Political Biographies: JR Jayewardene in 1977 and Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2017


by Rajan Philips

"China and India: Their partaking of the world and of Sri Lanka" is the topic I was planning to write on for today, but I could not resist the subject of political biographies after seeing news reports on the ceremonial launch of a new biography of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Interestingly, India and China figured quite prominently in the ceremony insofar as the main guest speaker, Shashi Tharoor, from Kerala, India, blended his accolades for the Prime Minister with some venting on behalf of Indian businessmen who seem to think that Sri Lanka does not provide a level playing field for foreign investors - with the ground apparently tilted in favour of the Chinese. The very next day, the Prime Minister was again defending how the government is protecting Sri Lanka’s interests in the controversial Hambantota agreement involving a Chinese company. The previous week was all about an upcoming MOU with India on a string of development projects ranging from port and solar power development in Trinco, an LNG power plant and distribution system for Colombo, and a network of roads and highways in the Northern, Eastern and North Central Provinces. In short, the government has nothing much to go for without involving India and China.

China and India are now looming over Sri Lanka in a manner few could have imagined in 1977 when JRJ took power after an electoral sweep and opened doors to robber barons from a different world. Presaging the UNP sweep that year was the release of: "JR Jayewardene of Sri Lanka," a political biography written by TDSA Dissanayake. Forty years later, we have a different biography: "Ranil Wickremesinghe: A Political Biography", written by Dinesh Weerakkody. The contrasts between the characters and circumstances forty years apart cannot be starker, and the urge to comment on them could not be more tempting. China and India are only one aspect of the sea change that has engulfed Sri Lanka over 40 years. Their tentacles are not limited to Sri Lanka but are spreading all over the world, with China outpacing India by quite a margin. China’s global prominence was quite evident in the anticipation over the first meeting, last Thursday, between Chinese President Xi Jinping and the new US President, Donald Trump. Hours after their dinner in Florida, President Trump executed a unilateral act of Tomahawk diplomacy in Syria. What next from Trump? That’s anybody’s guess.

1977 and 2017

To start with political biographies, I have not seen or read the new Wickremesinghe biography but I wrote a review article of the Jayewardene biography in 1977 as one of my regular contributions to Hector Abhayavardhana’s: The Socialist Nation. Still in my twenties and using my then penname, Amali, I wrote with some verve and youthful irreverence; but there must have been something broadly appealing about the piece that it was reproduced in full in SP Amarasingham’s The Tribune. While I cannot say anything about the new biography, there is plenty to say about the politics and the political circumstances of the two biographies written 40 years apart. The 1977 JRJ biography was intended to herald the great victory of JR Jayewardene that everyone knew was coming. Posters appeared throughout December 1976, ostensibly for advertising the book but with a clear political message that went something like: "1977 will bring you JR Jayewardene of Sri Lanka."

I do not want to pour cold water on a new book, but as far as political circumstances go, there is hardly any optimism or enthusiasm today about the future of the present government as there was, in 1977, in the anticipation for a new UNP government led by JR Jayewardene. There is as much enthusiasm in Sri Lankan government circles now as there was in the entire British parliament when Prime Minister Theresa May rose to announce the formal commencement of the Brexit process. It looked more like a wake than the birth of a new country. In any event, it is difficult to imagine the rebirth of a dead empire, karma or no karma. In fact, there is much more gung ho among some Sri Lankan commentators about Brexit, and other exits, than there is excitement even among Brexit supporters in England.

JR Jayewardene was about the same age in 1977 as Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa are today. Other contenders today are a little younger. Although he was considered old then, politically JRJ was and acted much younger in contrast to today’s political leaders. When his biography appeared, JRJ was at the cusp of a historic political achievement for himself, and for his Party. Never before had the UNP won so ‘bigly’ to use Donald Trump’s memorable addition to American political vocabulary. Nor would it ever win such a landslide again.

And no government has altered the political, constitutional and the economic landscapes of the country, for better and for worse, as did the Jayewardene government of 1977.The paradoxical difference between 1977 and 2017 is the role reversal of the UNP and SLFP in regard to JRJ’s political and constitutional legacies. The SLFP that opposed the presidential system now wants to preserve it, whereas the UNP that created it now wants to get rid of it.

The main premise of JRJ’s victory and the major area of change was the economy. The people by and large were tired of the scarcities of life that they had to endure in the name of socialism. There was a thirst for change and JRJ opened the taps fully but did not do quite as much to upgrade the country’s outdated plumbing. The leaks and systemic inefficiencies have now reached crisis proportions, but the present government is under the illusion that a suite of free trade deals will somehow compensate for all the internal weaknesses. There is a parallel to the 1977 government’s emphasis on mega projects predicated on the Mahaweli River and its tributaries, in the new emphasis on coastal and urban development projects. But the ‘terrains’ are quite different and the intended results of port and urban development projects are likely to be less positive, and unintended consequences more negative, than in any of the Mahaweli projects.

The elephant in the room then and now is not the UNP elephant, but the Tamil question. The metastasis of the Tamil question, or the national question, began in 1977, and after decades of trying through war and other means, the question is still in need of answers but now more as a postwar war problem than what it used to be as a prewar problem. But all attempts at answers must come to terms with yet another legacy of President Jayewardene, namely, the 13th Amendment. In writing it into the constitution, JRJ accomplished something no other Sri Lankan leader has been able to achieve. The man, who publicly protested against SWRD Bandaranaike’s pact with SJV Chelvanayakam, was known to have been privately critical of the then Prime Minister for caving into pressure in abrogating the BC Pact. When it was his turn, JRJ did not cave in. This is by no means an endorsement of JRJ’s politics and his legacies, but only a comparison of his character to those of other political leaders then and now.

JR Jayewardene really did not need a biography in 1977 to presage his presidency. And he lived to see his life and career written into more scholarly history by two admiring academics, in two volumes. It is early to say what the new political biography of Ranil Wickremesinghe is going to do to bolster the political fortunes of the Prime Minister, his Party and the National Unity government he co-leads with President Sirisena. President Sirisena was in attendance at the book-launch ceremony. Of course! There is apparently more tension in the government than what meets the eye in formal ceremonies. Together, the President and Prime Minister need more than a biography to get along and turn things around.

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