The Lost UNP Generations: Ronnie de Mel

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 19 2021
Columns The Lost UNP Generations: Ronnie de Mel

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

The third member of JR’s Cabinet I look at is still alive. I refer to Ronnie de Mel, who was older than Ranjith Atapattu, who died just three years ago, in his eighties. Once or twice in recent years there has been mention of Ronnie, but he too now is largely forgotten.

This should not be the case, for he was responsible for implementation of the economic policies that still hold sway in this country. He was JR’s Finance Minister, almost to the end of JR’s Presidency, and he thus presided over the rolling back of the State, which had dominated the economy for a couple of decades before the JR Government changed things in 1977. 

The most important aspect of this change, which was desirable, was reducing State involvement in economic activity. The principal thrust of the reforms initiated then was to move from import substitution to an export economy, but in addition the private sector was allowed to engage in activities previously monopolised by Government. The most obvious example of this was the transport sector, or rather road transport. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s Government had nationalised the bus companies in the fifties but now transport was freed up, which the public much appreciated.  

The second element, which was less positive, was the reduction of welfare measures. This was exemplified by reduction and then removal of the rice ration, replaced a couple of years after JR took over by food stamps. Before that the ration had been expanded, with little concern for the economic consequences. Felix Dias Bandaranaike had tried to control this when Finance Minister, but with the resignation on this issue of George Rajapaksa he had had to give in, and resigned. The Senanayake Government in 1965 then halved the ration but gave that free. After that Mrs Bandaranaike’s Government restored the original amount and continued to give half free. 

I went into detail about this because that era of universal subsidies is now almost forgotten. But while we must give credit to Ronnie de Mel, and to his boss too, for making changes to excessively populist measures, it is also necessary to register the inadequacies and the inconsistencies of their approach. 

Interestingly, the strongest opposition to that came from Esmond Wickremesinghe, who had a much better grasp of economics than his son Ranil who, like his mentor JR, tended to follow doctrinaire practices. Esmond, supported by Neville Karunatilleke appointed a Deputy Governor of the Central Bank in 1978, argued against blind adherence to World Bank efforts to reduce social support. 

Unfortunately Government had engaged in a massive spending spree which was argued to be essential to promote economic activity. But while certainly the acceleration of the Mahaweli Scheme made sense, there was also appalling waste, as with regard for instance to JR’s pet scheme, the building of a grandiose new Parliament in Sri Jayewardenepura which he designated the capital of the country, with no rationale except the similarity of the name to his. Whereas in other countries where a new capital was established, the purpose was to encourage economic activity in a deprived area, JR just moved a few miles down the road, and indeed no one else did at the time, except his faithful Ranil Wickremesinghe who built a massive new Ministry of Education down the road from the palatial Parliament, both full of long empty corridors. 

An inveterate foe

Esmond and Karunatilleke were ignored, though the latter was resurrected by Premadasa when he became President, and was made Governor of the Central Bank. Esmond was dead by then, but I suspect Premadasa would not have made use of him for he had been deeply opposed to Premadasa succeeding JR. But at the same time, Premadasa also had no high regard for Ronnie, who had been an inveterate foe.

Before the Election it was rumoured that JR, who got on very well with Esmond, had wanted him in Parliament, to be Finance Minister but that his wife Nalini had insisted instead that her son get into Parliament, and JR and Esmond had to give in, with disastrous consequences for the country and the party. But it is also possible that JR himself did not want Esmond who was too strong a personality for him, and preferred the more malleable Ronnie. But Ronnie was the only Minister in JR’s Cabinet, apart from Gamani Jayasuriya, to resign on a matter of principle. 

But before looking at what happened in that regard, in the last year of JR’s ascendancy, it is necessary to look into Ronnie’s history. He was a very able Civil Servant but gave up that career to enter Parliament in 1970 from the SLFP. But  disappointed that his undoubted abilities were not recognised and he was kept on the backbenches, he left the party and emerged in 1977 as a UNP stalwart. He and Nissanka Wijeyeratne, a trusted Civil Servant of the SLFP regime until he fell out with Sirimavo Bandaranaike after he was elected Diyawadana Nilame (having changed the rules for that Election when he was Secretary to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs), were then given very senior Ministries in JR’s Cabinet, Finance and Education respectively.

Whereas Nissanka was soon moved, and Ranil appointed in his place, Ronnie continued in place until 1988. He continued close to JR, and was heavily relied on to keep the World Bank happy. He succeeded and assistance continued to flow in, even when it was that the Government was becoming more and more authoritarian, and repressive towards the Tamils. However, there was always talk about democratic initiatives just before donor meetings, and Ronnie himself became a leading proponent of these.

Allegations about benefits

He did not have an unsullied reputation with regard to money, with allegations about benefits his son-in-law, a Pakistani national, derived from his position. Because of this I would argue with Chanaka Amaratunga about his affection for Ronnie, as about his affection for Gamini Dissanayake, but Chanaka was at least correct in arguing that Ronnie was against the violence and intimidation JR engaged in – though as I noted, he did nothing much to stop this.

Ronne was one of those whose letter of resignation was activated after the referendum since the Government lost the Devinuwara seat which he occupied. But unlike Ranjith Atapattu he did not have to contest again to get back into Parliament, for he was appointed to another seat that had become vacant. And he continued in office through the July 1983 riots and the repression that accompanied the signing and activation of the Indo-Lankan Accord. Indeed he was one of its most fervent proponents of the Accord and the need for swift implementation of the provisions about devolution.

But then he began to make more aggressive noises about the need for greater democracy, and a General Election. In summing up at the Budget Debate in December 1987 he claimed he would have voted against the referendum if he had a free hand and it was the failure to have a General Election when due that caused the problems the country was undergoing.

At that there was an eruption in the UNP, but JR continued to support Ronnie and only said there should be an inquiry, a far cry from his summary dismissal of MPs who had not voted for the Provincial Councils legislation. But agitation mounted and Ronnie had to resign from his Ministry though he continued as a UNP MP, resigning from it only some months later. 

Soon afterwards he joined the SLFP, and the general impression was that he had decided the UNP had no hope of winning an Election when one was finally held. But his own claim was that JR had promised him that a specific date for Elections would be announced, and it was only because that was not done that he left.

Chose the SLFP but regretted 

Chanaka had hoped that he would join the Liberal Party, and indeed the American Ambassador told him that he had heard that was what Ronnie would do. But he chose the SLFP instead, but then promptly regretted that for as he told Chanaka he was not allowed any influence in that notoriously inward looking party. So he could contribute nothing to its manifesto when a Presidential Election was finally held at the end of 1988, nor to strategy. 

On the night of the Election he left the country, fearful it was reported of the revenge Premadasa would extract if he won. But after Premadasa’s death he got back into Parliament, as a UNP member in the 1994 Election. But then, in 2000 he crossed over to Government, along with a group who had decided to vote for the new devolution package the Government had introduced. 

After the Election held that year he was appointed a Minister but that Government was short lived and the following year Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament when she lost her majority, and then lost the Parliamentary Election. But she put Ronnie into Parliament on the National List and his wife Mallika won Election in the Matara District, through his old Devinuwara Constituency. 

But that then was it. In the 2004 Election that followed Chandrika went into coalition with the JVP and there was no room for the de Mels. That was understandable for Ronnie was by then almost 80 but it is sad to think that, after ten years of yeoman service in his fifties,   that was all the country received from him. He did try to maintain some balance, and intellectually he was head and shoulders above all subsequent Finance Ministers.

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 19 2021

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