The lost generations of the UNP: Gamini Dissanayake

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 9 2021
Columns The lost generations of the UNP: Gamini Dissanayake

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

Gamini Dissanayake, whose father had been a junior minister in the first Government the SLFP formed, in 1956, entered Parliament as a member of the UNP in 1970. But he had in fact sought SLFP nomination, and it was only when that was refused that he switched. But he won, in a context in which the UNP did badly, I believe the only new face in the Party, certainly the only one to achieve prominence. He was not yet 30 at the time. 

He faithfully followed J.R. Jayewardene, who had taken over leadership of the Party in Parliament, and then of the Party as a whole following the healing of the breach between him and Dudley Senanayake, soon after which the latter died. The outpouring of grief at his funeral, in 1973, made JR realise that the strategy he had adopted initially, of trying to work together with the Government (which Dudley had opposed) was quite unnecessary and the UNP was in a good position to get back into power on its own.

This it did, in 1977, the election due in 1975 having been postponed which added to the unpopularity of the Government. Gamini Dissanayake played a vital role in the campaign, being presented as the standard-bearer of the young, and expected a major position when the UNP swept into power. He knew JR was fond of him, so he even contested for the position of Deputy Leader when JR held an election for that. And though Ranasinghe Premadasa won easily, Gamini came second, pushing the veteran E.L. Senanayake into third place, which made it clear that he would be a serious contender for the leadership in the future. 

But initially he was disappointed with the portfolio which he was given, that of Irrigation, Power and Highways. My father, who as Secretary-General of Parliament, acted as a mentor to young Parliamentarians, told me that Gamini had come to see him in great disappointment, but that my father had assured him that this was a vital position. It had indeed been held by Mrs. Bandaranaike’s Deputy in the SLFP, Maithripala Sirisena, and my father told him he would soon find out that it was a good portfolio to have. 

So it proved, for it soon morphed into the portfolio of Mahaweli Development, and my father says that when Gamini came to him again it was to express great satisfaction with what he had been given. He certainly did a great job, and the Accelerated Mahaweli Programme that he presided over was seen as one of the great successes of the Jayewardene Government. 

Gamini was supposed to have done very well out of it personally too, leading to the wisecrack by Noel Tittawella, one of the Supreme Court Judges JR had removed, that the Mahaweli now flowed through Finco. This was a company to which Gamini was connected by marriage, his brother-in-law being the great fixer Wickrama Weerasooriya. They also had a reputation as young bucks, and they certainly had a good life, but they were both hard workers and achieved much. 

First years of Jayewardene Government

In the first years of the Jayewardene Government, Gamini was emphatically on his wing of the Party, which included in those days Cyril Mathew. He, like Ranil Wickremesinghe then, was even supposed to have gone up to Jaffna in 1981 when Mathew’s forces set fire to the Public Library. But after that Gamini learned his lesson, and does not seem to have been involved in the pogrom Mathew unleashed in July 1983 – unlike Ranil who, though his involvement in the 1981 violence in Jaffna is less well attested, became an apologist for the July violence, claiming it caused less damage than Sinhala businessmen had suffered from Bandaranaike policies of nationalisation. 

Gamini had learnt his lesson and over the next few years became one of the strongest proponents of a soft line with regard to the Tamils and greater cooperation with India. He and Ronnie de Mel then were the strongest proponents of the 1987 Indo-Lankan Accord, so much so that he felt he had to explain his absence when a bomb exploded in Parliament in protest against its signing and it happened that it was opponents of the Accord who suffered most, including Lalith Athulathmudali. 

But the whole Party came round, though in the aftermath of the Accord and the violence that built up, it became clear to the party that not only did JR have to go, but there was no question but that the Party had to put forward Premadasa as his successor. So both Lalith and Gamini fell in line, and seconded his nomination, though it was clear that Gamini was bitterly disappointed. 

