From Subaltern Status to the Pinnacle of Power: Ranasinghe Premadasa’s Remarkable Rise.


Ranasinghe Premadasa, Sri Lanka’s one and only non-Govigama Prime Minister and President is the focus of this two part article commemorating his birth centenary.The first part published last week traced in brief the early phases of Premadasa’s political journey . This second and final part -written with the aid of earlier writings – will record the remarkable rise to power of Ranasinghe Premadasa.

As stated last week, the United National Party(UNP)was down in the doldrums after the general elections of 1970. The party was in a state of disarray after the poll in which the UNP got only 17 seats in a Parliament of 157 MPs. The United Front(UF)Govt headed by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike had 116 seats.

The despondent UNP was further demoralised due to internal differences.Party leader Dudley Senanayake and Leader of the Opposition JR Jayewardene were at loggerheads with each other. Both got embroiled in legal proceedings. On another level Ranasinghe Premadasa, the opposition chief whip revolted against Dudley and formed his own outfit the “Purawesi Peramuna”(Citizens Front), Though defiant Premadasa continued to be within the UNP. With these intra-party tensions, it appeared that the weakened UNP would either break-up or be politically-paralysed with a bleak future.

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. 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.

The realignment of Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene began paying 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. Initially, they were tolerant of the Citizens Front too as it mobilised opposition to the SLFP-LSSP-CP Government and did not directly confront the UNP in any way.

Premadasa’s Letter

Premadasa however decided to brazenly challenge Dudley Senanayake . On March 28, 1973, Premadasa wrote letters to the UNP Working Committee members outlining 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. 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 23, 1924 and the other Gamani 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, Dudley dictated from his sickbed, 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 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.

Demise of Dudley

Premadasa was away in India on 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.

Premadasa returned to Colombo and went to Woodlands in Borella to pay his respects. 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.

JR-Prema Discussion

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 enthusiastically to UNP folds. The prodigal son was back home!
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 structure.

Transform 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.

UNP Deputy Leader

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 issue by organising a novel intra-party contest. On 29 January 1977, all the selected UNP candidates were summoned by JR and told they had to elect a 10-member Party Leadership Committee for elections from among themselves. Each of them had to vote for 10 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 then UNP Secretary Daham Wimalasena and Assistant Secretary A.B. Talagune, 10 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. Gamani 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

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. Thus Premadasa became the acknowledged UNP deputy leader.

Leader of the House

General Elections were held under the old first past the post winner system. 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.

Prime Minister

After the Executive Presidency was ushered in by way of the Second Amendment to the Republican Constitution, J.R. Jayewardene became President in February 1978.

He was succeeded as Prime Minister by Premadasa. Premadasa served as Prime Minister from 1978 to 1988. Ranasinghe Premadasa created history as the first member of a non-Govigama caste to become Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
There were however more hurdles to be cleared before he could become the first non-Govigama President of Sri Lanka.

Despite 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 against the UNP leader. He also supported JR’s political stratagems including the Referendum to extend Parliament’s term by a further six years.

J.R. Jayewardene was 71 when he became Prime Minister and later President. His second term of office was 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 instead of backstabbing him. The shrewd JR also promoted some competition among his ‘would-be-successors’ to keep them on edge.

Contenders for Presidency

There were four main potential contenders for the Presidency – 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.

The 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 on the island. While Gamini Dissanayake and to a lesser extent Ranil Wickremesinghe supported JR in this exercise, Premadasa and Athulathmudali opposed it.

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 and the introduction of Provincial Councils.

Presidential Election

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 the 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.

Break Away From UNP

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. So, Premadasa began quietly preparing to break away from the UNP with his supporters and contest independently if he were denied nomination as a 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 time. 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.

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 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.

Presidential Candidate

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 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. Instead of an inner-party election to finalise the candidate, JR sprang 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.

2nd Executive President

Nominations closed on 10 November 1988. The Presidential Election was held on 19 December 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 second Executive President of Sri Lanka.

Four Years and Four Months

Premadasa was 65 years of age when he became the Executive President of Sri Lanka. After more than four decades of active politics, he had reached the top combatting tremendous odds. Premadasa was a dedicated man on a mission with a positive vision for Sri Lanka. Yet, he was able to discharge his duties as President for only four years and four months.

Armour Street Explosion

Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed on 1 May 1993 at 12:45 p.m. along with 17 others in a bomb explosion that also injured 38 more persons at the Grandpass Road – Armour Street junction in Colombo. He was inspecting a May Day procession of the party. The assassin was an LTTE suicide bomber Kulaveerasingham Veerakumar alias “Babu,” who wore an explosive laden vest. Ranasinghe Premadasa was succeeded as President by the then Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga.

D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at

This article appears in the “Political Pulse”Column of the “Daily FT’dated 3 July 2024.It can be accessed here –