How the Prime Minister post eluded C.P. de Silva twice

Wednesday, 5 October 2022 00:30 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

CP was widely regarded as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s able deputy and potential successor. However after Bandaranaike’s death, it was not CP but the then Education Minister Wijayananda Dahanayake who was sworn in as Prime Minister. The “Sinhala Bhasha Peramuna” (BSP) MP from Galle became PM through sheer luck. This was because CP was not in the country when SWRDB was assassinated whereas Daha was in the right place at the right time. Had CP been in Colombo, he and not Dahanayake would have succeeded Bandaranaike


The Prime Minister was the most powerful person in Sri Lanka known earlier as Ceylon during the first three decades of independence from Britain. The post of Prime Minister lost its sheen after the Executive Presidency was introduced in 1978. Until then the prestigious PM post was a position much coveted by politicians. This column wanders down memory lane this week and narrates the tale of a man who could not become Prime Minister on two occasions – in September 1959 and April 1960 – due to fate’s cruel trickery. The man who was deprived of the Prime Minister post twice was none other than C.P. de Silva whose 50th death anniversary falls on 9 October. 

Charles Percuval de Silva was born on 16 April 1912 at Randombe in Balapitiya. His parents were C.R. de Silva, a lawyer and Adlin de Silva, a co-founder of Musaeus College. C.P. de Silva or CP as he was generally known entered the Ceylon Civil Service in 1935. CP resigned from the Civil Service in 1950 while holding the post of Director of Land Development.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike defected from the United National Party (UNP) and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1951. C.P. de Silva joined the SLFP and entered politics. He was elected an MP from Polonnaruwa in 1952 and 1956. Thereafter he contested the newly demarcated Minneriya electorate and won in March and July 1960 and also in March 1965. During his 18-year-long parliamentary career, CP served as cabinet minister in 1956-59, 1960-64 and 1965-70. He also held the posts of Leader of the House, Leader of the Opposition and Acting Premier. However the post of Prime Minister eluded CP despite being within his grasp twice. This article will focus on how and why that happened. 

The Parliamentary elections of 1956 was a watershed in the political history of this island nation. The UNP that was in power from 1947 was defeated. The SLFP led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike swept the polls as part of a coalition known as the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) SWRDB became Prime Minister. 

Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was shot by Talduwa Somarama Thera on 25 September 1959. He died on the 26th. The leader of the house then was Lands and Irrigation Minister C.P. de Silva who was also the most senior minister from the SLFP. CP was widely regarded as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s able deputy and potential successor.

However after Bandaranaike’s death, it was not CP but the then Education Minister Wijayananda Dahanayake who was sworn in as Prime Minister. The “Sinhala Bhasha Peramuna” (BSP) MP from Galle became PM through sheer luck. This was because CP was not in the country when SWRDB was assassinated whereas Daha was in the right place at the right time. Had CP been in Colombo, he and not Dahanayake would have succeeded Bandaranaike.


C.P. de Silva


Taken ill after drinking milk

What had happened was that on 25 August 1959, CP had drunk a glass of milk in the boardroom where the cabinet met and was taken ill. It was suspected that the glass contained some vegetable-derived poisonous substance. The intended victim was supposed to be Prime Minister Bandaranaike himself. CP’s condition proved so critical that he had to go to London for medical treatment. He was still in London when the assassination occurred. It was in this manner that fate played a trick on CP.

Bandaranaike had earlier been scheduled to fly to New York on the evening of 26 September to attend the UN general assembly sessions. Since C.P. de Silva was away, Bandaranaike decided to get Wijayananda Dahanayake appointed as acting premier. On 24 September, SWRD had prepared and signed the papers authorising the then Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke to swear in Dahanayake as acting prime minister. So when Bandaranaike died it was Dahanayake who donned the premier’s mantle.

Upon hearing of Bandaranaike’s shooting, the convalescent CP discharged himself from hospital despite not having fully recovered and returned home. But it was too late and by the time he arrived in Colombo, SWRD had died and Dahanayake had assumed office as Prime Minister. The shrewd Daha met CP at the airport and accompanied him to Horagolla to pay their last respects to their departed leader.

