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Gamini was a leader beyond comparison

Gamini Dissanayake

23 October 2021 12:56 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the great poet, wrote thus about great men: “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.” A scarce few of Sri Lankan leaders, past or present, would deserve mention in the category of great souls that Longfellow describes. Gamini Dissanayake has certainly reserved his dwelling in that rarest of the rare sacred chalets. 

His twenty seventh death anniversary falls on October 24. It is most difficult to be objective when writing about personalities in contemporaneous times, especially when one has a personal relationship with the person written about. I, for one, do not even pretend to be objective, yet would attempt to pen down some vivid memories that I cherish. My judgments may be biased, yet the facts and incidents do bear utmost accuracy and precision. Gamini’s place in post-independent Sri Lanka’s political history is unique in that he was one leader who would unquestionably be classified with the top echelon of leaders albeit he never reached that summit of power either as Prime Minister or President. In fact, his pinnacle was as Leader of the Opposition.

I met Gamini for the first time in 1970. It was a memorable year for the United National Party (UNP). Against a no-contest pact amongst the SLFP, LSSP and CP, the UNP suffered a most humiliating electoral debacle, which in terms of statistics, was worse than that it agonized over in 1956. The two Bandaranaikes, husband and wife, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias and Sirimavo respectively, made sure that the UNP was reduced to electoral shreds. However, there was one newcomer from the UNP. When the titans fell, a tyro into politics, to withstand the storm, in the hill country of Nuwara Eliya in itself was a small miracle. Gamini, whose campaign was most unconventionally and fearlessly managed by another young novice into this character-defining enterprise called politics, Gamini’s brother in law Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria, defeated an experienced political hand William Fernando of the SLFP. 


Gamini’s place in post-independent Sri Lanka’s political history is unique in that he was one leader who would unquestionably be classified with the top echelon of leaders albeit he never reached that summit of power either as Prime Minister or President


When I met Gamini he was already in the category called unseated parliamentarians. Resulting from an election petition judgment, Gamini was unseated from the seat and now awaiting his appeal. At the time I was the President of the newly formed student front of the UNP. As the founder-President of the Eksath Samawadi Shishya Peramuna (United Egalitarian Student Front), I was invited to speak at a seminar organised by the Trade Union attached to the State engineering Corporation. Most of the Student Front was of the Dudley group while only Harsha Abeywardene as Central Committee Member and myself advocated for the non-firing of JRJ from the Party. Those who were in the majority made an abortive attempt to keep me from accepting the invitation as they knew it was Gamini who was billed to preside over the said seminar and who was classified as a JR supporter. I insisted that I attend the seminar and deliver a speech on behalf of the Student Front. When I arrived at the meeting I sat next to this youthful ex-parliamentarian. I spoke for about twenty minutes and the moment I sat down Gamini wrote down his telephone number and address on a piece of paper and asked me to see him. So began a shared-journey of 25 long years. 

I happened to work for him as a loyal subordinate, erstwhile friend, and a political partner who saw things through the same prism and more often than not, arrived at the same conclusions. When the 1977 elections were scheduled, we were ready. JRJ as the leader of the Party unleashed a fine-tuned machine, a political force that had no precedent and knew no match worthy of mention in any of the following years. The whole country was waiting for the election day. The rout that the JR-UNP caused to the SLFP and its satellite alliance was total and worse than those of the UNP of ’56 and ’70. Gamini placed me in charge of the Nuwara Eliya/Maskeliya campaign. I managed to produce the biggest majority for a winning UNP candidate for Gamini. 

In 1977 Gamini was only 35 years old. We came down to Colombo two days after the election. I received a call from Dr.Weerasooria the day after and he told me that ‘Ga’, as Gamini was fondly called in his family circles, wanted me to come to the Ministry of Irrigation, Power and Highways the following day as he was to assume duties as Minister. The Ministry was housed in the old Treasury building, in the same room the old DS used to galvanize the whole country towards massive land settlement and irrigation schemes in the 1930s as Minister of Agriculture in the State Council. For a couple of weeks I used to go to the Ministry every day. One day at about 11 in the morning I saw a man clad in a native national costume dashing towards Gamini’s room without checking with any us who were charged with the responsibility of keeping Gamini informed ahead of time. I asked Athukorale, the KKS (peon), to ask the man to see me before he saw the minister. A man, looking very dignified yet humble, told me that he was the MP for Passara. I immediately offered my apologies and accompanied him to the Minister. Later Gamini entered my room with this MP. 

He looked at me and said to the MP: ‘Manthri thuma, me thamai mage Pudgalika Lekam... Hon. MP, this is my Private Secretary’.

That’s how I came to know that Gamini had decided to make me his Private Secretary. Later Gamini summoned me to his room and told me: ‘Palitha, hereafter I want you to be my alter-ego…’ and went on to elaborate what exactly the term meant and his expectations of me. He was my leader, my guru, and my dear friend, a bundle of charisma on feet.

Allow me to narrate another story: When the Mahaweli Programme was well underway; an Australian delegation paid a call on Gamini in the early eighties. By this time, funding for Victoria, Kotmale, Randenigala and Maduru Oya had been finalised. Yet we needed funds for the downstream development work and Gamini asked if the Australian Government could help. They left without any confirmation regarding funds. Warwick Mayne-Wilson, the Australian High Commissioner too was at the discussions. After this meeting Gamini had a prearranged press briefing on some other subject. The following day all media institutes carried the news item that Australia was ready to fund the Mahaweli downstream development programme. The news was totally false and the very next day Australian High Commission summoned a news conference and issued a vehement contradiction.  Gamini summoned me to his office and said: ‘Palitha, go to the High Commissioner’s residence. Don’t tell him you’re coming. Make an unannounced call on him and explain to him that at no time did the Minister tell the press as was printed in the newspapers and it was a mere exaggeration by mischievous journalists and offer my personal apologies to him and his government if they were hurt’. When I entered the High Commissioner’s residence I saw him coming down the stairway, with a very angry countenance. I followed Gamini’s instructions and I saw a visible thawing of the grim air that surrounded Mayne-Wilson. When I said that I would take his leave, he asked me to join him in his car and asked to ask my driver to follow. Mayne-Wilson told me something that would never leave my mind. ‘Palitha, I like Gamini a lot, because you know why? He is the best human being in the entire Cabinet’.

Should I say any more?
Gamini left a legacy of a dramatic vision of optimism, selfless service of man and a unique sense of dignified politics, that the country misses so sadly at present.
Gamini, this nation needs men like you.  

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