Dudley Senanayake: Gentleman-politician and gentle leader
PERSONALITY: Dudley Senanayake's ninety-fifth birth
anniversary fell on June 19. I first met him in 1967 when he was serving
as Prime Minister. I was then a university student and went to meet him
as part of a group of student representatives from the United National
Party Student organization.
That year, student protests were a frequent occurrence in
universities across the island. The Prime Minister called our group to
meet him as part of his effort to solve student problems by learning
their views on the prevailing situation. After this first meeting, I
continued in close association with the UNP and became close to the UNP
leadership during reorganization activities after the 1970 election
By this time, I was a member of the Working Committee of the All
Ceylon U.N.P. Youth League while serving as an Assistant Lecturer in
Economics at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, then known as the
Vidyodaya University. In 1971, Dudley appointed me as the Acting General
Secretary of the All Ceylon UNP Youth League. I was fortunate to
maintain this close relationship right up till Dudley's death on April
I feel that neither historians nor political analysts have adequately
assessed or understood Dudley's politics. When D. S. Senanayake died in
such an unexpected manner in 1952, most people expected Sir John
Kotelawala to be appointed Prime Minister. However, most individuals
inside the UNP including J. R. Jayewardene wanted Dudley to take on the
position. This was why he accepted the post.
Yet with allegations that he became Prime Minister through the back
door, he immediately dissolved parliament and called for fresh general
election. His decision proved to be the correct one. The UNP's 1952
election victory was the most fitting indication of his popularity. His
victory was even superior to his father's election victory in 1947. The
UNP won fifty-four of the ninety-five seats in parliament. Even more
satisfactory was the response from the Tamil community in Jaffna.
While the Tamil Congress, which had been associated with the UNP in
the preceding few years, won four seats, their rivals, the Federal
Party, won only two. The Federal Party leader, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam,
even lost his Kankesanturai seat to the UNP candidate, Mr. S. Natesan.
However, the government Dudley formed in 1952 was short-lived. In the
face of ill-health and the situation that arose after the 1953 Hartal,
he resigned his post. After his resignation, he continued to serve as a
Member of Parliament, but when the 1956 elections came around, he did
not contest. His unexpected and premature retirement from politics was
one of the main reasons for the UNP's huge loss in 1956.
The party won just eight seats and even giants like J. R. Jayewardene
and Ranasinghe Premadasa and many cabinet ministers lost their seats in
parliament. Even though Sir John was able to retain his seat, the UNP's
voice was really heard in parliament in those years due to the efforts
of an honest gentleman-politician, M. D. Banda, who most Sri Lankans
have now forgotten, and two other members, Col. C. A. Dharmapala and
E.L.B. Hurulle, who is fortunately still with us today.
The Rejuvenation of the UNP
After the 1956 defeat, the key decision-maker in the UNP was J. R.
Jayewardene. He was supremely skilled at organization. Nevertheless,
even he knew that his image and skills alone were inadequate to win back
the confidence of the people. Therefore the UNP invited Dudley to rejoin
politics and once again become the leader of the party. At that time, he
was not even a Member of Parliament.
At the Party Sessions of March 1958, the U.N.P. led by Dudley decided
to accept Democratic Socialism. "We have no desire to make the citizen
of free Ceylon a helot or slave of the State," Dudley said about
Democratic Socialism. "We have no ambition to take over the ownership of
his land or his factory or his cottage industry, if he is taking part in
the national endeavor to raise the standard of living.
Private effort need not be destroyed on purely doctrinal grounds. All
development needs not be surrendered to the State. That is the
The UNP's victory at the next elections in March 1960 showcased the
people's acceptance of Dudley's leadership and J. R. Jayewardene's
strategy. Although the UNP received the highest number of seats as a
single party, this was not sufficient to form a government. Therefore it
held discussions with the Federal Party to gain its support. However,
due to the F.P.'s impossible demands, Dudley decided the decision should
be laid again in the hands of the people. This was why elections were
called again in July 1960 just four months later.
Although the UNP's vote bank increased in the July elections, the
first-past-the-post system, which prevailed at the time, and the SLFP's
no-contest pact with the LSSP and the Communist Party, ensured that the
SLFP was able to form a government. This time, the SLFP was led by
Sirimawo Bandaranaike, whose husband, the late S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike,
had been assassinated just a few months before.
The tearful speeches Sirimawo made at election meetings across the
country played a large role in the SLFP's victory. By the time of S. W.
R. D.'s death, the country's economy was in shambles after communal
riots in 1958. These were the first communal riots of independent Sri
Lanka. The alliance government was also falling apart as many of the
leftist parties in the coalition had withdrawn from it.
In light of this, S. W. R. D.'s death was actually a blessing in
disguise for the SLFP Had it not occurred, the results of the election
would have been far different. The bullet that killed S. W. R. D. gave
new life to his party.
As a result of the July 1960 election, Sirimawo became Prime Minister
and Dudley became the Leader of the Opposition. The LSSP joined the
government in 1963. Then the government attempted to control all print
media through the state machinery. It was obvious that the government
was gradually leaning towards a more dictatorial rule and Dudley and J.
