This week saw the commemoration of another political giant Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated by a suicide bomber while at a May Day procession at Armour Street in Colombo, eight weeks after his main political rival at the time, Lalith Athulathmudali was gunned down.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of both killings which were the handiwork of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The removal of the two adversaries within days of each other also led to landmark changes in the country’s political landscape.
Of the politicians who have led the country, Ranasinghe Premadasa had to work the hardest to get to the top. It was an arduous journey for the young man who grew up in Colombo and schooled at St. Josephs’ College, Maradana. Had he been amongst us, he would have been eighty eight years of age.
The young Premadasa aspired to be a journalist. Politics also beckoned him and he joined the Labour Party led by A.E. Goonesinghe. Perhaps realising that this party was not the best vehicle for high political office, Premadasa soon switched allegiances to the United National Party (UNP).
" His first foray into national politics was at the 1960 general election. The UNP tasked him to take on two political giants, M.C.M. Kaleel and Pieter Kueneman in the Colombo Central electorate. Premadasa came third but made it to Parliament as it was a multi-member constituency.
Colombo Central was to eventually become Premadasa’s political bastion and even now remains as one of the few pocket-boroughs of the UNP. Premadasa chose to live at ‘Sucharitha’ located in this urban, cosmopolitan constituency and ironically, died also in the streets of his beloved electorate. "
His first foray into national politics was at the 1960 general election. The UNP tasked him to take on two political giants, M.C.M. Kaleel and Pieter Kueneman in the Colombo Central electorate. Premadasa came third but made it to Parliament as it was a multi-member constituency.
Colombo Central was to eventually become Premadasa’s political bastion and even now remains as one of the few pocket-boroughs of the UNP. Premadasa chose to live at ‘Sucharitha’ located in this urban, cosmopolitan constituency and ironically, died also in the streets of his beloved electorate.
Even in the 1960s the UNP had its share of internal squabbles and personality clashes and Premadasa was known as a Dudley Senanayake loyalist. Dudley appointed him as Deputy Minister of Information and Broadcasting. In 1968, he was appointed as Minister of Local Government.
The UNP suffered a heavy defeat at the 1970 elections. Premadasa retained his seat and with the party being reduced to seventeen members in Parliament, was appointed Chief Opposition Whip. This was also a time when there was a leadership tussle in the UNP between Dudley and J.R. Jayewardene
When Dudley Senanayake passed away in 1973, Premadasa too was having his differences with the party hierarchy and had formed the ‘Puravesi Peramuna’. When he attended Senanayake’s funeral he was jeered at by the crowds, but unruffled by this reaction he continued to walk in the procession.
Dudley’s death solved the leadership battle in the UNP and put Jayewardene firmly in charge. Being a grassroots politician with an innate ability to reach out to the masses, Premadasa played a stellar role in reorganising the party from the Opposition benches.
In the run-up to the 1977 elections, E.L. Senanayake had advertised himself as the ‘deputy leader’ of the UNP in Kandy. This irked Premadasa, who complained to Jayewardene. The party held a secret ballot which was won by Premadasa and came to be recognised as the deputy leader of the UNP.
The 1977 elections saw a landslide victory for the UNP. With the change of the Constitution in 1978 abolishing the Westminster system of government, Premadasa was appointed Prime Minister. He was to complain that it was the job of a ‘peon’ but it was to become a stepping stone to the Presidency.
Premadasa was elected to the Presidency under trying circumstances in 1989. The insurrection launched by the Janatha Vimukthi Permauna (JVP) was at its height and Sirima Bandaranaike had returned from political wilderness. Premadasa won the election with 50.4 per cent of the vote.
" As President, Premadasa accelerated the ‘Gam Udawa’ housing programme he had begun when he was Prime Minister and also launched a scheme to set up garment factories to provide mass scale employment. The latter was a huge success and underpins the country’s economy even today "
As President, Premadasa accelerated the ‘Gam Udawa’ housing programme he had begun when he was Prime Minister and also launched a scheme to set up garment factories to provide mass scale employment. The latter was a huge success and underpins the country’s economy even today.
Premadasa faced the obstacles to his authority head-on. The JVP insurrection was brutally crushed at the cost of thousands of lives. He also ordered the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), sent to the country under the Indo-Lanka Accord entered into by Jayewardene, to leave the country.
Premadasa was not successful in tackling the LTTE. He engaged in peace talks with the terrorists and its top leaders were invited to ‘Sucharitha’. The talks floundered after two years, the war resumed and thousands of policemen were massacred in the East allegedly with weapons that Premadasa provided.
The greatest challenge to Premadasa however came from within the UNP. Always uneasy with the party’s rising stars, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, he demoted the former and dropped the latter from the Cabinet. In return, they attempted to impeach him but failed.
In retrospect, Premadasa was unfortunate to inherit the presidency at a time when the country was growing tired of the UNP. His notable achievements remain his mass scale projects and his decision to repatriate the IPKF through diplomatic means.
He had to take tough decisions such as quelling the JVP insurgency, which created virtual anarchy in the country and he was not afraid to do so but they also made him unpopular and provided the opposition with a platform to agitate against the UNP.
Perhaps because of his skirmishes within the UNP over the years, Premadasa tried to rule with an iron fist. Most of the decisions in government came from the President’s office and ministers enjoyed only a fraction of the authority they commanded under JR.
Because of all this and an increasingly authoritarian style of governance towards the latter stages of his rule, there were even celebrations when his death was announced. Twenty years and three Presidents later, history is likely to be kinder to Premadasa and appreciate his legacy much more.
Premadasa’s son Sajith, like his father is having a difficult time breaking into the ivory towers of the UNP. Ironically, his rival is Ranil Wickremesinghe, the one man who stood by Ranasinghe Premadasa during the impeachment. That is a saga in its own right-and to which there is no end in sight just yet.