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How Mrs. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister in 1960 - Elections

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

The announcement of an election transformed the political climate. SLFP big-wigs were rattled. The mood in the country was against the ruling party and the Government. The chief opposition United National party (UNP) stock was rising after the re-entry of Dudley Senanayake.

Prime Minister Dahanayake, instead of sticking to the SLFP, had embarked on a political project of forming his own political party – the Lanka Prajathanthra Pakshaya (LPP). Other party stalwarts like S.D. Bandaranaike, I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla and K.M.P. Rajaratna had formed their own parties.

The MEP was now led by Philip Gunewardena, who was also planning to form the next government by contesting in over a 100 electorates. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was also planning to contest over 100 seats. Its Leader Dr. N.M. Perera was being referred to by supporters as the future Prime Minister. The SLFP with its hand symbol was virtually written off.

So desperate were some SLFP leaders that they went to the extent of approaching two former UNP Prime Ministers. Sir John Kotelawela was in retirement. But the party that succeeded in forcing him out of politics now sought his leadership in a remarkable twist of fate. Sir John was flattered but declined, preferring to shuttle between Kandawala and Kent rather than be active in politics.

Then they turned to the UNP Leader Dudley Senanayake, who was amazed at the offer but promptly turned it down. Apart from his intense loyalty to the UNP, Senanayake also felt that the SLFP was a lost cause. He had no intention of abandoning a winning horse and taking over the reins of a loser.

Another move contemplated by SLFP leaders was that of enlisting Professor G.P. Malalasekara. The former Principal of Ananda College had been active in the Buddhist Movement and was widely respected. He was then the country’s Permanent Representative to the UN at New York. It was felt that a non-political personality would do good to boost the party fortunes. But he too did not accept.

The attempts by sections of the SLFP to rope in a new leader from either the UNP or elsewhere are documented in the publication ‘The Inside Story’ by Hugh Fernando. This former MP for Nattandiya was at one-time Speaker in Parliament. He is also one of the few liberal democrat Parliamentarians we have had in Sri Lanka.

CP’s return

Meanwhile, C.P.de Silva was doing his best to keep the party together and bring about a political renaissance. Given his qualifications and experience, the mantle of leadership should have been rightfully his. He would indeed have been Premier, but for his absence due to illness caused by food poisoning. Also, being away in London, CP was not tarnished by any suspicion of involvement in the S.W.R.D. assassination.

Despite this, several moves were on within the party to have a new leader. There were overt and covert reasons for this. The public reason given was that CP was not a charismatic mass leader. Though his efficiency was accepted, it was argued that he would not be able to attract the masses and win elections. There was some truth to this assessment.

There was, however, another less-publicized reason. Notwithstanding his impressive credentials, CP had a minus point due to the socio-political environment of the country. He did not belong to the numerically large Govigama caste. CP de Silva was from the Salagama caste.

The Govigama caste was the single largest caste in the country. Its members claimed they were at the top in the caste pecking order. Although castes originated on the basis of traditional occupation, the anachronistic social stratification remained a hidden yet effective factor in politics.

However much people argue that casteism is extinct and find it unfashionable to discuss it publicly, the fact remains that caste is indeed a factor to reckon with in politics. This is particularly so in the case of hierarchical leadership. Apart from the exception or aberration of Ranasinghe Premadasa, every single Prime Minister, president or governor-general (apart from Lord Soulbury) in this country has been from the Govigama caste.

It could be seen, therefore, that sections of the SLFP had their reasons to seek a substitute for CP. Despite these efforts, CP established his party leadership as there were no possible replacements at that time. So the party geared itself up for elections under CP’s command. He was projected as a potential Premier.

As the electoral campaign got underway, it soon became apparent that the SLFP was heading for definite defeat. Crowds dwindled and there was a visible lack of enthusiasm among party cadres. Without S.W.R.D., the party was like a rudderless boat. The circumstances of his assassination and the rumours circulating of an intra-party conspiracy saw demoralisation set in.