It is 16 years since Gamini Dissanayake’s demise, at the hands of the LTTE terror group. One cannot discuss Gamini’s legacy outside the context of the current socio-political landscape. The easy passage of the 18th Amendment and the laughable way the UNP conducted its opposition activities render much subject matter to the legacy of Dissanayake.
From the time Gamini Dissanayake entered parliament in 1970, after the party had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the well-organized campaign of the United Front coalition, he showed the promise of great statesmanship. Nurtured by parliamentary stalwarts in the calibre of Dudley Senanayake and J R Jayewardene and idolized by an electorate that consisted of twenty thousand Sinhalese voters and merely three thousand Tamil voters of Indian origin at the time, Gamini grew to be a well accomplished parliamentary debater, a public relations magnet who made many a politician envious, a shrewd tactician, a far-sighted strategist and a staunch disciple of democratic institutions and ideals.
It is the last quality, his unshakable commitment to democracy and its time-tested institutions that is and ought to be his lasting legacy. Completing the construction of 5 gigantic up-stream reservoirs, settlement of nearly two hundred and fifty thousand farmer families along the downstream Mahaweli, provision of irrigation and social infrastructure for an emerging settler community, distribution of hundreds of thousands of Swarnabhumi land grants and the attainment of test status in cricket for Sri Lanka, all speak volumes of improbable achievements by Gamini Dissanayake. But his unsuccessful but ground-breaking effort, the impeachment process against the then President Premadasa, stands as his lasting legacy, as the single most significant act of a man unwaveringly committed to the principles of justice and fair play.
Gamini was not alone in the impeachment saga. Lalith Athulathmudali, G M Premachandra and the rest gave sufficient impetus and strength to the whole process. But it is beyond any doubt that it was Gamini who was the power behind many a wheel that turned at the time. His charisma, his organizational capacity and his power of persuasion that helped convert many a UNP MP at the time to support the impeachment motion were immeasurable and unmatched by any other who later claimed credit for the impeachment motion. The motion itself acted as a catalyst for many political developments that resulted in its wake–propelling Chandrika Bandaranaike to her ill-timed ascension to ultimate power is one of them-but the very educational process that it set in motion was the ultimate lesson that the people of Sri Lanka learned.
The Free Media Movement was born and the Alternate Media (vikalpa maadhya) that offered the people an alternative to the Stalinist Premadasa propaganda juggernaut became popular overnight. All of a sudden an opposition that was slumbering in the eighties and early nineties found new life and new iconic figures --Gamini and Lalith. Within a matter of 18 months, a brand new political party was born; the party mustered enough number of political workers to contest provincial council elections and secured 15%-23% of the vote island wide. Political consciousness of the people rose to a new level; the average villager started talking in terms of constitutional amendments and what was necessary to curb the unregulated powers of the Executive, enshrined in the Constitution.
Political sensitivities of the people were sharpened to such an extent that the circulation of the Alternate Media organs became so rapid and swift. The demand for the tabloid size newspaper (Rajaliya) that was published by the DUNF kept rising on a weekly basis. The impeachment motion against President Premadasa was an event that compelled the thinking person to think further. In general, mass awareness of the potential of dangers of a “one-man show” heightened significantly. Such terms as “one-man show”, “ekadhipathi viyaruwa” (dictatorship drunkenness), “viyaru minisa” (mad man) in a political context came to be used in the daily newspapers and especially in the alternate medium. An atmosphere was created that not only raised the possibility of a popular President who enjoyed the unstinted support of the common man being character-assassinated at the most grassroots levels, but the people went to the extent of castigating public officials who were working for the President.
However, one striking feature of this period was that the rest of the UNP government ministers and MPs carried on with their work with relative ease. All the stones were hurled at President Premadasa. What was the net result of this most focused political campaign? When President Premadasa, the most popular politician of the era, met his untimely death at the hands of the LTTE, some people rejoiced in the most crude and vulgar way: they lit fire crackers.
Here I attempt to make a case of how a concerted, well-focused and ably-led campaign can cause unredeemable damage to the target politician. If 1956 was a landmark year in which the common man came for reckoning-SWRD won the election purely on social issues-the impeachment motion became a landmark event in the nineties that defined the role of an opposition in the modern era. Gamini and Lalith acted as the chief catalysts of this change. Many men and women who came to politics during the time through the DUNF pipeline are ministers or MPs in the present government. Dr. Sarath Amunugama, Keheliya Rambukwella and Johnston Fernando are but a few and one should not forget that Chandrika Kumaratunga was propelled to power directly as result of the impeachment motion.
