In 1970, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike contested the General Election in a coalition with the Left – the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP). On the other hand, Philip Gunawardena and his Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) contested the 1970 election in alliance with the United National Party (UNP) led by Dudley Senanayake. The anti-UNP coalition, which was called the Samagi Peramuna, launched its campaign with a mammoth rally held at the Bogambara Grounds in Kandy. Then they started a countrywide propaganda campaign.
At this time the LSSP and CP had a strong presence in the Peradeniya campus although Rohana Wijeweera’s Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) had started making inroads in all the universities. Their stronghold was the Vidyodaya campus, where Mahinda Wijesekera ruled the roost as student leader. The SLFP ‘China wingers’ led by T.B. Ilangaratne – and including particularly Ratna Deshapriya and his Lankadeepa newspaper cohorts – were not averse to playing footsie with JVP leaders in order to enhance their electoral chances. They encouraged Wijeweera to create panic among their supporters, saying that American imperialists were waiting in a ship docked at Colombo Harbour in order to take over the country if Dudley won.
In the campaign, LSSP leaders were called upon to provide effective speakers for Samagi Peramuna meetings. Though they had brilliant orators like Colvin R. de Silva, Bernard Soysa, and N.M. Perera, the LSSP was hard put to participate in all-island meetings while fighting hard to increase the number of LSSP MPs in Parliament (it had the highest number of winners ever at this election).
At that time, a young undergraduate of the Dental Faculty at Peradeniya by the name of Rajitha Senaratne was an office bearer of a student union and was well known on campus as a leftist and a great orator. Every generation in Peradeniya threw up orators like ‘Pol’ Wickremaratne, Gamini Hattotuwegama, and Rama Somasunderam, who rallied the troops near the Hindagala intersection. Similarly, Rajitha was invited to speak on LSSP platforms and help to cover the party’s demand for all-island speakers.
It is said that NM in particular, who was impressed by him, was keen to ensure that this young leftist orator be given maximum exposure. The LSSP and CP usually depended on their ‘candidate members,’ who were attracted by the intellectual allure of the Left leaders, to become their party’s lifelong activists.
However, they were often disappointed because many of their university recruits gave up after becoming employed as civil servants and university teachers.
Rajitha was different. Influenced by his Ananda College teacher, the Left-oriented Bhikkhu Kotagama Vachissara, he became a leftist. Even after he passed out of university as a dentist, he stuck to his leftist beliefs in his politics with its commitment to economic and racial equity and justice.
The leftists of that time paid a heavy price for their convictions. When the Sinhala Only Act was brought to Parliament, the LSSP and CP opposed it on principle and advocated parity of status for Sinhala and Tamil. They were attacked in both Parliament and outside by both the SLFP and the UNP, who knew a vote-winning slogan when they saw one – no matter the consequences.
The country was subjected to a fratricidal conflict which lasted over three decades. As Colvin put it with his usual eloquence: “One language, two nations; two languages, one nation.” The majority of voters on both sides of the ethnic conflict did not heed his and his party’s voice.
Rajitha and many educated leftists of his generation were torn between two objectives. One was the need for radical political action, which could be achieved through collaboration with centre leftists like the SLFP. The other was the objective of human rights and equity, which were trampled on by the SLFP after decades of harmony under the Senanayakes and the centre right.
As shown in the oscillation between these two positions – radicalism and ethnic harmony – the youthful leftists had to change their affiliations according to their actual experiences. Rajitha supported the Samagi Peramuna and, after the decimation of the Left, joined the SLFP. But when it turned right under Felix and Anura Bandaranaike, he was in the forefront of establishing the Mahajana Pakshaya with Vijaya Kumaratunga and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK).
But with the assassination of Vijaya, the party floundered and many of its supporters were left in the lurch. Rajitha almost single-handedly persuaded CBK to return from London, assume leadership of the Mahajana Party, and contest the Provincial Council Elections that followed the passage of the 13th Amendment.
It was a courageous decision by Chandrika, who is a born fighter. Having lost her father and husband due to politics and with two small children to look after, she still answered the call of service and returned to the country and the hustings. The SLFP and the JVP boycotted this election and paved the way for her party to introduce a large number of young leftist activists into the political arena. They later gained prominence in public affairs during her tenure as President.
But with time the lure of mainstream politics and her mother’s entreaties brought CBK back to the SLFP, creating a split between her and her supporters like Rajitha and Ossie Abeygunasekera, who preferred to ally themselves with the UNP rather than the faction-prone SLFP.
Rajitha, who set up his own party – the BNP – and flirted with the Democratic United National Front (DUNF), was wooed by D.B. Wijetunga, who established a close relationship with him.
Thus both the DUNF under Gamini Dissanayake and the BNP under Rajitha joined the Wijetunga-led UNP in time for the 1994 General Election, which the UNP lost by a whisker. His new bête noire CBK became Prime Minister and later President.
After Gamini’s death, Rajitha became an associate of the new UNP Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and an important platform speaker for the UNP. But with the UNP not making much progress after the accession of Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) – he was a close friend of Basil and Gotabaya (GR) who were schoolmates at Ananda – he had no difficulty in crossing over to the SLFP and entering MR’s Cabinet.
A characteristic of Rajitha is his rapid disenchantment with the high and mighty and the joining of new formations closer to his thinking. Accordingly, he left MR just before the 2015 Presidential Election and joined the camp of Maithripala Sirisena. This was a bitter blow to MR, who made every effort to retain him but to no avail.
In the Yahapalana regime he held an important position and established a close rapport with Ranil, who is credited with sending him to Singapore for a heart surgery when, as the overworked and successful Minister of Health, he fell ill. Of the old stagers in the political field, it is Rajitha who has had no problem with Ranil and thereby may hang a tale as he has not been able to establish the same relationship with Sajith and his inner circle.
What will Rajitha do?
Will he respond to Ranil’s call to all parliamentarians to join him in an all-party cabinet? He probably thinks that Sajith should have accepted the challenge when GR offered him the premiership. Within the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) he has argued for an all-party effort. For his pains he was excluded from the speakers list at the Campbell Place meeting.
This is just the type of slight that will rile Rajitha up. As Chamuditha said in his TV programme, a mass rally without a Rajitha speech is like “a bath kade without parippu”. It is a sure sign that all is not well with the inner counsels of the SJB.
Whatever critics may say of his politics, Rajitha has consistently fought for justice towards the minorities and will be supportive of Ranil’s efforts to negotiate an ethnic peace. While tyro politicians can give ‘pora talk’ on well-guarded political stages, it is only a few like Rajitha who have risked their lives to protect their principles.
As he said in his TV interview, he still carries shrapnel from both LTTE and JVP bombs in his body. That is a reminder that he is true to his vision of a just and equal Sri Lanka for all her people.
None of the SJB leadership, except Sarath Fonseka, have iron in their bodies as well as in their souls. That is why Rajitha is now on the cusp of a decision which will soon shake up our little political world.