BY NANDASIRI JASENTULIYANA FORMER DEPUTY-DIRECTOR-GENERAL UNITED NATIONS
When the sixteenth Parliament was convened recently, it also marked the 50th Anniversary of the oldest and longest-serving Parliamentarian, the only one to reach that rare double milestone.
Vasudewa Nanayakkara was elected to Parliament at the 1970 parliamentary election, representing Kiriella at age 31, as a candidate of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party led by Dr. N.M. Perera. On 12th August 2020, serving as the Leader of the Democratic Left Front (D.L.F.) and having contested the Ratnapura District under the Sri Lanka PodujanaPeramuna, he was sworn in as the Minister of Water Supply on 20 August 2020 at Kandy.
During over half a century as a preeminent politician in the nation, Vasudewa has served as a parliamentarian, a cabinet minister, and a presidential candidate. During his long tenure as a parliamentarian, he has distinguished himself for his integrity and honesty, no mean achievement for a Sri Lankan politician. It is a matter of regret, though, that he will also be remembered for an indecorous gaff directed at the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghewhen according to press reports, the Prime Minister attempted to prevent Mr. Nanayakkara from raising a point of order.
As a Parliamentarian, he has been an uncompromising champion of the rights of minorities. He has been beaten, jailed, and forced underground for his political activism. His activism, compassion, and fearless honesty have won the hearts of the working class and minority communities.
It was as 10-year-old kids we met as students at Richmond College Galle in 1949, and ever since then, we have been close friends though most of our lives, we lived many oceans apart in different continents.
While in school, we both competed at elocution contests and were members of the debating teams. None of us was any match to Vasu, who was way ahead of the pack in his oratorical prowess. Those abilities took him to the highest levels of oratory, which he displayed in abundance in the country’s Parliament and on the political stage over half a century as a preeminent politician in the nation. It was a privilege to have locked horns in elocution and debating with such a naturally gifted orator.
Richmond was a politically active place creating an awareness and an interest among the students in the politics of then Ceylon. At the hostel, many debates took place on the day’s political issues at the monthly formal Sunday night debates, and more often, in informal discourse among friends. Soon my political views evolved and drifted towards socialism. I became an admirer of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) with Trotskyite leanings and was an admirer of the leadership of the party, partly due to their intellectual prowess and their concern for the working class and the poor.
On the other hand, my friend Vasu was a firebrand U.N.P. supporter, mainly because his family was the primary benefactor in Galle for the U.N.P. His father was a wealthy businessman running one of the most successful wholesale and transport business in the south. His fleet of lorries transported much of the goods back and forth from Colombo to the southern cities. The lorries had painted on them the name of the business as‘Vasudewa& Co’, which was well known in the south. The company was named after the eldest son of the owner (Vasu). His father was also a landed proprietor owning tea estates in the southern hills in the Akurassa region and was an ardent supporter of the U.N.P. So, coming into Richmond, it was natural for Vasu to be a U.N.P. supporter.
In the 1952 general elections, riding the wave of sympathy in the wake of the death of the first Prime Minister of the nation D.S. Senanayake, the U.N.P. led by his son Dudley Senanayake won the elections. In the ensuing celebrations, Vasu led the U.N.P. group in the school, demonstrating around the school grounds. He was head to foot donned in green (the color of the U.N.P.) with a green shirt, cap, and flag in hand. He was carried on the shoulders of others as their leader.
Having been an admirer of socialism for a while, we formed an informal socialist group with a few like-minded friends in my senior years in school. I had detected some vulnerability by the compassion displayed by Vasu towards the minor staff of the school and decided to rope him into our group, though I knew it was a daunting task. The occasion presented itself when I had invited TissaVitharana, at the time a senior medical student at the Medical College who happened to be the nephew of the leader of the LSSP, Dr. N.M.Perera, to address our group. One Sunday, he motored down from Colombo in his Vespa scooter and gave a brilliant lecture to about fifteen of us, including a couple of friends that we had invited to the lecture.
