his concentration was always on his food.

He hated to bother or inconvenience anyone. Perhaps his untimely death was due to this quality, as when he had his fatal heart attack, leading to hospitalisation and death, he had stayed awake with pain all night, as he didn’t want to disturb anyone at night.

It is a pity that such a wonderful person never married and had children who would have inherited his qualities, both as a statesman and as a person. Bearing the Senanayake name is insufficient. To follow the exemplary trail of this unique statesman, one has to possess his rare gifts, both as a politician and as a man. It is a great loss to both party and country that Dudley Senanayke is no more.

It is important that his memory is kept alive to inspire our youth, to revere and respect the high standards that he kept, in this modern world of falling values and principles.

Particularly among politicians, the memory of Dudley Senanayake stands out, and is one that all aspiring young politicians of the future should emulate as a shining example.


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