October 22 marked the 114th birth anniversary of former Prime Minister,the mercurial W. Dahanayake By Gaston de Rosayro The 114th birth anniversary of Wijayananda Dahanayake of Galle, a former Cabinet Minister and caretaker Prime Minister, fell yesterday. He came into the world on October 22, 1902 as a twin in a conservative Kachcheri Mudliyar’s family. [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Portrait of a political paradox


October 22 marked the 114th birth anniversary of former Prime Minister,the mercurial W. Dahanayake

By Gaston de Rosayro

W. Dahanayake

The 114th birth anniversary of Wijayananda Dahanayake of Galle, a former Cabinet Minister and caretaker Prime Minister, fell yesterday. He came into the world on October 22, 1902 as a twin in a conservative Kachcheri Mudliyar’s family. He was followed soon after by an identical twin brother, Kalyanapriya who is said to have been as precocious a handful as his elder sibling.

The date was considered propitious by astrologers who predicted that according to the horoscopes the births would change the course of the nation’s history.  The entire southern conservative family including their father Muhandiram Dionysius Sepala Panditha Dahanayake and his wife were delighted with the favourable forecasts.

Yet no one would have predicted then that the elder twin would storm the national political arena and rise to the highest rung of legislative power. The twins were born close to Richmond Hill in the Dahanayake ancestral home Dangedera, named after the nearby Buddhist temple. Their incurable, mischievous streak later provoked a teacher to quip that they were the impish ‘Dangalayas’ who hailed from ‘Dangagedera’ – the house of naughtiness.

They were educated at two leading multi-ethnic Christian schools – Richmond, Galle and S. Thomas’ Mount Lavinia. Paradoxically they were endowed with an exceptional hybrid acumen that was an offshoot of colonisation. An illustration of Wijayananda’s crossbred mindset and way of life is best expressed in his flawless command of both the Queen’s English and the Sinhala vernacular in which he could expound on any subject with equal facility.

Wijayananda Dahanayake’s remarkable political profile is as fascinating and as multifaceted as was his contradictory character. Perhaps more than any other politician he was an enigmatic and enchanting maverick.

This is his national political legend in a nutshell. He was a member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and Mayor of Galle before joining the administration of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, Prime Minister and leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. He served as Cabinet Minister of Education from 1956 to 1959. He took office as Prime Minister, Cabinet Minister of Defence, External Affairs and Education when Bandaranaike was assassinated in September 1959.

He contested the March 1960 General Elections under the nomination of his newly-formed Lanka Prajathanthravadi Pakshaya, LPP, also amusingly nicknamed the ‘Lanka Pisthola Pakshaya’. He was not re-elected as an MP as he lost his Galle constituency in that election. He had also served as a Cabinet Minister of Home Affairs in Dudley Senanayake’s government from 1965 to 1970 and Cabinet Minister of Co-operatives in Junius Richard Jayewardene’s government from 1986 to 1988.

Daha, as he was affectionately known, actually defied categorization and could not be pigeonholed in the grouping of any of his contemporaries in the dovecotes of political power. Yet on many occasions he set the feathers flying in that august assembly with his insufferable, impish streak.

It is true that many had branded him the innocuous joker who had shuffled himself into the legislative pack with the dexterity of a card-sharp. Correct, but the mistaken notion of his naiveté is clearly established when one considers the reality that he was able to integrate into any of the mixed ideological suites to suit political expediency.    No one in the administration, legislature or the media was actually able to discern his inscrutable mindset or crack the veneer of his real character.

Above all he was a paradox. He was certainly capricious although cordial, yet faintly eccentric in an avuncular sort of way. But if one were to scratch the façade of his unconventional temperament there would have emerged an erudite, astute and manipulative state of mind. His rugged looks augmented by his trim boyish frame served to project him as the personification of eternal youth, a sort of grown-up delinquent with grizzled hair. No political writer, then or now has actually been able to capture the contradictions of the complex teacher-turned-politician that was Wijayananda Dahanayake.

Daha was a man whose successes and failures were the stuff of folklore. His idealistic temperament was grist for the right wing press which lampooned him relentlessly. Ironically, these traits had made him a pet of the media who always found him a grand foil in contrast to his many starchy contemporaries. But all the same, he was considered an endearing and entertaining subject always compellingly engaging with his rib-tickling cameo roles within the legislature and outside it. And it was almost impossible to separate the reality from the myth of the anecdotes attributed to him from time to time. He was perhaps the only public figure who always rode the rails on the Colombo-Galle route ‘third class’. When questioned as to why he chose to travel ‘third class’ he pithily countered: “Because there is no fourth class!”

Dahanayake had fêted rhyming couplets against Bandaranaike, J. R. Jayewardene and several others. This parody on Sir John Kotalawela, who was always being teased about having an eye for the ladies is quoted here:

“Twinkle ! Twinkle ! Good Sir John,

How you’ve fooled our fair Ceylon,

Looking young in spite of age,

Like an actor on the stage,

When the girls at Temple Trees,

Crowd and dance like buzzing bees,

Then you sing your sweetest song,

Twinkle! Twinkle! All night long!”

But he was also one of the most complicated, colourful, creative and crafty figures who ever strode the island nation’s political stage. He was a stand-in, no doubt, a sort of stunt man in the wings who was thrust into the leading role by default.  The beleaguered Dahanayake bewildered the entire political firmament with a series of thumping trumps.

He did so with astonishing composure in an overnight manoeuvre that left the whole country blinking. In quick startling succession he dissolved Parliament, fired five insubordinate Cabinet Ministers, quit the Freedom Party, and announced the formation of a new political party of his own.

He was daring and different and was noted for breaking conventional barriers with perverse delight. He was a revolutionary who engaged in politics his own way. Few politicos ever developed the kind of connection with voters than Daha did.

In all, he was considered the most flamboyant and captivating political figure this country has ever seen. He was voluble and enlivened every Parliamentary debate. We will never see the likes of such a sparkling personality again. As an enigmatic, enchanting, and eccentric maverick he became part of the nation’s political mythology as the unrivalled clown prince of radical protest.

The entire nation, notwithstanding political affiliations, was stricken with grief when he died on May 4, 1997 as a simple man at the age of 94. Hardly surprising then, that his vibrant legend lives on.

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