It is also exactly 16 years since the UNP has had a fighting chance at electoral victory. One wonders whether the UNP too died with Gamini. It might sound too simplistic, but the truth sometimes is simplistic however unpalatable it may be. The reader may be too inundated with Gamini’s eulogies, especially in the present context where the need for a personality of Gamini Dissanayake’s iconic stature is greatly felt in the United National Party; that is why I am trying to deviate from the run-of-the-mill appreciations.
The historical parallels to the quagmire that the UNP finds itself in at present are aplenty. Sir John-Dudley conflict, Dudley-JRJ conflict and the Premdasa- Gamini/Lalith conflicts were but a few. On all those occasions, reconciliation was brought about by stronger men who had the “bigness” in them to accommodate the interests and aspirations of the other party with them. More often than not, the party that accommodates is perceived as weak, but on the contrary, only the strong can and will accommodate and compromise, for such men have within themselves something that is rare in others, self-assuredness , courage and conviction which ultimately define true leadership. Let us look at how the mantle of leadership in the UNP has passed from one holder to the other: At the death of D S Senanayake, Dudley, became leader of the UNP. This is where the UNP made one fundamental miscalculation. According to Professor K M de Silva’s biography of J R Jayewardena, D S was grooming Dudley from the beginning of the formation of the UNP government of 1947 to succeed him in the event of the former passing away. Bandaranaike who was the Leader of the House should have been the automatic successor. But DS did not have the foresight or the desire to subordinate his personal ambition to accommodate SWRD. This led to SWRD’s departure from the UNP which in hindsight was a very serious political miscalculation.
However, in a sense it may have been a historical necessity for a country emerging as it was, from a colonial mindset of almost 450 years (1505-1948) into a sovereign state embracing a multiparty democracy. The UNP was split right in the middle and the common man who did not have any other party to join left the UNP. The Party recovered from this political setback only in 1977 under the able and far sighted leadership of JRJ. Later on Premadasa, Gamini, Lalith triumvirate continued on the same line, keeping the common man with the UNP.
Second case was in the fifties, when the UNP was reduced to a mere 8 seats in Parliament. JRJ from outside Parliament started the rejuvenation process and once he knew that there was a clear signal that the party could make a comeback, he invited Dudley who had retired from politics to take over the party and the party won the next general elections in March, 1960. Such was JRJ’s heart and more importantly, his political acumen.
The third case was the DUNF saga. When there was severe competition for the leadership of the DUNF, Gamini Dissanayake opted to concede to Lalith not because Lalith was more qualified or competent (in my view, Gamini was senior, more competent and more poised to lead), but because he thought that Lalith would leave the DUNF if he failed to be its leader, resulting in the total demise of a movement that they together created with other democratic-minded UNPers. One day he related this to me personally: “Palitha, if one of us leaves the party, there is no party. So I’ll wait it out because at this time the unity and future of this party is more important than my personal ambition”.
We have two clear instances where the more qualified and able one conceded to the other for the sake of the party.
The UNP has today, more than any other party, in its clasp, a glittering galaxy of promising personalities of young and extra-bright talent. Who else can boast about the likes of Sajith Premadasa, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Ruwan Wijewardena, Gayantha Karunatilaka, Sujeewa Senasinghe, Mohanlal Grero, Buddhika Pathirana, Ravi Karunanayake and Rosy Senanayake who are already in Parliament, while the likes of Mayantha Dissanayake and Shiral Lakthilaka are waiting on the fringes? To allow this kind of talent to go waste is a crime. And what the UNP lacks is direction from the top.
What would Gamini have done in the context of the present UNP crisis? He would have seen at least two things very clearly. The UNP needs a shock treatment and that shock can come only via an iconic leader at the helm. Secondly, there are only two iconic leaders today in Sri Lanka. One is obviously President Rajapaksa and the other is General Sarath Fonseka. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gamini, in today’s context decides to invite the General to lead the Party and the Opposition, even from behind bars, for the very impact that this act would have on the current political stage is immeasurable and unthinkable.
Marion Blakey President and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), USA once said: “You can't leave a footprint that lasts if you're always walking on tiptoe”. Gamini never tiptoed; his feet on the ground were always very firm and unbending. That is his lasting legacy.
The writer was one time Secretary to Gamini Dissanayake and Managing Director of Mahaweli Economic Agency from 1985-1988.