There is political excitement in the air in anticipation of the presidential election before year end. Although no dates have been specified, there is much speculation about prospective candidates and their prospects. Among those being spoken of as potential presidential election contenders is Hambantota District Parliamentarian and Cabinet Minister of Housing and Construction Sajith Premadasa who is also the United National Party (UNP) deputy leader. Sajith is the son of Ranasinghe Premadasa who served as Prime Minister of a United National Party (UNP) Government from 1978 to 1988 and then as President of Sri Lanka from 1988 to 1993.
The simmering tensions within the UNP over this issue are now coming to light in a big way. The latest incident being the UNP Working Committee meeting held on August 1 to approve the proposal made by party leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to form a new political alliance named National Democratic Front (NDF) and face the presidential election. The proposal was vehemently opposed by a group that is supportive of Sajith Premadasa. When put to vote, 35 of the 72 Working Committee members present voted in support of the proposal to set up the NDF. Eight persons voted against while the remaining 29 abstained from voting. Sajith Premadasa himself refrained from voting but he along with his supporters demanded that the UNP should have the lion’s share in the proposed alliance and that the NDF alliance office should be based in UNP headquarters ‘Sirikotha.’ It was emphasised that the key office-bearers of the envisaged NDF should be from the UNP. Sajith Premadasa reportedly suggested that Ranil Wickremesinghe could be the NDF leader while he should be the Secretary or Secretary–General.
Sajith Premadasa’s recent actions and sayings clearly indicate that he wishes to be the UNP’s presidential candidate at the next election. It appears that he is prepared to challenge and confront party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on this matter. It was stated in the first of this two-part article last week that there were significant sections within the UNP promoting Sajith Premadasa as the presidential candidate. At the same time, there is also strong opposition within the party to Sajith’s nomination as presidential election candidate. Despite these inner-party tensions, there is a powerful lobby within and outside the UNP that is reportedly pressuring Sajith Premadasa to split from the UNP if he were not made the party’s official presidential candidate. Although Sajith has not said anything about this publicly so far, there does appear to be a move by some circles to encourage Premadasa into rebelling against the UNP leadership and contesting on his own if denied candidacy.
As stated in these columns earlier, those attempting to make Sajith rebel against the party and contest the presidential poll on his own are using the name of his father to convince the son to do so. They cite two instances in Ranasinghe Premadasa’s political life where he was ready to breakaway from the UNP and strike out on his own. One was in 1972/73 when Premadasa revolted against Dudley Senanayake’s leadership of the UNP and formed a separate organisation on his own named ‘Puravesi Peramuna’ or Citizens Front. The other was in 1988 when Premadasa was preparing to breakaway and contest separately if he were denied presidential candidacy by UNP leader Junius Richard Jayewardene.
What is noteworthy is that neither of these threatened ‘break-ups’ materialised. In 1973, the prodigal son returned to party folds after Dudley’s demise and carried on as usual. In 1988, the anticipated exit did not materialise because J.R. Jayewardene nominated Premadasa as the UNP’s presidential candidate. Moreover, Ranasinghe Premadasa won the election and became President by remaining in the UNP. It is against this backdrop therefore that the second part of this article would outline briefly the sequence of related events explaining the situation faced by Ranasinghe Premadasa then and contemplate whether Sajith could learn some valuable lessons from his father’s political life and possibly follow in his footsteps towards success.
Chief Whip of the Opposition
The UNP-headed government under Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake concluded its term of office in March 1970. Ranasinghe Premadasa served as Minister of Local Government from September 1968 in this administration. Earlier, he was deputy minister. Parliamentary elections were held again in May 1970. The United Front comprising the SLFP, LSSP and CP won 116 of 157 seats in Parliament then. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike became Prime Minister.
The UNP was reduced to 17 seats. Premadasa was elected first MP for Colombo Central with 69,310 votes.
Ex-Premier and party leader Dudley Senanayake opted to take a backseat due to ill-health and let J.R. Jayewardene become leader of the opposition in his place. Ranasinghe Premadasa was appointed chief whip of the opposition. Faced with the challenge of confronting a government with a steam-roller majority, the UNP began to wilt and crumble initially. Deep divisions began to emerge within the demoralised party.
