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How Mrs. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister in 1960 - Dahanayake’s ascension

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How Mrs. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister in 1960
Dahanayake’s ascension
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Dahanayake’s ascension

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was shot by Talduwe Somarama on 25 September 1959. He passed away on 26 September. Dahanayake was sworn in by the then Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and became the fifth Prime Minister of the country.

Daha, as Dahanayake was known, was a maverick. The one-time Sama Samajist was a popular politician regarded as an eccentric. He and Somaweera Chandrasiri had joined the MEP coalition as members of the ‘Bhasa Peramuna’. Later Daha joined the SLFP. His action in providing buns as a midday meal for schoolchildren earned Daha the nickname ‘Banis Maama.’

Upon hearing of Bandaranaike’s shooting, the convalescent CP discharged himself from hospital despite not having fully recovered and returned home. But it was too late and by the time he arrived in Colombo, S.W.R.D. had died and Dahanayake had assumed office as Prime Minister. The shrewd Daha met CP at the airport and accompanied him to Horagolla to pay last respects to their departed leader.

Daha then took CP to the Governor-General at Queens House and got him sworn in as Agriculture, Lands and Irrigation Minister. Events had overtaken and negated CP’s rightful claim to the PM’s post. But his role as Minister in the Dahanayake Cabinet was short-lived. CP was ejected from office in an overnight putsch by the new Premier.

Dahanayake’s brief tenure as Prime Minister was a disaster. He did not enjoy the confidence of his Cabinet. Likewise, the Cabinet did not trust him. Five ministers including C.P. de Silva were removed from office by Daha on  December 8, 1959. Two ministers resigned their posts on 10 December. Five more ministers were fired by the Premier on 10 January 1960.It was like the “off with their heads” rant by Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen.

Conspiracy theories

While these antics were making the SLFP regime a laughing stock, the Government and party were fast losing credibility on another grave issue. Investigations into the S.W.R.D. assassination resulted in the arrest of Mapitigama Buddharakkitha Thero, the Chief Incumbent of Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara and driving force behind the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna or United Bhikku Front. Buddharakkitha Thero had been virtual kingmaker of the Government.

Buddharakkitha Thero was a close associate of the Health Minister and only woman member of Cabinet, Vimala Wijewardene. The businessman brother of Finance Minister Stanley de Zoysa was also allegedly involved in the assassination conspiracy.

There was tremendous pressure on Dahanayake to dismiss both from Cabinet. But he refused to do so. This led to rumours that Dahanayake was not doing so because he too was involved in the conspiracy. Finally on 21 November 1959, Wijewardene was arrested. Dahanayake had no choice other than to dismiss her from office. De Zoysa also resigned from office as his brother too was arrested on the same day. The rumour mills were working overtime and conspiracy theories were galore.Under these circumstances the image of the party and the Government were rapidly eroding. Everything was shaky and party leaders and prominent supporters were deeply distressed about the future of the party leadership. They appealed to the grieving widow to enter politics and save the party. But Sirima Bandaranaike adamantly refused.

Since a by-election had to be held for Attanagalle constituency rendered vacant due to the Horagolla laird’s demise, the party leaders wanted Bandaranaike to contest. But she refused. After much persuasion she relented, but on the condition that she would file nomination as an Independent and not as a SLFP candidate. She had been sorely troubled by tales of inner-party intrigues in her husband’s assassination and was reluctant to identify with the party at that time.

The expected by-election never took place because Prime Minister Dahanayake dissolved Parliament on 5 December 1959. There had been a no confidence motion against his Government by the opposition. Daha won by a single vote, but knew the writing was on the wall. After dissolution Dahanayake remained head of a caretaker Government.

Until Dahanayake’s advent, Parliamentary polls had been held in stages on different days. To his credit, Dahanayake ensured that islandwide elections would be held on a single day. A general election was announced on 4 January 1960. It was to be held on 19 March. The new Parliament would elect 151 members from 145 electorates with Colombo Central, Colombo South, Akurana, Batticaloa and Mutur being multi-member constituencies. Six MPs would be appointed.