R. launched a campaign to defeat it.
In parliament, they were ably supported in this effort by Philip
Gunawardena and W. Dahanayake, among others. Outside parliament, this
endeavor was carried out by Esmond Wickremesinghe, the father of the
present UNP leader, and N.G.P. Panditharatne among other party
stalwarts. Soon, with the cross-over of fourteen government
parliamentarians, including C. P. De Silva, the Leader of the House at
that time, Sirimawo's coalition government collapsed.
The 1965 National Government
With the fall of the government, new elections were called for March
1965. Even though the UNP under Dudley's leadership won the most number
of seats in the elections, this figure was inadequate to form a
government. Hence, the UNP enlisted the support of the parties, which
had helped it defeat Sirimawo's government. Thus, a national government
was formed with Dudley as the Prime Minister.
In this extraordinary government, men with completely opposing views
were able to work together under Dudley's astute leadership. K. M. P.
Rajarathne, the symbol of Sinhala extremism, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the
symbol of Tamil extremism, and G. G. Ponnambalam, who had once asked for
fifty-fifty representation in parliament, were all in Dudley's
Both the "Father of Socialism" in Sri Lanka, Philip Gunawardena, and
the greatest proponent of the open market economy, J. R. "Yankee Dickie"
Jayawardene, worked in tandem with each other in the same cabinet of
ministers. Not only did Dudley unite these opposing viewpoints within a
"hath havula," but he also kept this government in office for the full
five years of its term, the first government to do so since
Dudley, who had accepted the role of Prime Minister so reluctantly in
1952 and let go of it so easily, had now proven his magnificent skills
as the head of the government. In fact, Dudley was the last government
leader who had parliamentarians elected from both the Southern and the
Northern provinces within his cabinet. Further, after Dudley's
government, no Members of Parliament elected from the Federal Party or
the Tamil Congress ever sat in government benches again.
Before the 1965 elections, Dudley had negotiated with the Federal
Party to reach a compromise to resolve Tamil political grievances.
Dudley and Chelvanayakam had come to an understanding to form District
Councils, which would decentralize the country's administration. In
1968, Dudley presented a parliament Bill, which would allow these
councils to be set up.
The Bill would need to be passed in the House of Representatives for
the councils to become a reality. However, the opposition, including the
S.L.F.P. and the leftist parties, gave no ear to Dudley's explanations
and refused to even consider the Bill. There was opposition to it even
from within the U.N.P. In the end, Dudley withdrew the Bill, concluding
that, "It is evident that the majority of the people of this country do
not want the Bill, and it is not my intention to force anything against
the wishes of the people."
However, Dudley was able to pass an Act of Parliament in 1966 to
allow the Tamil language to be used as the official language in
districts where Tamil-speaking people were in the majority. Even this
attempt was opposed by the SLFP, the LSSP, and the C.P. with charges of
"Dudleyge bade masala vade." The protest organized by the opposition saw
the sacrifice of the life of a Buddhist priest. It was no wonder that
the Tamils saw the reluctance of extremists to allow them to use their
mother tongue in dealing with government matters.
The events that transpired after the 1965 elections also showcased
Dudley's modesty. Dudley and the UNP were able to defeat the previous
SLFP administration largely due to the support it garnered from the
Leader of the House, C. P. De Silva, and his colleagues, who voted
against the government in the Press Bill of December 1964.
After the ensuing election victory, Dudley sought out C.P. and
offered him the post of Prime Minister. "What nonsense, it is you the
people are waiting for," C.P. responded. "But if you wish to give me
something, please give me my former portfolio." Dudley was not only
modest enough to believe the people would so easily accept anyone other
than him as the Prime Minister, but also never forgot someone who had
once made a sacrifice.
The Green Revolution
In 1966, with the world rice shortage and escalating prices, Sri
Lanka faced a crisis in the importation of its staple food. In response,
Dudley launched a food production drive that particularly aimed at
increasing rice production. This was the beginning of the famous Green
Revolution in Sri Lanka.
It was the most successful project launched during the 1965 to 1970
era to revolutionize Sri Lankan agriculture, especially traditional
paddy cultivation. The Green Revolution almost realized the country's
dream of self-sufficiency in its staple food. In just a short span of
five years, it increased the income of those involved in paddy
cultivation and not only doubled the amount of paddy produced in the
island, but also the average yield per acre. The total paddy production
in the country surged from 36.3 million bushels in 1965 to 77.4 million
bushels in 1970.
The Green Revolution also improved the quality of life of paddy
farmers. Paddy was no longer grown on subsistence level only for the
consumption of the farmer. Instead, the introduction of new technology
produced an excess, which was placed in the market.
It was this Green Revolution based on scientific agricultural
research under the leadership of Dudley that became popular as the "Food
Drive," which was ably implemented by M. D. Banda, Minister of
However, with the change of government in 1970, Dudley's green
revolution lost its direction. India, which had also commenced a green
revolution during the same time, was able to continue it even with
changing governments and rose in economic prosperity on its shoulders.
However, Sri Lanka's Green Revolution floundered until the 1980s.
The writer is Former Minister of Human Resource Development,
Education, and Cultural Affairs and the present U.N.P. Organizer for