Ranasinghe Premadasa’s remarkable political rise

Wednesday, 23 June 2021 00:20 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 

The political ascendancy of Ranasinghe Premadasa in Sri Lanka through the UNP was indeed a commendable 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 fairy tale. Today (23 June) is his 97th birth anniversary

 


Today (23 June) is the 97th birth anniversary of former Sri Lankan Prime Minister and President Ranasinghe Premadasa. He served as Prime Minister from 1978 to 1988 and as President from 1989 to 1993. Premadasa was assassinated by a Tiger suicide bomber on 1 May 1993. 

The political ascendancy of Ranasinghe Premadasa in Sri Lanka through the United National Party (UNP) was indeed a commendable 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 fairy tale. This column focuses on Ranasinghe Premadasa’s remarkable political rise to power this week.

 

Early years

Ranasinghe Premadasa was born on 23 June 1924 at Dias Place in the area of Keselwatte or Vaazhaiththottam in Central Colombo. His parents were Richard Ranasinghe of Hegalle, Kosgoda and Jayasinghe Arachchige Ensina Hamine of Batuwita, Horana. Premadasa was the eldest of five children. His father Ranasinghe rented out rickshaws for a living. 

Premadasa had his primary education at Harvard Methodist Girls’ School and St. Lorenz’s College. His secondary education was at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo where he studied up to his Cambridge senior exam. Premadasa also received Buddhist schooling at Hewavitarana Daham Pasala at Purwarama temple in Pitakotuwa/Purakkoattai. 

Premadasa became enamoured of social service at a very young age and formed the ‘Sucharita’ movement in 1939. He was 15 at that time. He also became drawn to the trade union movement through pioneering trade unionist and founder-leader of Ceylon Labour Party, Alexander Ekanayake Goonesinha. 

A.E. Goonesinha, though a militant trade unionist, was not a Marxist or socialist. He was sympathetic to the underdog and fought against oppression and exploitation but did not subscribe to leftist ideology. Since Goonesinha was like a political mentor to Premadasa, this attitude affected him too. It was A.E. Goonesinha’s influence that prevented Premadasa from becoming a leftist in his youth. 

Premadasa joined the Labour Party as a full-time member in 1946. Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected President of the Labour Party’s youth league in 1949. The following year he contested what was then called the San Sebastian ward of the Colombo Municipal Council. He won and became a Municipal Councillor of Colombo in 1950. He was re-elected Municipal Councillor in 1954 and in 1955 was elected Deputy Mayor of Colombo. 

 

Joining the UNP

At one stage, Premadasa decided to quit the Labour Party and join the UNP. He felt there was a brighter political future for him in the UNP. The 1956 elections were called a few weeks after Premadasa joined the UNP. Among the electorates where the UNP faced problems in fielding a suitable candidate was Ruwanwella in the Sabaragamuwa Province. The constituency had been won by the LSSP leader Dr. N.M. Perera in 1947 and 1952. The UNP found it difficult to find a candidate to face N.M. Perera in Ruwanwella. 

Then came an unexpected offer from the UNP leadership. Would Premadasa be willing to contest N.M. Perera in Ruwanwella as the UNP candidate? Premadasa was born and bred in Colombo and had no links with the Ruwanwella electorate. Yet he was ready to take up the challenge. The 1956 elections saw the UNP tasting bitter defeat. The party won only eight seats. Premadasa too lost in Ruwanwella. He was defeated in a straight fight. N.M. Perera got 14,083 and Premadasa 7,855 votes.

Meanwhile, A.E. Goonesinha had also lost in Colombo Central. Goonesinha bade farewell to electoral politics, accepted a diplomatic postings and went abroad. With his political mentor retiring, Premadasa felt he could now set his sights on the Colombo Central constituency where he was born and grew up. He began carefully nursing the electorate. Colombo Central was a multi-member constituency electing three MPs. The ethnic ratio at that time was about 35% Sinhala, 32% Muslim and 28% Tamil. Although the Sinhala vote was Premadasa’s main target, he assiduously cultivated the Tamil and Muslim communities too. 