Still, he like Lalith worked hard for the Presidential Election, and then for the Parliamentary Election that followed, fuelled by Premadasa’s pledge to make whoever did best at that election his Prime Minister. Indeed, there were efforts on both sides after the election to prove that one or the other had done better, one having got more votes, the other a higher proportion of the votes cast. But then Premadasa trumped them both by making D.B. Wijetunge Prime Minister.

Though the portfolios the other two got were perfectly reasonable, Gamini Dissanayake sulked and spent most of the year that followed abroad, having decided he needed an academic qualification. He did obtain an MPhil in International Relations from Cambridge, but in 1990 he lost his Cabinet post. 

This led to his involvement in the attempt to impeach President Premadasa in 1991, for which he joined forces with Lalith, as well as Mrs. Bandaranaike. But the attempt failed and he and Lalith lost their parliamentary seats after expulsion from the UNP. 

But this was a fillip for the opening up of space for the Opposition, and the two of them set up the Democratic United National Front which entered into a coalition with the SLFP for the Provincial Council Elections that were held in 1993. It was during that election campaign that both Premadasa and Lalith were assassinated.

Chief Minister of Central Province

Gamini became Chief Minister of the Central Province, while Chandrika Kumaratunga became Chief Minister of the Western Province. But Gamini now decided he would get back to the UNP, and that he was able to do, with D.B. Wijetunge quite happy to have him as a counterweight to Sirisena Cooray, the General Secretary of the Party whom he had inherited from Premadasa. 

After he had sacked Cooray, he brought Gamini back into the Party, and gave him prominence in the General Election he held in August 1994. Gamini did very well, and then challenged the incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for the leadership of the Parliamentary Group and won easily. He was also selected as the UNP’s presidential candidate, since Wijetunge realised he had no hope at all of winning.

It was at this time that I got to know Gamini well. A few years earlier, having complimented me fulsomely on the political history I had written of the Jayewardene years, he had asked me to use my writing skills to criticise Ralph Buultjens, with whom he was at odds, after the latter had made various allegations against his probity. I refused and I thought our acquaintance would then end, but then when he asked Chanaka Amaratunga to write his presidential manifesto, I too was involved. He was wary since I was Ranil’s cousin, and I was not sure I wanted to help, for I felt the Party had been unfair in rejecting Ranil in favour of someone who had left the Party, but Chanaka convinced both of us to work together and I found him admirable and intelligent. 

He had told Chanaka that he did not want anyone else involved, and indeed expressed worries about his brother-in- law Wickrama Weerasooriya, which suggested to Chanaka that he wanted to rise above the crude denigration Wickrama engaged in – which was indulged to the full with regard to Ranil, as it had been with regard to the Bandaranaikes in the seventies. I appreciated that, for I believe Gamini had thought of me as a sort of substitute for Wickrama, to attack Buultjens, and it was good to think he had grown up. 

Assassination 

I went abroad while the election campaign was in full swing and, though I did not think Gamini could defeat Chandrika, he was certainly doing well and the country was full of his posters. But then he was assassinated, the most destructive killing by the LTTE, for that in effect destroyed the UNP and by extension the SLFP for Chandrika Kumaratunga turned into a bowl of jelly when she felt secure. Gamini would have kept her on her toes, but with Ranil Wickremesinghe as her principal opponent she was totally complacent, as indeed Mahinda Rajapaksa was after his magnificent performance in dealing with Prabhakaran, a foe who had him on his mettle.

Wickrama paved the way for Ranil’s total ascendancy for, instead of allowing him to become the Presidential candidate as he wanted, he proposed Gamini’s widow Srima who was a hopeless substitute. She ran on the manifesto Chanaka had prepared, but I suspect she understood little of it, and after her defeat Ranil had no difficulty taking over and changing the UNP Constitution so he could not be challenged. That was tragic, given his intellectual and personal limitations, whereas Gamini embodied what was best in the UNP, the energy and modern thinking J.R. Jayewardene had introduced, but also the deep social commitment the Senanayakes had represented. 


By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 9 2021

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