Politicians of yesteryear
by Wijitha Nakkawita

Elections always drew the comical, banal, tragic and often absurd aspects of politicking in this country as elsewhere in the world, in this era that some people have a penchant for calling the modern age. One finds interesting incidents from the days of the State Council, when political figures even when not electioneering were a different class of people though they may have been drawn from various social or class levels.

In the early stages of universal franchise in the 1940s each candidate was given a colour to be identified by the voters. There were many ballot boxes inside a cubicle or enclosure at a polling booth and each candidate’s ballot box was of the colour given to the candidate. There was no marking of the ballot paper and all a voter had to do was to put the ballot paper into the box allocated to the candidate of his choice. (However it is not known how a colour blind voter may have managed!)

About the candidates, I remember as a little child that the old Ruwanwella seat was contested by Dr. N. M. Perera and others during one such election. It was natural that Dr. N. M. was given the red colour as his party was a Marxist-Trotskyite party and one of his opponents was Mohandas de Mel whose colour was yellow. In those good old days there was no polythene and advertising had not become a public nuisance and eyesore. Mohandas’s posters said yellow is the colour of the holy robe and Mohandas will win with the blessings the holy robe.

However the election was won by Dr. N. M. Perera who went on to retain that seat for more than 30 more years and was only defeated in 1977 in that unintelligent landslide electoral victory, which was also to destroy all the old values our people had protected for centuries past.

Another election that comes to mind is the general election of 1947 for electing representatives to the first independent parliament of this country which the British had christened as Ceylon. In that election there were only two major political parties, the UNP and the LSSP. Phillip Gunawardena who was also the father of the left movement and Dr. N. M. Perera were the main challengers to old D. S. Senanayake who was to win that election and form the first elected government after independence from the British. Dr. N. M. Perera who led the LSSP became the Leader of the Opposition.

At that time there was only one Sinhala daily news paper, the Dinamina and two English dailies The Ceylon Daily News and Times of Ceylon but D. R. Wijewardena who owned the Lake House was also a king maker who worked behind the scene to get the people of his choice elected.

The LSSP and the CP called his newspapers ‘Bere gedara pacha pattara’ (the conning newspapers of the Beira House.) His group of newspapers without exception went on to attack the left political parties and publish news and stories slanted towards the UNP.

Of course the left political parties had their own tabloid newspapers but these printed in letterpress in smaller numbers could not compete with the Lake House newspapers which carried on regardless of the noble ideals of free press or private sector owned independent newspapers. Even among the UNP the Wijewardenas had their own choice of press freedom. If S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike addressed any meeting or was speaking at any public event Wijewardena’s orders to his pressmen was simply report--S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike also spoke! But of course Bandaranaike was the Leader of the House in D. S. Senanayake’s government and Minister of Local Government and Health.

One of the most colourful parliamentarians of the first parliament was Somaweera Chandrasiri, the member for the then Moratuwa electorate. He was a minor Sinhala poet, an able speaker on the public platform and he edited and ran the pro-LSSP newspaper Nidahasa, which was a weekly tabloid. He was not a member of the LSSP but a sympathiser who was jailed by the British during the Second World War for being opposed to the war and the British Empire. However much the British tried to suppress the LSSP Somaweera alone decided to live in Sri Lanka while all the LSSP leaders Phillip Gunawadena, Dr. N. M. Perera, and Dr. Colvin R. de Silva who were jailed jumped jail and fled to India. There they remained with the Indian Marxist parties hiding them in that vast subcontinent untill they returned after the war.

Now Somaweera Chandrasiri in disguise was going from place to place to hide from the police who finally caught him and put him in jail. However, he sent his nomination papers from jail to contest the 1947 election for the Moratuwa electorate and won that election with a large majority of votes. He was released after he was elected MP, and was to hold the record as "the man who came to parliament from jail". He was to remain a member of parliament for decades to come and finally joined the SLFP as member for the Kesbewa electorate, which was a part of the old Moratuwa electorate.

In the next election of 1953 Lake House was again to play its role behind the scene. That year Lake House thought that the greatest threat to Dudley Senanayake was the LSSP as the SLFP which was only two years old at the time was not as strong as the LSSP which had by that time a firm hold on the trade unions and the working class. The Lake House put up a poster with the picture of a sthupa on fire. The words under the picture in Sinahala were "Buddhagama Sama Samaja ginnen beraganivu" (Save Buddhism from the LSSP Flames!)

Though Lake House and other lesser beings said that the LSSP was a political party with a revolutionary agenda they were quite mistaken. The LSSP leaders of the time were either sons of landlords or rich businessmen who had the wealth to send their sons for education to the UK or USA. These young gentlemen who revolted against the colour bar and other snobbishness of the elites of the West were naturally attracted to the then "Third Innternational", the communist movement of Europe at the time. They came back with an intellectual enchantment with Marxist theory and were known to split hairs over such out of this world ideals like, the "Permanent Revolution" or the "World Revolution" which were profound but totally impractical theories propounded by such idealists as Leon Trotsky.

Some of the critics of the LSSP and CP at the time used to call these left political leaders "Revolutionaries of the beer mug" meaning they discussed the revolution of the proletariat only over a beer in their mansions or at one of the high society clubs. So the fear that Lake House or any other antagonist had of the left leaders of this country at that time was only a figment of their imagination, not based on realities. For the left leaders among whom were some professional lawyers, doctors and academics would have been the last persons to have even dreamt of an armed revolution against "The Capitalist State" of their times.

There were other interesting politicians like Wijeyananda Dahanayake the member from Galle who first entered the then State Council from the Bibile electorate who was better known at the time as the "The Hawk from Bibile".

Fondly called Daha by his colleagues and admirers he used to swoop down on corruption or blunders committed by government officials or legislators. At the time he was the single member of the opposition and unlike today the opposition benches were behind the government benches in the House.

Seated right in front of Daha was Francis Molamure who was later to be knighted by the British Crown and become the first speaker of parliament. Daha while criticising the government of the day in the State Council said in his speech "Some donkeys seated in the backbenches of the government". Francis Molamure who was annoyed got up and queried, "Who are the donkeys?". Daha replied: "If you take a mirror you could see who the donkey is."

Francis Molamure was not to be put off with Daha’s rejoinder. He said "I need not take a mirror but I could see the donkey if I turn back," he said referring to the single member Opposition who was Daha. But Daha’s repartee stunned the whole House when he said, "Unfortunately Sir, if you do that you will see your own tail!"

Dahanayake was not merely a member of parliament, a minister and later the caretaker prime minister. He was an institution. When he contested the Galle electorate in 1947 after representing the Bibile electorate earlier he was to face one of the richest men of his times, Thomas Amarasuriya. Amarasuriya with his lavish spending on the election campaign posed a real challenge to Dahanayake who was only a member of the upper middleclass family. But he was not deterred by all the money. In his speeches he told the voters of Galle:

"I have brought before you a huge tree which has currency notes as all its leaves. I am going to shake the branches of that tree and all of you collect the currency notes that will fall. You can take all that money but you know whom to vote for." Of course Wijeyananda Dahanayake won that election defeating Amarasuriya and remained the member for Galle for decades to come till he finally retired from politics at an old age.

Unfortunately in this era we will not see the likes of Wijeyananda Dahanayke, N. M. Perera, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike or Dudley Senanayake. Today’s politicians some of whom have connections with criminal gangs or drug smugglers are a far cry from the politicians and statesmen of yesteryear. The one thing that cannot escape any student of politics is that those politicians did not enter parliament to amass ill gotten wealth but were people who had made their contribution to the country even in some small way.


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