Among the reluctant invitees was Vasu. Before the lecture, I had been working on him – mainly on his conscious – preaching socialist dogma, that I hardly understood the real meaning myself. To my joy, he was mesmerized by Tissa’s lecture and slowly but steadily drifted towards socialism. By the time the 1956 general Election rolled by, which was won by the newly formed Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, Vasu was a true red-blooded socialist who was more conversant with socialist philosophy and its demagoguery than the rest of us, who had banded together to study the subject, before he did.
Vasu became such an ardent supporter of socialism, while still at Richmond, he organized a strike among his father’s tea estate workers. Those who led the strike had thought they were immune from any consequences as the proprietor’s son was leading their cause. His father promptly sacked the leader and got the workers back to the estate. The sacked leader wanted to get back his job back as well and sheepishly went and spilled the beans. His father was so furious with Vasu for initiating the strike he nearly disowned his son.
Watching these developments on the sidelines was the now Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, who was in the junior boarding at Richmond College. Richmond indeed was the house of Rajapakse’s. His father, D.A., and his uncle D.M. and his cousins George and Lakshman and his brother Chamal, were all cabinet ministers educated at Richmond and played in the college cricket team. Following his father’s death in 1967, Mahinda Rajapaksa contested as the SLFP candidate for the Beliatta constituency and was elected to Parliament in 1970 as the youngest Member of Parliament at just 24, same year Vasu was first elected to Parliament. Thus, the Prime Minister is also completing his fiftieth year as a parliamentarian this year.
Vasu and I were once again colleagues as law students and were together at the Law College Hostel at Barnes place. Vasu was one of the few privileged law students who owned a car. It was a brand new Austin Mini Cooper, the smallest car made by the British Motor Corporation, which had just come to the market that year (1959), which was later considered a British icon and voted in 1999 as the second most influential car of the 20th century. New or old those who owned a car were the envy of the rest of the student body. In that Mini Austin, Vasu and I roamed the entirety of the Island during each vacation visiting every imaginable cultural site and places of natural beauty, learning the history, geography, and lives of our country’s people. The more interaction Vasu had with the people on the street with whom he never failed to have a conversation; he became a rabid socialist.
Unlike the two university campuses, there were no political activities or party affiliated clubs and societies at the Law College. But Vasu managed to organize a large group of law students during the period of the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, to join the protest marches organized by the socialist-oriented political parties and trade unions. I, too, joined our law college friends in a couple of protest marches and demonstrations that Vasu led in front of the American Embassy in 1962. Over the years Vasu went on to lead many a strike and demonstration that were considered significant trade union activity in the country.
Despite his father’s admonitions, Vasu remained a socialist, immensely distraught of the social injustices he observed that compelled him to abandon his promising law career and devote his time and energy seeking comprehensive and lasting remedies for social ills plaguing Sri Lanka.
Vasu joined the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) as a student in 1958. He was first elected to Parliament at the 1970 parliamentary election, representing Kiriella for the LSSP. He was the youngest of the recognized stalwarts in the LSSP, led by several political legends of the time.
The ‘Lanka Sama Samaja Party’ considered the oldest political party in the country, was founded in 1935 with the broad aims of gaining Independence from Britain and propagating socialism by a group of young Trotskyites motivated by Philip Gunawardena. The LSSP grew out of the Youth Leagues that got involved in the ‘Suriya-Mal’ movement, which had been formed to provide support for indigenous ex-servicemen by the sale of ‘Suriya’ (Portia tree) flowers, as a reaction to the fact that at the time Poppy Day funds went solely to British ex-servicemen.