Daha then took CP to the Governor General at Queens House and got him sworn in as Agriculture, Lands and Irrigation Minister. Thereby Dahanayake cemented his position as PM by reducing CP to ministerial status. Events had overtaken and negated CP’s rightful claim to the PM’s post. This was the first instance of the PM post eluding CP de Silva. CP’s role as Minister in the Dahanayake cabinet was short-lived.

Dahanayake’s brief tenure as Prime Minister was a disaster. He did not enjoy the confidence of his cabinet. The cabinet did not trust him. Five ministers including C.P. de Silva were removed from office by Daha on 8 December 1959. Seven other ministers were removed later. Dahanayake dissolved Parliament and became head of a caretaker Government. Fresh elections were to be held in March 1960.


SLFP big-wigs rattled

The announcement of an election transformed the political climate. SLFP big-wigs were rattled. The mood in the country was against the ruling party and the Government. So desperate were some SLFP leaders that they went to the extent of approaching two former UNP Prime Ministers. Sir John Kotelawela was in retirement, but the party that succeeded in forcing him out of politics now sought his leadership in a remarkable twist of fate. Sir John was flattered but declined, preferring to shuttle between Kandawala and Kent rather than be active in politics. 

Then they turned to UNP leader Dudley Senanayake, who was amazed at the offer but promptly turned it down. Apart from his intense loyalty to the UNP, Senanayake also felt that the SLFP was a lost cause. He had no intention of abandoning a winning horse and taking over the reins of a loser. Another move contemplated by SLFP leaders was that of enlisting Professor G.P. Malalasekara, the country’s Permanent Representative to the UN at New York. 

The attempts by sections of the SLFP to rope in a new leader from either the UNP or elsewhere are documented in the publication ‘The Inside Story’ by Hugh Fernando. This former MP for Nattandiya was at one-time Speaker in Parliament. 

Meanwhile, C.P. de Silva was doing his best to keep the party together and bring about a political renaissance. Given his qualifications and experience, the mantle of SLFP leadership should have been rightfully his. Despite this, several moves went on within the party to have a new leader. There were overt and covert reasons for this. The public reason given was that CP was not a charismatic mass leader. Although his efficiency was accepted, it was argued that he would not be able to attract the masses and win elections. There was some truth to this assessment. 


Socio-political environment

There was, however, another less-publicised reason. Notwithstanding his impressive credentials, CP had a minus point due to the socio-political environment of the country. He did not belong to the numerically large Govigama caste. C.P. de Silva was from the Salagama caste associated traditionally with cinnamon peeling. The Govigama caste – traditionally farmers and cultivators – was the single-largest caste in the country. Its members claimed they were at the top in the caste pecking order.

Though castes originated on the basis of traditional occupation, the anachronistic social stratification remains a hidden yet effective factor in politics. Although members of most castes had shed their traditional occupations and taken up other forms of employment the caste factor still prevailed in arranged marriages and electioneering. 

However much people argue that casteism is extinct and find it unfashionable to discuss it publicly, the fact remains that caste is indeed a factor to reckon with in politics. This is particularly so in the case of hierarchical leadership. Apart from the exception or aberration of Ranasinghe Premadasa, every single Prime Minister or President in this country has been from the Govigama caste. It could be seen, therefore, that sections of the SLFP had their own reasons to seek a substitute for CP. 

Despite these efforts, CP established his party leadership as there were no possible replacements at that time. So the party geared itself up for elections under CP’s command. He was projected as a potential Premier. 

As the electoral campaign got underway, it soon became obvious that the SLFP was heading for definite defeat. Crowds dwindled and there was a visible lack of enthusiasm among party cadres. Without SWRD, the party was like a rudderless boat. The party was demoralised.