When elections were held in March 1960, the UNP nominated two candidates for Colombo Central. One was Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel. The other was Ranasinghe Premadasa. He had the approval and backing of both Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene. The March 1960 elections saw Premadasa getting elected as the third MP for Colombo Central. Dr. Kaleel came first with 33,121 votes. Pieter Keuneman of the Communist Party (CP) was second with 30,574 votes. Premadasa’s tally was 29,828. 

Fresh elections were held in July 1960. Premadasa increased his votes to 35,035 but came fourth. Sir Razik Fareed of the SLFP, Pieter Keuneman of the CP and Dr. Kaleel of the UNP became first, second and third MPs with 45,342, 38,663 and 37, 486 respectively. Premadasa was out of Parliament in just three months. He was disappointed but soon returned to municipal politics and was elected Councillor in 1962. He began nursing the Colombo Central electorate while remaining a Municipal Councillor. 

On the day of his 40th birthday on 23 June 1964, Ranasinghe Premadasa married Hema Wickrematunga and lost his bachelor status. Premadasa, an avid believer in astrology, thought the marriage brought him luck. After getting married to Hema, he never suffered any major setback in politics. Thereafter, it was a steady political ascent. The Premadasas have a daughter Dulanjalee and son Sajith who is currently the Opposition Leader in Parliament.

 

Steady political ascent

Parliamentary Elections were held again in 1965. The UNP again fielded two candidates in Colombo Central. One was R. Premadasa, the other was Falil Caffoor. Premadasa re-entered Parliament by getting elected as second MP with 64,438 votes. Falil Caffoor came first with 68,372. Pieter Keuneman was third with 41,478 votes. The UNP with 66 seats formed a seven-party coalition government with Dudley Senanayake as Prime Minister. Among the constituents in the Government was the Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) known as the Federal Party (FP) in English. 

Former Solicitor General M. Tiruchelvam was the FP nominee in the Government. Since he was not an MP, Tiruchelvam was appointed to the Senate and made Minister of Local Government. Much to the surprise of many, Ranasinghe Premadasa was appointed Parliamentary Secretary or Deputy Minister of Local Government. 

M. Tiruchelvam had a disagreement with Dudley Senanayake over the Trincomalee Koneswaram temple sacred zone issue and resigned on 15 September 1968. On 16 September 1968, Ranasinghe Premadasa was appointed in Tiruchelvam’s place as Minister of Local Government. Immediately after being sworn in as Local Government Minister, Ranasinghe Premadasa went to the Purwarama temple in Pettah and offered flowers. The ‘Keselwatte 

Kolla’ had arrived. 

Elections were held again in May 1970. The United Front comprising the SLFP, LSSP and CP won 116 of 157 seats in Parliament then. The UNP was reduced to 17 seats. Premadasa was elected first MP for Colombo Central with 69, 310 votes. Falil Caffoor and Pieter Keuneman came second and third with 63,623 and 58, 557 votes respectively. Ex-Premier and Party Leader Dudley Senanayake opted to take a backseat 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.

Both JR and Premadasa felt – independent of each other – that the UNP needed to be revamped and possibly restructured if the party were to have a bright future. UNP Leader Dudley Senanayake was unwilling to change or accommodate changes. On 10 April 1973, Dudley suffered a massive heart-attack. He seemingly recovered but three days later, Dudley Senanayake passed away on 13 April; the day of the Sinhala-Tamil traditional New Year. 

 

Transforming the UNP

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. 

JR, the master tactician, wanted to channel this shift in public mood 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. 

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. Premadasa agreed and accepted JR’s sincere invitation. 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. 

 

Party Leadership Committee

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 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 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. 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

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. 

 

Unprecedented success

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. 

After the executive presidency was ushered in by way of the second amendment to the Republican Constitution, J.R. 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 were 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 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 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 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.

 

Potential presidential contenders

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 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.

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

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 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 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. 

 

President Premadasa

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 were 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 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 breakaway 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.

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. 

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. He 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. 

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 dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com)


 

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