Poetic maverick with wit and grit!

Remembering Wijayananda Dahanayake


by Gaston de Rosayro

Muhandiram Dionysius Sepala Panditha Dahanayake of Galle was attending a religious ceremony at his local temple when he received the good tidings that his wife had gifted him with twin sons. The day was October 22, 1902. He named them Wijayananda and Kalyanapriya after his two favourite temples in which he served as a prominent dayaka.

No one would have predicted then that the newly-arrived older twin would from humble provincial beginnings blaze a trail to take his place among the highest level of national governance. Perhaps more than any other politician he was an enigmatic and enchanting maverick.

He is said to have been precocious even as a child. As a schoolboy at S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia, he is supposed to have been a thorn in the side of Warden Rev. William Arthur Stone, stonewalling the martinet during mock parliamentary debates. To be sure that iconoclastic streak must have run in the family blood lines for generations. Indeed, an Administration of’ Justice Police Proclamation issued in 1804 decrees the name of Dahanaike Koditoekku Arachy (Vidane Arachy), a direct ancestor of’ Wijayananda Dahanayake as a traitor by the British government.

The spitting image twins were noted as being highly intelligent and with a penchant for pulling off rascally practical jokes. And to confound the confusion neither of them could be pinned down for the omissions and commissions of the other! Trying to tell them apart was a conundrum for their teachers. Which prompted the elder of the two, Wijayananda to parody: "Twins be nimble, twins be quick, twins pull off a delightful trick."

In brief, this is a modest transcript of Dahanayake’s political legend. In 1944 he won the backwoods Bibile seat in the State Council, and entered the national arena, where he formed a one-man opposition party and earned the famous sobriquet as the ‘Bibile Brook’ for a marathon twelve- and - a-half hour speech.

He was a member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and Mayor of Galle before joining the administration of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, prime minister and leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. He served as cabinet minister of education from 1956 to 1959. He took office as prime minister, cabinet minister of defence, external affairs and education when Bandaranaike was assassinated in September 1959.

He contested the March 1960 General Election under the nomination of his newly formed Lanka Prajathanthravadi Pakshaya, LPP, also humorously dubbed the Lanka Pisthola Pakshaya. He was not re-elected as an MP as he lost his Galle constituency also in that election. He had also served as a cabinet minister of home affairs in Dudley Senanayake’s government from 1965 to 1970 and cabinet minister of cooperatives in Junius Richard Jayewardene’s government from 1986 to 1988.

His fanciful temperament provided inspiration for the right wing press which satirized him without let up. His wordplay and impish antics along with some of the greatest parliamentary orators of the time provided dream ‘copy’ for lobby correspondents, political columnists and newspaper editors.

But all the same he was considered an endearing and entertaining subject always compellingly engaging with his rib-tickling cameo roles within the legislature and outside it. And it was almost impossible to separate the reality from the myth of the anecdotes attributed to him from time to time

It is true that many had categorized him as the naive joker who had shuffled himself into the parliamentary pack with the legerdemain of a card sharp. True, but the misguided notion of his simplicity is plainly demonstrated when one reflects on the fact that he was able to merge into any of the varied ideological suites to suit political expediency.

Even as an elder statesman he was the personification of perennial youth, a sort of ageless delinquent with gray hair. No political writer then or now was actually able to capture the contradictions of the complicated teacher-turned-politician that was Wijayananda Dahanayake.

US President Dwight Eisenhower named Maxwell H. Gluck Ambassador to Ceylon, in1957. When Gluck paid a courtesy call on Dahanayake who was Education Minister, Dahanayake is reported to have had greeted him with some degree of aloofness. Which prompted the legendary editor of the old ‘Observer’ Tarzie Vittachi to parody the whole encounter with a naughty limerick style skit of his own, purported to have been created by Daha: "I do not love thee Maxwell Gluck. In fact, I do not give a..... damn!".

A rough diamond so to say, he had a flair for being capricious. As an individualist, a jester and as a crowd puller he had few equals. With his rustic demeanour, ready wit and earthy attitude to events and people he enjoyed the type of appeal that few politicians could only dream of. He was daring and different and was noted for breaking conventional barriers with perverse delight. He was a revolutionary who engaged in politics his own way. Few politicos ever developed the kind of connection with voters than Daha did.

He was a stand-in no doubt, a sort of stunt man understudy who was propelled into the leading role by default. As caretaker prime minister he faced internal party pressures as well as deafening opposition demands that his government quit. The besieged Dahanayake baffled the entire political firmament with a series of trumps. He did so with aplomb in an overnight operation that left the whole country blinking. In quick succession he dissolved parliament, fired five Cabinet ministers, quit the Freedom Party, and announced the formation of a new political party of his own.

When he died on May 4, 1997 as a simple man at the age of 94 years, six months and 12 days, he had been the longest surviving Sri Lankan Parliamentarian. In all, he was considered the most colourful and charismatic political figure who stomped the nation’s political stage. We will never see the likes of such an exuberant, entertaining and endearing personality ever again.


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