The big winner in last week’s Cabinet reshuffle was neither Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi nor Anura Priyadarshana Yapa; it was Dissanayake Mudiyanselage (“Di Moo”) Jayaratne, the fourteenth Prime Minister of this country, who will complete three years in office in April.
Although the prime ministerial post has become largely ceremonial since the executive presidential system of government was introduced thirty five years ago, many are the aspirants for the position and the pre-reshuffle grapevine had it that Jayaratne’s days as Premier were numbered.
The entire reshuffle however was an anti-climax as even under-performing ministers retained their plum portfolios. Only two ministers, Champika Ranawaka and Susil Premajayantha, were given less significant subjects but the big winner undoubtedly was Jayaratne.
That was because a replacement for his position was widely expected following his recent health scares that received wide publicity in the media. If President Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted Jayaratne to retire, there were more than enough grounds to request that resignation.
Whatever his faults, Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Jayaratne, now 81, cannot be accused of not being loyal to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). A generation older than the present SLFP leadership, Jayaratne proudly recalls how he joined the party as a school leaver over sixty years ago.
Hailing from Doluwa in the Gampola region he schooled at Doluwa Maha Vidyalaya in Gampola. Leaving school, he began work as a schoolteacher and a postmaster but the lure of politics was too strong to resist and soon he was immersed in the SLFP’s activities in the Gampola electorate.
His foray into politics began in the then traditional way, with him being elected a member of the village council. Jayaratne’s entry into Parliament was late - at the age of 39 - when he entered the legislature at the 1970 general elections, contesting the Gampola electorate on behalf of the SLFP.
As a parliamentarian, although he was not considered for ministerial office in Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s United Front government, Jayaratne quickly earned himself a reputation as being a strong man in the hill country and he was even accused of intimidating his political opponents.
In Parliament however Jayaratne won many friends with his likeable personality and keen sense of humour. He was noted also for spontaneously breaking out in verse during parliamentary speeches often with hilarious consequences as the recital in his gruff voice evoked laughter all-round.
Jayaratne was one of many victims of the Jayewardene-led UNP landslide in 1977. Driven into the political wilderness, he kept soldiering on, nursing the Gampola electorate but, with a referendum being held in 1982 instead of a general election, he had to wait until 1989 to re-enter Parliament.
He was rewarded for his long service to the SLFP when Chandrika Kumaratunga’s People's Alliance swept into power seven years later. At the age of 63, Jayaratne was appointed to the Cabinet for the first time, as Minister of Land, Agriculture and Forestry.
Since then, Jayaratne has held several portfolios over the past eighteen years: Posts and Telecommunications, Plantation Industries, Upcountry Development and Rural Industries Development. Significantly, none of them has been a vital subject but he has not complained.
Jayaratne’s credo in politics has been loyalty to the party and its leadership and he has never harboured pretences to being intellectual or visionary. In that sense, he is very similar to the only other Prime Minister who hailed from the hill country, Dingiri Banda Wijetunge.
As he became the most senior SLFPer in Parliament-he joined the party as its thirteenth member when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike formed the party in Kandy in 1961 Jayaratne played the ‘parana minihek’ (old hand) card effectively, publicly expressing his desire to be appointed Prime Minister.
In 2004, he expected to be given the honour and admitted that he had even stitched his suit for the swearing-in, but was over-looked when Mahinda Rajapaksa was given the job by Chandrika Kumaratunga. Instead of sulking, he plodded on enthusiastically as a minister but hadn’t given up.
When Rajapaksa became President a year later, Jayaratne made his claim again, and posters appeared in Kandy saying ‘janapathi ruhunin, agamethi kandu ratin’ (‘The President from Ruhuna, the Premier from the hill country’). Yet, Rajapaksa chose Ratnasiri Wikremanayake.
Jayaratne was disappointed. In fact, he said so publicly but without a hint of malice, claiming that he had made yet another sacrifice for the SLFP. It was a tactic that paid dividends and in 2010, his seniority could no longer be ignored - he was third time lucky.
Now nearly three years into the job he craved for, the health scares he suffered last year set the rumour mill working overtime. There were even genuine concerns that Jayaratne may not recover sufficiently to continue as Prime Minister and the President’s hand may be forced.
These were heightened when President Rajapaksa visited a convalescing Jayaratne at a hospital in the United States and pictures of the meeting were released to the media which showed Jayaratne suffering some physical infirmities. Understandably, Jayaratne was angry.
There was speculation that a ‘deal’ was struck during the meeting for Jayaratne to retire and for his son to be nominated to Parliament on the National List instead. If there ever was such an arrangement, no one speaks of it now. Last week, Jayaratne said he had no plans to retire.
Others contend that President Rajapaksa had decided not to make a sweeping reshuffle to the Cabinet, as evidenced by the minimal changes in the portfolios of ministers. Thus, it can be argued that Jayaratne retains the Premiership under fortuitous circumstances.
Whatever the reasoning, D.M. Jayaratne remains Prime Minister-and the proverbial heartbeat away from the Presidency. It has been a long, turbulent but ultimately rewarding political journey for a man whose only ambition was to become Prime Minister ‘at least for a day’.