There is political excitement in the air in anticipation of Presidential elections before the end of the year. Even though no dates have been specified there is much speculation about prospective candidates and their prospects. Among those being spoken of as a potential presidential election contender 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 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 1st to approve the proposal by party leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to form a new political alliance named National Democratic Front (NDF) and face Presidential elections.
The proposal was vehemently opposed by a group that is supportive of Sajith Premadasa. When put to the 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 the UNP headquarters “ Sirikotha”. It was emphasized that the key office -bearers of the envisaged NDF should be from the UNP. Sajith Premadasa reportedly suggested that Ranil Wickremesinghe could be the leader of the NDF while he should be the Secretary or Secretary – General of the NDF.
Sajith Premadasa’s recent actions and sayings indicate clearly that he wishes to be the UNP’s presidential candidate at the next elections. It appears that he is prepared to challenge and confront the party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on this matter.It was stated in the first of this two -part article last week that there are 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. Even as these inner – party tensions prevail , there is also a powerful lobby within and outside the UNP that is reportedly pressurizing Sajith Premadasa to split from the UNP if he is not made the party’s official presidential candidate. Though 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 trying 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 break away 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 break away and contest separately if he were denied presidential candidacy by UNP leader Junius Richard Jayewardene.
What is important is to note 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 Premadasa 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 Govt. 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 back seat 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.
Both JR Jayewardene and R Premadasa felt – independent of reach other – that the UNP needed to be re-vamped and possibly re-structured 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 JR 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 paralysed politically 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 re-organization 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 re-vitalise 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 meetting of the UNP parliamentary group and working committee was held on May 15th 1972 in Colombo with Dudley Senanayake presiding. Ranasinghe Premadasa came out with a proposal that the UNP should be re-structured 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 ago.
Premadasa quit the UNP working committee but not the Parliamentary group or the party. He formed an independent people’s organization called the “Samastha Lanka Purawesi Peramuna.” This became known generally as the “Purawesi 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, North -western, 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 the Hyde park in Colombo. Apart from Premadasa those who addressed the rally were Ven. Baddegama Wimalawansa Thero, Ven.Welletota Pagnadassi Thero, Rev. EW Mendis, Sir Senerath Gunawardene, Sirisena Cooray, Prof.Tilak Ratnakara, JW 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 30th 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 organization. On September 10th 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.
Re-alignment of Dudley and JR
The re-alignment 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 somewhat condescendingly like a recalcitrant child. They were tolerant of the Citizens Front too as it mobilized opposition to the SLFP -LSSP – CP Govt and did not confront the UNP in any way. Premadasa however decided to challenge Dudley Senanayake brazenly. On March 28th 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 4th 1973. In that speech titled “A plan for Sri Lanka”, Premadasa boldly outlined his vision for the future of Sri Lanka. A vision that was not to the liking of many UNP heavyweights then.
Premadasa in his letter to the UNP working committee 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 31st and April 1st 1973. The “Daily News” was then edited by renowned journalist Mervyn de Silva.
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 23rd 1924.. The other was Gamani Jayasuriya born on April 30th 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 the publication of it in newspapers hurt Dudley Senanayake badly. He felt it was a stab in the back. While brooding over the well-publicized missive, Dudley Senanayake was taken seriously ill on April 3rd 1973.Still from his sickbed Dudley dictated a response to Premadasa which was published in the “Daily News” on April 7th. 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 9th. On the same day it was diagnosed that Dudley had had a mild heart attack, He was hospitalized. On April 10th Dudley suffered a massive heart attack, He seemingly recovered but three days later Dudley Senanayake passed away on April 13th 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 Jayewarde the master tactician wanted to channel this constructively and turn the UNP into a winner at the next elections. For this he needed to re-organize 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 realized that Premadasa the man of the masses was necessary for this. 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 broadbase 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 realized 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 recognized 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 that he could succeed JR as party leader in the future by working hard within the UNP.
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 finalized by December 1976. JR was the accepted leader but who was to be the second in command? Though Premadasa worked for the party as if he was 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 organizing a novel intra-party contest. On January 29th 1977, all the selected UNP candidates were summoned by JR and told that they had to elect a ten member party leadership committee for the 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 Asst Secretary A. B. Talagune . ten persons had been elected. Their names and votes received are 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. JR 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, JR 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 a 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 manoeuvres. 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 FR when we have JR?”
JR 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 younger 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 elections, 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 front runner 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 JR 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. Though 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 sub – terranean 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 realized the under currents 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 break away from the UNP with his supporters and contest independently if he was 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 Jayewardene was dissuaded from taking the extreme step of contesting for 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 Wijerartne 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 elections. Ranjan Wijeratne realized that the UNP may have a slim chance of winning the poll only if Ranasinghe Premadasa was 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 Jayewardene 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 also got them to pledge support to Premadasa. When this was conveyed unofficially to Premadasa by Wijeratne, the former abandoned his plans to break away 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 a an intra-party contest at that juncture . So JR 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 10th 1988. The presidential election was held on December 19th 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 Lanka through 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 presidential elections separately?
It is important that Premadasa’s son Sajith should draw inspiration and learn valuable political 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.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Article was written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of August 2, 2019. It can be accessed here-