In every generation, it is given to but a handful of politicians to become creatures of legend. When posterity judges, it judges harshly, sans any of the ‘accountability’ we so yearn to see in politicians themselves. Public memory is whimsical and capricious, almost never just. With nine years having gone by since his passing, there is no doubt that posterity has judged my late brother-in- law, Lionel Gamini Dissanayake, gently indeed. His deeds outlive his faults, and his legacy is not forgotten.
I knew Gamini for only a decade; having met him properly for the first time only when in 1983. I, a stripling minor Government servant of some 27 summers, sought an appointment with the all-powerful Minister of Lands, Irrigation and Mahaweli Development to ask for the hand of his youngest sister (their father had died shortly before, and Gamini took his duties as head of the family seriously indeed).
It was not an easy meeting. An elaborate vegetarian lunch had been prepared. Gamini went to some pains to tell me about his origins in Maswela, a village in the Kotmale Valley, on the right bank of the Mahaweli River. He clearly had a genuine respect for village life and values.
The Ministers in the 1980s had a lot more power than they do today. Mind you, I’m not complaining that times have changed. But Gamini enjoyed power immensely, and even said so. “Politics is the pursuit of power,” he would say, probably quoting someone I have no idea who. For Gamini, power reached its acme with the signing of the Indo-Lanka accord. Even as President Jayewardene’s Ministers and indeed, many members of his family distanced themselves in the turbulence that followed, Gamini deftly stepped in to fill the void. He worked tirelessly and almost alone to defend the deal with India, the IPKF and the need to deal with the LTTE on equal terms. And as the results for the Nuwara Eliya District showed in the general election of 1989, he was not exactly unpopular in consequence.
Gamini had a sense of purpose that, to someone like myself, given to endless procrastination and weighing of pros and cons, was astonishing. I guess that’s what leadership is about. The speed, with which he set about the Mahaweli Development Programme, was perhaps reckless. In the five years from 1979-84 he caused more concrete to be poured on Sri Lanka than had probably be poured in history or since even as countless sociologists, economists and environmentalists rang desperate alarm bells. Nothing like Mahaweli would ever be possible again. The involuntary resettlement of people; the impact on environment; the financial viability: all these would be subject to close and endless scrutiny, as indeed they should. But Gamini was a man in a hurry, and impatient to a fault.
Looking back, I have no doubt Mahaweli was a good idea. It has paid for itself, it generates (still) more than a third of our power, it led to the opening up of extensive new areas for agriculture, and most importantly from my point of view, increasing the extent of the protected area network by some 50 percent. But there was a negative side. By dominating the development budget, it starved other key sectors of resources, preventing more broad-based industrial development.
In the quarter-century since the accelerated programme commenced, Mahaweli became an icon not just to the UNP, but to every Government. The development phase of this great enterprise is now over, and it is time to focus attention on the development needs of the other (albeit much smaller) 102 river basins of Sri Lanka. It is as poignant and painful to see this empire being dissolved as it is necessary. The behemoth Mahaweli Authority Gamini created has served its purpose, and its dismantling will be infinitely more difficult than its creation. Centralized power such as the Mahaweli Authority is no longer in fashion, but gosh, wasn’t it great while it lasted? I felt the day Prime Minister Wickremesinghe named the Kotmale reservoir after Gamini, was the logical end of this saga it is time to move on.
Gamini was not blind to the development needs of the country beyond Mahaweli. But the haste with which he took decisions was sometimes his undoing, as was the case at Lunugamvehera. Unwilling to allow the time it needed for a proper assessment of the hydrology of the basin, and not willing to look beyond paddy as the crop of choice, he acted hastily and erred. One can but hope that we as a nation can learn from such experience.
The thing that impressed me most about Gamini was his grit. Sure of himself, any battle he chose to fight would be fought to the bitter end. So it was in the case of his struggle for power with President Ranasinghe Premadasa (RP), a contest in which he did not accept for one moment that he was the underdog.
Gamini felt that RP’s maltreatment of him was the result of his show of “weakness” in yielding the candidacy under pressure. He expected RP to make him Prime Minister and was astonished by the appointment of D. B. Wijethunga, a wild card, to that post. To be honest, he did not make it easy for RP either, never foregoing an opportunity to fire a broadside (he never addressed the President as “Sir” or even by name). To he deprived of his portfolio as Plantations Minister was almost a formality after just one year in office, and the progression to the impeachment mere routine. Gamini’s performance as Minister of Plantations was a study in coping with adversity. Having been in the inner circle of power for more than a decade, he was now relegated to the periphery, not consulted on anything, often publicly ridiculed by the President. Gamini might have been down, but he was not out. He set assiduously about cultivating the party’s rank and file, forming the caucus of what would one day be the DUNF.