The unity forged by Dudley and JR lifted up the flagging spirits of the UNP. Dudley and JR went around the country addressing mass meetings. Massive crowds turned up. Premadasa sulking from the snubbing at Dudley’s hands continued to remain aloof
Both JR and Premadasa felt – independent of each other – that the UNP needed to be revamped and possibly restructured if the party were to have a bright future. Dudley Senanayake was unwilling to change or accommodate changes. Furthermore, thanks to a cabal around Dudley that was reportedly influencing him greatly, the UNP leader became paranoid that moves were afoot to dislodge him and/or fracture the party. After the abortive JVP revolt of April 1971, JR began exploring – presumably from a class interest perspective – the possibilities of greater cooperation with the SLFP. Dudley became increasingly-suspicious of JR and turned somewhat hostile. This led to a virtual split between Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene who had been political comrades from the days of the Ceylon National Congress under colonial rule. Matters came to a head when both sides became embroiled in legal proceedings. It appeared that the weakened party would either break-up or be politically-paralysed with a bleak future ahead.
While the major contradiction between Dudley and JR raged on as a full-blown crisis at one level, the lesser contradiction between Senanayake and Premadasa cropped up into a different dispute at another level. What happened was that Premadasa acting independently of JR began pushing for a reorganisation of the party. He wanted to cleanse the UNP of its traditional feudal-capitalist attributes and broad-base it into a party of the common man. A special committee was appointed in September 1970 to prepare a scheme to revitalise the UNP. The spadework for this was done by Premadasa. A report containing suggestions was presented but Dudley did not follow it up and simply put the scheme in cold storage. When Premadasa mooted these suggestions at inner-party conclaves, they were dismissed as not being worthy of consideration by Dudley and other senior leaders (but not JR). Premadasa began getting impatient at this state of affairs.
Flashpoint on Ides of May
The flashpoint was on the Ides of May in 1972, a joint meeting of the UNP parliamentary group and working committee, was held on May 15, 1972 in Colombo, with Dudley Senanayake presiding. Ranasinghe Premadasa came out with a proposal that the UNP should be restructured as a grassroots party from the village upwards. Dudley dismissed the suggestion rudely and refused to put it to the vote or entertain it further. A crestfallen Premadasa then asked Dudley: “Sir what am I to do, am I to leave then?” Dudley retorted curtly: “Yes, you may leave.” Premadasa then walked out and immediately sent in a letter resigning from the UNP Working Committee to which he had been appointed by Dudley Senanayake many years before.
Premadasa quit the UNP Working Committee but not the parliamentary group or the party. He formed an independent people’s organisation called ‘Samastha Lanka Puravesi Peramuna.’ This became known generally as ‘Puravesi Peramuna’ or Citizens Front. The inaugural meeting in Galle was well–attended. Thereafter, a series of meetings were held at various places in the Southern, Western, Northwestern, North-Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. All meetings drew large crowds. The Citizens Front began gathering momentum. A very impressive rally was held in January 1973 at Hyde Park in Colombo. Apart from Premadasa, those who addressed the rally were Ven. Baddegama Wimalawansa Thera, Ven. Welletota Pagnadassi Thera, Rev. E.W. Mendis, Sir Senerath Gunawardene, Sirisena Cooray, Prof. Tilak Ratnakara, J.W. Mahakumarage, Bandula Gunasekera, Kalinga Obeywansa, Buddhika Kurukularatne and actor Gamini Fonseka. The rally attracted a mammoth crowd. It appeared that Premadasa was a force to be reckoned with.
The Premadasa revolt against Senanayake along with the Dudley-JR divide may have resulted then in a three-way split of the grand-old-party, but for an unexpected development. Both Dudley and JR pulled back from the brink, resolved their differences and buried the hatchet. The rapprochement process began just 15 days after Premadasa resigned from the UNP Working Committee. On May 30, 1972, both Dudley and JR met at the residence of G.J. Paris Perera, the then UNP Parliamentarian from Ja-Ela. After a frank, heart-to-heart discussion, both leaders agreed to reconcile and work together for the betterment of the party and country.