Sirimavo Bandaranaike

It was at this point that the pragmatic C.P. de Silva realised the urgent necessity for someone to revitalise the party and inspire the voters. Who but the tragic widow of the departed leader could do this? So CP and other SLFP leaders persuaded Sirimavo Bandaranaike to address election meetings. A reluctant Sirima hesitantly agreed. She started addressing public meetings. This altered the situation dramatically.

When elections were announced, the SLFP had been discounted as a winner. But as election day drew near, it was clear that the party was doing very well. When results were announced, the UNP had come first with 50 seats but the SLFP came a close second with 46. It was broadly acknowledged that the late entry by the “Weeping Widow” into the SLFP campaign had caused the SLFP revival. It was a hung Parliament and neither the UNP nor SLFP had an absolute majority. The third largest party was the Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) called the Federal Party (FP) in English.

The ITAK/FP had 15 seats. It soon became clear that the FP had the power to make or break a government. Both the UNP and SLFP commenced negotiations with the FP. After protracted negotiations, the FP decided to support the SLFP on the basis of an unwritten understanding. C.P. de Silva led the SLFP negotiating team. He told the FP that he drove a hard bargain, but would stick to it. 

Dudley Senanayake Govt.

It was soon clear that the newly-formed UNP Government under Dudley Senanayake did not command a Parliamentary majority as most parties in the opposition were anti-UNP. The acid test was the Speaker’s election. The combined opposition candidate was T.B. Subasinghe. The UNP fielded Sir Albert Peiris. The opposition candidate with 93 votes defeated the government candidate, who had 60 votes. The Speaker’s election was followed by the Throne Speech on 22 April. The government was defeated again by 86 votes to 61 with eight abstentions.

Dudley Senanayake advised the Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections in July. The lifespan of the UNP Government had been only 33 days. 


Sir Oliver Goonetilleke 

 Sir Oliver Goonetilleke summoned the heads of all opposition political parties and told them that he was exploring prospects of forming an alternative government instead of holding elections. In terms of the Constitution as well as parliamentary convention, the Governor-General was bound to invite the person who commanded a majority in the House to form the next government. It was now the turn of the SLFP with 46 seats to have a go at government formation. The premier post was within CP’s grasp again. 

The SLFP leader C.P. de Silva went to Queen’s House and informed Sir Oliver that he had the necessary majority as the ITAK/FP was supporting him. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke then summoned the ITAK/FP to confirm whether the party had indeed extended support to the SLFP.


ITAK/FP Leader Chelvanayakam 

Sir Oliver Goonetilleke received the ITAK/FP leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and told him that he was trying to ascertain whether C.P. de Silva could form an alternative government. If the SLFP did not have the required numbers he was going to dissolve Parliament. Chelvanayagam replied that they would extend support to the Government formed by C.P. de Silva. 

Sir Oliver then reiterated that the support of the FP was crucial for Governmental stability and asked the FP leader categorically whether the FP would provide “unqualified support” to the SLFP-led alternative government for a “minimum period of two years”.

Sir Oliver had stressed on “unqualified” support because he felt that the FP could be forced to withdraw support quickly if the SLFP reneged on its pledges to the party. Therefore he wanted to satisfy himself of its stability by eliciting a firm guarantee from Chelvanayakam. But the lawyer in Chelvanayakam balked at the prospect of pledging “unqualified” support as requested by the GG. 

Chelvanayakam being an honourable politician realised that he and the ITAK/FP would be firmly bound for two years if he stated so to Sir Oliver. At the same time he could not take the political risk of extending unqualified support for 24 months if the SLFP dishonoured its assurances.

In a bid to extricate himself from this tricky situation, Chelvanayakam gave what could be termed a “smart” answer. Chelvanayakam replied that the FP had arrived at an understanding with the SLFP and that his party would support the SLFP-led government not merely for two years but for its full term. 

By this answer Chelvanayakam had avoided giving a categorical assurance about extending “unqualified support”. But the politically sagacious Governor-General was to later cite this perceived reluctance on the part of the FP leader to explicitly guarantee unqualified support as proof of the proposed government’s “fragility”. Sir Oliver ended the meeting by saying that he would arrive at a decision by having further consultations with other parties also.


