Nineteen 77 to Twenty 17

Ravi Perera (Daily FT)

“In my youth I had illusions; I got rid of them fast” – Napoleon Bonaparte

In 1977 T.D.S.A. Dissanayake wrote a book titled ‘JR Jayewardene of Sri Lanka’, which makes interesting reading even after the 40 tumultuous years since its publication. The drastic departure from the existing order that followed made the General Elections of 1977 a watershed.DFT-14-13

In principle, many of the changes that the new Government initiated, particularly in the area of economics, were not only welcome but given the critical condition of the country then, were perhaps essential.

From 1970-1977 Sirimavo Bandaranaike led a coalition Government heavy on doctrine but extremely light on delivery. The dominant ideology of the coalition demanded sweeping State control of every aspect of the economy, going down to even running eateries and selling trinkets to the occasional tourist.

To get a length of material for a suit, a citizen had to go through a long bureaucratic procedure, sometimes even gain the approval of a so-called People’s Committee. Needless to say, the country stagnated, with gradual impoverishment becoming the fate of the vast majority of people. At the elections (held under the old first-past-the-post system), the long-suffering citizenry took their vengeance, reducing the incumbent SLFP to only eight parliamentary seats while the UNP won 139!

The triumphant UNP gave the country an entirely different orientation, opening up the economy, liberalising imports and devaluing the rupee. Doing business became respectable again, the private sector received a new lease of life, markets were flooded with goods and basic foodstuffs which had become rare luxuries. Soon the economy was humming from its low base growing at near double digits. There was even talk of rivalling Singapore.

But then things began to unravel. Disquieting features; creeping corruption, the politics of patronage, State-sponsored violence and nepotism, things which were damned in the earlier regime, began to reappear and then flourish. The Government, which enjoyed a dominant majority in Parliament, decided to extend the life of the Parliament through a referendum, seriously damaging its credibility. In 1978, a new Constitution was promulgated, one that named us a ‘democratic and socialist republic’ in case anyone had a doubt about its true character! This Constitution, a radical departure from the accustomed Westminster model, was to have far-reaching consequences. No one dared to question the wisdom of a victor commanding a three-fourths majority in Parliament.

History moves in unexpected ways, soon forces beyond the leaders’ power to control and manipulate began to pose lethal challenges to the power structure. Forced into a corner, the Government was compelled to fight fire with fire. Between 1983 and 1989 the country haemorrhaged, with death and destruction on an unprecedented scale gripping the once peaceful land.

But this was all in the distant future when Dissanayake released his book in 1977. The UNP was basking in the glory of a huge public mandate which even their stoutest supporters had dared not imagined possible. Since the landslide victory of 1956 it was the SLFP of the Bandaranaikes (with their left allies) who had obtained such sweeping mandates, the most stinging being the 1970 victory of the Coalition Government. 

In 1977, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction and naturally all honour went to the UNP and its 71-year-old leader. It was the UNP’s finest hour.

Were there clues of a troubled future, was the ‘political’ configuration of the time such that violent conflict was inevitable or did the character of the main actors lead unerringly towards tragedy?

As the title suggests, the book is dedicated to J.R. Jayewardene, who led the United National Party (UNP) to its astounding victory of 1977. There is unmistakable triumphalism in the narration, understandable in the context of a people’s march against an unpopular Government.

Much of the book is based on the author’s opinions and perceptions and by his own admission Dissanayake was an activist of the UNP. Today many of the main actors of those hopeful and eventually betrayed days are no more.

Unwitting insight

As a political functionary, the author appears to have had access to the top leadership of the UNP. From the point of history, it is unfortunate that the author’s treatment of J.R. Jayewardene, the leader of the resurgent UNP, was uncritical, to say the least. If there were warning signs of hubris or seeds of the eventual corruption of character then present, we will not know.

Despite Dissanayake’s close association with the other major personalities of the UNP, there are no insights into the psychological make-up or the interplay of rivalries and personal ambitions that were to weaken and eventually bring about the end of the regime.

For example, in describing the 1977 campaign of the ambitious Gamini Dissanayake, the language is mawkish, “Shrima Dissanayake also accompanied her husband (Gamini Dissanayake) and looked after him because he had lost as much as 15 lbs during the past few months due to vigorous campaigning. Their three little children were distressed at the prospect of both parents being away from home and in their loneliness often cried out loudly.”

There is no contemplation of the corrupting effect that power and money were to eventually have on many. What manner of men were they? Were they men of vision or wisdom? We now have the advantage of 40 years for a better perspective of the leaders of that era.

Political biography is meagre in this country and the few we have are often partisan or just plain eulogies. However, in any writing or report there are clues – in the language used, events described, people met – to the subject as well as the narrator.

Perhaps unwittingly, Dissanayake gives us greater insight into the mind and character of both the UNP as well as the SLFP leadership of the era than intended. It is these unintended exposures that give the clue to the clumsiness, frivolity and pettiness of our leaders. The value of the book lies here.

For the purpose of economy I will restrict excerpts from the book to those referring to economic outlook and political corruption. When it came to economic policy, was there a clear idea in the heads of the top leaders or did they just adopt, piecemeal, ideas understood only imperfectly?