The unity forged by Dudley and JR lifted up the flagging spirits of the UNP. Dudley and JR went around the country addressing mass meetings. Massive crowds turned up. Premadasa sulking from the snubbing at Dudley’s hands continued to remain aloof. While retaining his UNP membership, Premadasa focused on developing the Citizens Front as a parallel organisation. On September 10, 1972, by-elections were held in Puttalam, Ratnapura, Nuwara-Eliya and Kesbewa.
Both Dudley and JR canvassed ardently for the UNP but Premadasa kept away from the campaign. The UNP won Nuwara–Eliya, Puttalam and Kesbewa and lost to the SLFP in Ratnapura.
Realignment of Dudley and JR
The realignment of Dudley and JR was now beginning to pay dividends for the UNP politically, but the prickly Premadasa issue was yet unsolved. Dudley, and to some extent JR, treated Premadasa condescendingly like a recalcitrant child. They were tolerant of the Citizens Front too as it mobilised opposition to the SLFP-LSSP-CP Government and did not confront the UNP in any way. Premadasa however decided to challenge Dudley Senanayake brazenly. On March 28, 1973, Premadasa wrote letters to the UNP Working Committee members outlining three issues. He followed it up by addressing the Colombo West Rotary Club on April 4, 1973. In that speech titled ‘A plan for Sri Lanka,’ Premadasa boldly outlined his vision for the future of the country; a vision that was not to the liking of many UNP heavyweights then.
In his letter to the UNP Working Committee, Premadasa had raised three issues. One was about the UNP not holding the party convention for many years; the other was about the UNP Working Committee functioning for years without renewal of membership or mandate; the third was on the lack of progress in implementing party reform proposals. Furthermore, excerpts from the letter sent to the UNP Working Committee by Premadasa were published in the Daily News of March 31 and April 1, 1973. The Daily News was then edited by renowned journalist Mervyn de Silva.
JR-Premadasa partnership worked hard to transform the party. One of the first measures undertaken was the launching of a membership drive
Dudley was more hurt than angry by Premadasa’s conduct. There were two men – both born in 1924 – in the UNP of whom Dudley Senanayake had been particularly fond of; one was Ranasinghe Premadasa born on June 23, 1924 and the other Gamini Jayasuriya born on April 30, 1924. It was widely-believed then that Jayasuriya, the former MP for Homagama, was being groomed for succession by Dudley. Yet, he had appointed Premadasa as Cabinet Minister in 1968 while Jayasuriya remained a deputy minister. There had been some discontent within UNP circles over Dudley’s affinity towards Premadasa earlier. Dudley had not taken Premadasa’s revolt and the Citizens Front formation seriously. He regarded Premadasa as a prodigal son who would repent and return in due course of time.
Hence, Premadasa’s unexpected letter and publication of it in newspapers hurt Dudley Senanayake badly. He felt it was a stab in the back. While brooding over the well-publicised missive, Dudley Senanayake was taken seriously ill on April 3, 1973.
Still from his sickbed, Dudley dictated a response to Premadasa which was published in Daily News on April 7. Dudley feeling betrayed also indicated privately that disciplinary action would be taken against Premadasa by the party. But Dudley was shocked further when a harsh rejoinder from Premadasa was published in the Daily News of April 9. On the same day, it was diagnosed that Dudley had a mild heart-attack, He was hospitalised. On April 10, Dudley suffered a massive heart-attack. He seemingly recovered but three days later, Dudley Senanayake passed away on April 13; the day of the Sinhala-Tamil traditional New Year.
‘Kodivina’ or ‘Hooniam’ (Black magic/Voodoo)
Premadasa had gone to India for a pilgrimage when Dudley passed away. He promptly returned to Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, the mood within the UNP rank and file had turned ugly towards Premadasa. It was widely said and believed that the open revolt by Premadasa had hurt Dudley very much and caused his demise. Dudley was acknowledged as a ‘Gentleman in Politics’ and Premadasa was seen as an ungrateful person who bit the hand that fed him. Moreover, a canard was spread against Premadasa that he had gone to India to engage in ‘Kodivina’ or ‘Hooniam’ (black magic/voodoo) against Dudley. Thus, the large crowd of mourners gathered at Dudley’s residence ‘Woodlands’ in Borella, was extremely hostile towards Premadasa.