Dissolving Parliament

 Sir Oliver however ‘did the dirty’ by formally dissolving Parliament on 23 April. When FP leaders called on the Governor-General again they were presented with a fait accompli. When they remonstrated, Sir Oliver sought to justify his action saying he was not firmly convinced of an SLFP-led majority. He pointed out that Chelvanayagam had avoided a direct commitment to his question. Sir Oliver said he had exercised his prerogative as Her Majesty’s Representative to prevent a potential constitutional crisis and prolonged political uncertainty. 

Sir Oliver, however, revealed his mindset while conversing with the FP leaders by blurting out that he could not allow a non-Govigama man to be Prime Minister. The reference obviously was to C.P. de Silva of the Salagama caste. It was revealed later that Sir Oliver had expressed similar sentiments to LSSP leader Dr. N.M. Perera also. Chelvanayakam’s son-in-law and political scientist AJ Wilson in his writings quotes Dr. N.M Perera as having been told by Sir Oliver “How can I appoint a Salagama man”? 

It was, however, argued by some that Sir Oliver had acted in a partisan manner due to his UNP background and close links to the Senanayake family and not due to caste bias. Whatever the reason governing the Governor General’s action, the immediate consequence was dissolution and the staging of fresh elections.

Fresh elections were announced for 19 July. Sir Oliver’s decision was sharply criticised as C.P. de Silva had sufficient support to form a majority and should have been given an opportunity to prove his majority on the floor of the House. This was denied and thus C.P. de Silva was deprived of the PM post for the second time.


Party leadership change

With fresh polls looming ahead, C.P. de Silva felt it was time for a change in party leadership. Realising the vote-winning capacity of Sirima Bandaranaike, CP launched an ‘offensive’ aimed at compelling her to take over the party. Among those who were associated in these efforts were A.P. Jayasuriya, Badiuddhin Mahmud and D.A. Rajapaksa (Mahinda Rajapaksa’s father). After much persuasion, Bandaranaike agreed to be party leader and spearhead the electoral campaign for the July 1960 poll.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike led the SLFP to victory at the July elections and made history as the world’s first woman Prime Minister. C.P. de Silva who missed being Prime Minister twice became the deputy head of cabinet. With Bandaranaike being a senator it was CP who answered for the Prime minister in Parliament. He acted for the Prime minister when Bandaranaike was out of the country. In spite of his pre-eminence in the party, CP de Silva found himself being effectively sidelined under the new dispensation. 

Unlike the days of SWRD Bandaranaike where he was both the de jure and de facto deputy chief of Government, C.P. de Silva found himself only a de jure deputy leader under Bandaranaike. The de facto No. two was Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike, a nephew of SWRDB. The induction of the LiSSP into the Government in 1964 alienated CP further from Sirimavo. 


C.P. de Silva’s crossver

On 3 December 1964 CP de Silva voted against the Government at the Throne speech vote and crossed over to the Opposition with 13 other MPs. Sirimavo described C.P. de Silva’s crossover as a “stab in her back”. Parliament was dissolved on 17 December 1964. General elections were held on 22 March 1965. C.P. de Silva formed a new Party the Sri Lanka Freedom Socialist Party (SLFSP). It contested 32 seats under the Sun symbol in the elections and got 5 seats.


CP declined PM offer

 At the 1965 polls, the UNP won only 66 seats but, formed a seven-party coalition called the national government. Dudley Senanayake offered the PM post to C.P. de Silva as a matter of courtesy. The man who missed becoming PM twice, declined gracefully when it was offered to him. The SLFSP was also a part of the UNP-led national Government and C.P. de Silva became Minister of Land, Irrigation and Power. The SLFSP merged with the UNP and contested the 1970 polls. C.P. de Silva was defeated after being in Parliament for 18 years from 1952. He died two years later on 9 October 1972.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected].)


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