In 1977, the economy was in such a parlous state that any opening up was bound to prosper. In the years after the ouster of the Taliban, Afghanistan recorded one of the highest growth rates in the world. Similarly, after the destruction of the LTTE, our economy too boomed, relatively speaking. It is debatable how much credit should go to the political leadership. Under a different leadership culture, could the country have done better? Of course, those in power can claim credit for any success, even if unintended, while disclaiming responsibility for the failures of their other actions.

“J.R. Jayewardene was convinced that capitalism was at the end of its period of usefulness in Sri Lanka as the capitalist class, both foreign and local, were parasites on society (Pg 35).”

“The Business Acquisition Act of 1970 sounded the death knell of capitalism in Sri Lanka. The UNP under Dudley Senanayake opposed the Act. The UNP under J.R. Jayawardene welcomed many of the acquisitions made under it (Pg 37).”

“In his endeavour to create a just and free society, it was the opinion of J.R. Jayawardene that those who invest their money or skills in a business venture should equitably share its benefits. Accordingly, the decision to nationalise the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills was welcomed by him (Pg 38).”

“J.R. Jayewardene was astonished in 1973, when Sirimavo Bandaranaike made a successful bid to stage the fifth Non-Aligned Summit in Colombo at a time when the rich and poor alike were bearing greater burdens in their day to day living (Pg 67).”

“Such are the facts in our foreign affairs, a fool’s paradise in which Sirimavo Bandaranaike revelled and a field according to J.R. Jayawardene which should occupy nothing more than a position of low priority in any good Government of Sri Lanka (Pg 66).”

Little political change

Dissanayake’s opinion of Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s style of governance is absorbing, both for its biting condemnation as well as the appalling revelation (reading the book now) as to how little has changed. A young reader will note with despair that his generation is still grappling with a leadership culture which is only a reflection of what robbed his parents of a better life then. Whatever else that may have changed – like the idea of suffering, there is a permanency – the quality of our leaders seems unchanging.

“In patches the management of the Government by Sirimavo Bandaranaike was both novel and comic. It consisted of her next-of-kin being appointed to positions for which they were ill-equipped, if not altogether unsuited. Her three children, Sunethra, Chandrika and Anura were sent to the prestigious universities of Oxford, Sorbonne and London and it is not surprising that their performance there was mediocre. Yet when they returned to the island they were given high appointments which in theory carried great responsibility and….the influence of a Cabinet Minister (Pg 58).”

“Of the four brothers, Mackie was her private Secretary, a post he held since 1960, Seevali who like Mackie is a doctor, was made Director General of the Export Promotion Secretariat, Clifford an obscure planter was appointed Chairman of the State Plantations Corporation, and Barnes once a member of the minor judiciary, was made a Supreme Court Judge (Pg 59).”

“This ludicrous state of affairs seeped into every State-owned corporation till Sirimavo Bandaranaike had practically run out of cousins, nephews, nieces, in-laws, etc. Even more ludicrous was the disproportionate publicity given to S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. The Government-controlled press and radio made it appear that he was responsible for ushering in everything in Sri Lanka except perhaps for founding the Sinhala race and introducing Buddhism into the island. Moreover, the Sirimavo Bandaranaike administration named after him every conceivable type of public property (Pg 59).”

“J.R. Jayawardene looked upon these frolics with grave concern especially as he himself has particularly close relationships with his brothers and sisters and several other relatives though not one of them has received the patronage of the State through him (Pg 59).”

“She and her family set out to control the machinery of the State as if it was a family heirloom and surrounded themselves with an assortment of sycophants, courtiers and adventurers. It caused effects which were partly comic and partly tragic (Pg 138).”

In spite of that complete rejection by the people, Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s political career did not end in 1977. The SLFP persisted with her leadership in one form or another until 1994, when after 17 long years, under her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike’s leadership, the party came back to power again. Chandrika Bandaranaike, when elected President, appointed her mother Sirimavo Prime Minister, although in view of her feeble condition it became a mere symbolic office. For the SLFP, until quite recently, there were no other ideas except for those of the Bandaranaikes and no other leadership save for that of the Bandaranaikes.

And what of J.R. Jayewardene, the man of the hour (in 1977)?

“J.R. Jayawardene is a staunch old Royalist and lustily sings ‘the school of our fathers’ the Royal College anthem, whenever he has an occasion to do so (Pg 83).”

“..but his fondness for old Royalists in UNP circles went to the extent of being politically unwise, for instance of the younger generation of the members of the UNP, Gamini Dissanayake, Daham Wimalasena, Lalith Athulathmudali, Wickrema Weerasooriya, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Tyronne Fernando, Navin Gooneratne and I (the author) had the ear of J.R. Jayawardene. Except for Gamini Dissanayake the others are Royalists (Pg 84).”

In his epilogue, the author writes (on 18 August 1977): “Pursuant to his election pledges, J.R. Jayawardene has given the highest priority to ushering in a just and free society. He has extended to his defeated foes magnanimity unprecedented in recent times. He has extended the hand of friendship even to those who heaped calumny upon him……..Thus has begun a new era in Sri Lanka under a colossus that bestrides the contemporary scene (Pg 140).”

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