When Premadasa was back in Colombo and getting ready to go to Woodlands to pay his respects, Evans Cooray, who had been the Local Government Ministry Press Officer, warned Hema Premadasa that the situation was volatile at the funeral house. But Premadasa ignored the warning and went to Borella. There was much hooting and jeering at him. At one point, he was surrounded by a mob which tried to manhandle him but Dudley’s brother Robert Senanayake intervened and averted an unseemly-incident. Premadasa paid his respects and departed without any mishap.
The death of Dudley Senanayake had a tremendous impact on the people of Sri Lanka. There was a spontaneous surge of sympathy and affection for Dudley all-round. These sentiments turned the tide politically for the UNP. There was a groundswell of support for the party. JR, the master tactician, wanted to channel this constructively and turn the UNP into a winner at the next elections. For this, he needed to reorganise and refurbish the party. JR who was aware of his limitations knew that he lacked the common touch necessary for an exercise of this type. He realised that Premadasa, the man of the masses, was necessary for this task. So he summoned Premadasa for a one-on-one meeting.
In a frank discussion, JR told Premadasa that he agreed with Premadasa’s desire to broad-base the UNP and turn it into a party of the common man. He requested Premadasa to join hands with him in this. But JR told Premadasa firmly that Premadasa should not have divided loyalties. He should disband the Citizens Front and throw in his lot with the UNP wholeheartedly. Premadasa agreed and grasped JR’s olive branch. He stopped promoting the Citizens Front and returned to UNP folds. The prodigal son was back home!
Four Factors Influenced Premadasa
Four factors may have influenced Premadasa into arriving at this life-changing decision. Firstly, Premadasa would have realised that the Citizens Front, though popular, could not be successful enough to win an election as a third force. Secondly, he may have sensed the change in the public mood after Dudley’s demise and recognised that the UNP was now on the ascendant. Thirdly, Premadasa may have felt that he and JR thought alike due to different reasons and that a mutually-beneficial working relationship was possible. Fourthly, the supremely-confident Premadasa may have thought he could succeed JR as party leader in the future by working hard within the UNP.
Premadasa had gone to India for a pilgrimage when Dudley passed away
Thereafter, the JR-Premadasa partnership worked hard to transform the party. One of the first measures undertaken was the launching of a membership drive. The membership fee was one rupee per annum. People from various economic and social sectors joined the UNP. Slowly, the party turned into a party of the people. The UNP began winning by-elections regularly. With general elections drawing near, the UNP list of candidates was finalised by December, 1976. JR was the accepted leader but who was to be the second in command? Although Premadasa worked for the party as if he were the deputy leader, he had not been duly-installed as such. There were fears that the tussle to be deputy leader could cause divisions in the party on the eve of elections.
JR solved this by organising a novel intra-party contest. On January 29, 1977, all the selected UNP candidates were summoned by JR and told they had to elect a ten-member party leadership committee for elections from among themselves. Each of them had to vote for ten persons of their choice. It was compulsory to cast one vote for a Tamil and another for a Muslim.
The move took everyone by surprise and there was no space or time for anyone to canvass or lobby. When the votes were counted by UNP Secretary Daham Wimalasena and Assistant Secretary A.B. Talagune, ten persons had been elected. Their names and votes received were as follows;
1. R. Premadasa – 118
2. Gamini Dissanayake – 108
3. A.C.S. Hameed – 93
4. K.W. Devanayagam – 74
5. Gamini Jayasuriya – 73
6. Ronnie de Mel – 65
7. E.L. Senanayake – 65
8. Lalith Athulathmudali – 62
9. Cyril Mathew -41
10. E.L.B. Hurulle – 38
Acknowledged as Second in Command
Ranasinghe Premadasa who topped the list was appointed as chairman of the committee. JR also made it clear that Premadasa would deputise for him at party meetings if and when necessary. In one stroke, JR had not only elected the core of his future Cabinet but also his deputy leader. All ten in the committee were to become Cabinet Ministers in 1977. Premadasa now acknowledged as second in command was to become Leader of the House and Prime Minister later on.