Restless for change, he settled down to an experiment in social engineering that might once again have transformed Sri Lankan society.
Although he got along well with CWC supremo Saumyamoorthy Thondaman, Gamini had, in my opinion, a far richer understanding of the needs and aspirations of the Tamils of Indian Origin than did Thondaman.
He felt that as the leader of nearly a million plantation sector population, Thondaman was not interested in their social emancipation. Despite having citizenship, estate workers are yet to be integrated into mainstream society. They have separate schools and hospitals. For the most part, generation after generation, they continue to be labourers, living in a society well separated from middle class Sinhala townships they surround, such as Hatton and Nuwara Eliya. Gamini wanted to change all that, and see plantation workers’ children go to university, become policemen, professionals, or landowners to integrate with Sri Lankan society at large. Such a scheme was anathema, of course, to Thondaman, who would lose membership in his union, and thereby his power base. One might argue that the politically savvy Gamini was fishing for plantation workers’ votes. (they were, after all, an important part of his Nuwara Eliya constituency). But the passion with which he espoused and articulated their cause was, in my opinion, very genuine indeed. The transformation in the estate sector that Gamini precipitated in his first year however was so revolutionary and susceptible of grassroots popularity that he had to be stopped and was.
Having dismissed Gamini from the Cabinet, RP began a vindictive crusade against him, which included countless grilling by the CID and eventually, his arrest and trial. Having watched the plot hatch from the inside I could vouch for the fact that the impeachment was not planned with the intention of capturing power: it sprang largely from a need by Gamini and Lalith to get even with RP, their tormentor.
Gamini knew fully well that the DUNF had the will and the venom to bring the all-powerful UNP down. It did, but the beneficiary was Chandrika Kumarathunga. Sadly for all the causes they represented, the personal rivalry between Premadasa, Lalith and Gamini would mortally wound the party that had nurtured them: proof that men of strong will would sooner self-destruct than concede. Gamini was taken back by the UNP only in the run up to the 1994 general election, and by then saw Ranil Wickremesinghe as his principal adversary. The two never had much to do with one another, and Gamini consistently underestimated his rival.
The aftermath of the elections, which the UNP lost to the PA by just five percentage points, saw a desperate scramble for the arithmetic: Gamini’s landslide majority (with CWC support) in Nuwara Eliya against the former Premier’s one-million preference votes in Colombo. Gamini instead on being Leader of the Opposition, which led to a ballot of the parliamentary group. Despite being six years senior in the party and in Parliament, he won by just three votes. The Prime Minister’s magnanimity in naming Kotmale after him, and in helping to further the political career of his son Navin, must inspire in Gamini an ironic smile, wherever he is now.
Shortly into the presidential election that followed, I received intelligence from a source close to the LTTE, that Gamini’s assassination had been ordered by Velupillai Prabhakaran. The previous year, in March 1993, the same source had warned me in uncanny detail of the imminent assassination of President Premadasa. I conveyed this information directly to RP, who took no significant action apart from publicizing this fact (thankfully without mentioning my name). A month later he was killed.
When I learned of the attempt being planned on Gamini’s life therefore, I conveyed it to him immediately. Yet, he pooh-poohed the very suggestion that the Tigers might want to kill him, for he saw himself as a friend of the Tamils. Overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu, in desperation and wanting to be sure, I made myself clear, I wrote a note to Gamini giving him the available details of the attempt.
Gamini Dissanayake was a man in a hurry not just for himself, but for Sri Lanka. He performed miracles, but he was no God: he had his faults. He was fun to know, and a great friend to have. It is a cliché, these days to say that leaders have vision, but even in hindsight, vision is something Gamini really did have.
His paternalistic style of leadership would seem an anachronism today, especially against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s penchant for understatement, casualness and discretion in the exercise of power. People often tell me, “If only Gamini were here....” so many things would be different usually, the fantasy is that President Kumaratunga would long ago have been consigned to retirement. Life contains so many ifs that it is futile to speculate what might have been.
All said and done, they don’t make them like Gamini any more, they lost the recipe.