The UNP tasted unprecedented success in July 1977 when it won 141 of the 168 seats in Parliament. Premadasa was re-elected as the first MP for Colombo Central with 94,128 votes. J.R. Jayewardene became Prime Minister. Premadasa was sworn in as Minister of Local Government, Housing and Construction. He was also made Leader of the House. After the executive presidency was ushered in by way of the second amendment to the Republican Constitution, J.R. Jayewardene became President in 1978. He was succeeded as Prime Minister by Premadasa. He served as Prime Minister from 1978 to 1988. Ranasinghe Premadasa was the first and only member of the non–Govigama caste to become Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. There was however more hurdles to be cleared before he could become the first and only non–Govigama President of Sri Lanka.
In spite of some strains and stresses, the working relationship between President Jayewardene and Prime Minister Premadasa proved durable and constructive. Whatever his future ambitions, Premadasa worked loyally under JR and did not engage in any plot or underhand manoeuvre. He also supported JR’s political stratagems including the referendum to extend Parliament’s term by a further six years. An illustrative example in Parliament may suffice to demonstrate Premadasa’s solidarity with JR. Once, when the opposition pointed out that President Jayewardene was not following administrative regulations (AR) or establishment regulations (ER), Premadasa retorted with a jocular counter-question. He asked: “Why do we need AR or ER when we have JR?”
J.R. Jayewardene was 71 when he became Prime Minister and later President. His two terms of office were due to expire in 1988. Thereafter, a fresh presidential election had to be conducted. JR’s foremost deputies who were much junior to him were content to wait until the “old man” retired to don the mantle. The shrewd JR also promoted some competition among his “would-be-successors” to keep them on edge. There were four main potential contenders – Ranasinghe Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Since the entire island was going to be one huge “Constituency” for the presidential election, the contenders concentrated on building up an all–island political base through innovative projects. Premadasa had ‘Gam Udawa’; Dissanayake had ‘Swarna Bhoomi’; Athulathmudali had ‘Mahapola’ and Wickremesinghe ‘Yovunpura.’ It soon became apparent that Premadasa was the frontrunner with Athulathmudali and Dissanayake as his close rivals.
Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka
Indian intervention in Sri Lanka and the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord in 1987 by J.R. Jayewardene and Rajiv Gandhi brought about a political crisis in the island. While Gamini Dissanayake and to a lesser extent Ranil Wickremesinghe supported JR in this exercise, Premadasa and Athulathmudali were opposed. Although Premadasa went through the motions of supporting the 13th Amendment in Parliament due to party discipline, he was opposed to the presence of the Indian army in Sri Lanka or the introduction of Provincial Councils. When Provincial Council elections were held in stages, Premadasa did not get involved or participate in election meetings except for one in Colombo. Meanwhile, the JVP insurgency raged on in the South while the LTTE battled the Indian army in the North and East.
It was under these circumstances that the second presidential election was scheduled. New Delhi, represented by High Commissioner J.N. Dixit, indicated to JR that Premadasa was not welcome as a future President. Gamini and Lalith kept staking their claim to be candidate. JR himself was unhappy with Premadasa for his hostile stance towards Indian intervention. At one point, JR even thought of bringing a Constitutional Amendment and contesting elections again for a third term. There was also subterranean resentment within the upper-echelons of the UNP towards Premadasa being the presidential candidate. The “commoner” had been grudgingly-tolerated as a “toothless” Prime Minister but Premadasa, to be the all-powerful executive President, seemed too much to stomach. Premadasa’s detractors also pointed out a “minus” in his candidacy from a caste perspective. He did not belong to any of the numerically-larger or socially-superior castes. “Could he garner votes from these castes in all parts of the island?” was the question.
Premadasa realised the undercurrents of hostility and resentment towards him. He began suspecting that either JR may contest again or nominate Gamini Dissanayake as the presidential candidate. After all, Gamini had strongly supported JR in matters concerning India. So Premadasa began quietly preparing to breakaway from the UNP with his supporters and contest independently if he were denied nomination as candidate. He knew it would be a bold gamble and that the UNP’s fragmentation would divide votes and help SLFP candidate Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Still, it was a gamble, he was prepared to take as he felt he had no choice.
Fortunately, for all concerned, such an eventuality did not occur. JR was dissuaded from taking the extreme step of contesting a third step. He was 82 and his wife Elena was determined that JR should retire from politics. JR too was so inclined. By July 1988, it became known among close confidantes that JR was not going to contest again. But in a tactical move to keep the SLFP guessing and presidential aspirants in the UNP quiet, JR kept the question of his contesting again wide open.
UNP Chairman Ranjan Wijeratne
But the important issue was to select a suitable presidential candidate. This was the time when the blunt, no–nonsense Ranjan Wijeratne was UNP Chairman. The former planter cum ex-army officer undertook an intensive survey of the political environment regarding prospects for the UNP at the presidential election. Ranjan Wijeratne realised that the UNP may have a slim chance of winning the poll only if Ranasinghe Premadasa were the presidential candidate. Any other candidate would certainly lose to the SLFP. Furthermore, if Premadasa split from the party and contested separately, the UNP was likely to finish a poor third. Hence, the best possible UNP candidate would be Ranasinghe Premadasa.
After this realistic appraisal by Ranjan Wijeratne who had no personal favourites and had only the interests of the party in mind, JR too saw the light. He decided to nominate Premadasa as the presidential candidate. He also summoned Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake and told them of his decision. He got them to pledge support to Premadasa. When this was conveyed unofficially to Premadasa by Wijeratne, the former abandoned his plans to breakaway and contest separately. JR announced formally in September 1988 that he was retiring from politics.
This announcement was followed by a UNP meeting comprising the parliamentary group and working committee. Everyone expected JR to have an inner-party election to finalise the candidate. But JR did not want an intra-party contest at that juncture. So he sprung a surprise by proposing the name of Ranasinghe Premadasa as the presidential candidate and would be successor. In a further twist, JR got Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, Premadasa’s chief competitors, to jointly second Premadasa’s nomination. Ranasinghe Premadasa was unanimously elected as the presidential candidate of the UNP.
Nominations closed on November 10, 1988. The presidential election was held on December 19, 1988. In a tight contest, Ranasinghe Premadasa of the UNP came first with 2,569,199 (50.43%) votes. Sirimavo Bandaranaike of the SLFP came second with 2,289,860 (44.95%) votes. Oswin (Ossie) Abeygunasekara of the SLMP came a poor third with 235,719(4.63%) votes. Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected as the Executive President of Sri Lanka. The rest as they say is history!
Premadasa’s Rise to Pinnacle of Power
This then is the story of how Ranasinghe Premadasa rose up from the ranks within the UNP and reached the top as Executive President of Sri Lanka. The political ascendancy of Ranasinghe Premadasa in Sri Lankathrough the UNP is indeed a remarkable feat. For a person of subaltern status in class and caste terms to rise to the pinnacle of power in a party like the UNP amounts to a political fairytale. It happened only because Ranasinghe Premadasa chose to remain in the UNP and battle it out within the party instead of splitting and charting an independent course.
In the current situation, there is much speculation that Sajith Premadasa would split from the UNP and contest separately. What Sajith must realise is that his future like that of his father’s lies only within the UNP. Vying for candidacy within the party is legitimate but breaking-away from the party to contest the presidency separately is a questionable exercise. Ranasinghe Premadasa understood this and rose to the top by remaining within UNP folds. Will his son Sajith remain in the UNP and fight it out for the presidential candidacy or split from the party and contest the presidential election separately?
It is important that Premadasa’s son Sajith should draw inspiration and learn valuable lessons from his father’s politics at a time when he is being pressured to pull out of the UNP and strike out independently. It remains to be seen as to whether Sajith Premadasa could learn some valuable lessons from his father’s political life and possibly follow in his footsteps towards ultimate success.
D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com