The LSSP had its beginnings in this anti-colonial movement. The leaders were mainly educated returnees from London, youth who had come into contact with the ideas of the European Left and were influenced by Harold Laski. Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe, who later formed the Communist party, an early returnee, and a member of the State Council from 1931, was part of this group. Its original members were Philip Gunawardena N. M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Gunewardene, Robert Gunawardena (Philip’s brother), and Vernon Gunasekera, the Party Secretary. Edmund Samarakkody and V Karalasingham later joined it.
Vasu became active in the LSSP beginning in the mid-sixties when the LSSP joined the coalition government of then Prime Minister SirimavoBandaranaike, and three of its members became ministers in the cabinet (Dr. N. M. Perera (Finance), CholomondelyGoonewardena (Public Works), and Anil Moonesinghe (Communications). The Coalition Government fell in 1965, due to the desertion of several SLFP members. However, the number of votes won by the LSSP increased at the general election held that year.
In 1970, the United Front, of which the LSSP was part, was once again elected to power in a landslide victory. The LSSP had 18 M.P.s in Parliament, including Vasu entering Parliament for the first time representing the Kiriella electorate, which he won by a large margin. Dr. N.M Perera, Dr. Colvin R de Silva, and Leslie Gunewardena became Ministers of Finance, Constitutional Affairs with Plantation Industries and Transport. The party was able to advance parts of its program to a great extent, and foreign-owned plantations were nationalized, democratically elected workers’ councils were established in state corporations, and government departments under the purview of its ministries and other measures were taken aimed at narrowing the gap between the rich and poor.
The 1950s and 1960s were, in many ways, the “Golden era” of the LSSP. At the time, the most powerful trade unions in the country supported LSSP politics, and BalaThampo was the LSSP mastermind leading the union activities along with the head of the then powerful Mercantile Union headed by I.J. Wickrama. Vasu was at the forefront of the trade union struggles. LSSP peaked in political strength in the 1970s but has declined gradually during the last 30 years.
The Police imprisoned him for a year for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the Government during the failed youth uprising of 1971 led by Wijeweera. Once out of jail, Vasu spearheaded the movement to nationalize Sri Lanka’s large tea, rubber, and coconut plantations, remnants of the colonial economy. The issue wedged a split between the socialist ideologues and the SLFP conservatives in the governing coalition.
The differences deepened, and in 1975, the United Front broke up with the expulsion of the LSSP ministers. There followed a period of wilderness for the party. At the 1977 elections, disaster struck – the LSSP and C.P. lost all their Parliamentary seats, and the Left was unrepresented – something that had not happened in the 46 years since the introduction of universal suffrage. The same year the LSSP suffered another split when the LSSP leadership expelled Vasu and his idealist colleagues from the party, blaming them for the privileges lost from no longer being in the coalition Government.
The group led by the then youth leader Vasu formed the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) with a non-communal socialist agenda.
Vasu stands firm in his belief that each ethnic group should have the right to maintain its identity and determine its fate. In the highly emotionally charged political battlefield, many of his colleagues paid the price with their lives. Vasu feels lucky to survive the terror-filled late ’80s when paramilitary death squads and the extreme nationalist insurgents reigned: neither group respected the middle ground that Vasu and his colleagues were espousing.
His ideological rigidity began to flex during his two-year hide-and-seek with the law. In 1983, the dictatorial Sri Lankan Government, in a calculated attempt at shutting down all opposition to its policies, banned Vasu’s party and a few other leftist groups, falsely accusing them of fomenting racial riots. Left without the option to defend his rights under the Emergency Rules, Vasu was constantly on the run. He was masquerading dressed as a middle eastern sheik when he openly visited the legendary attorney, Presidents Counsel D.S. Wijesinghe, at his residence at the Thimbirigasyaya junction where I was visiting, as I always did, during my trips to Colombo. Vasu was confident he was not detectable in the form he was in, and he dared to even speak to a Policeman seeking information.
In 1994 the LSSP joined the People’s Alliance (P.A.), the front led by the SLFP. It had three members elected to Parliament that year. Bernard Soysa, Minister of Science and Technology in the P.A. Government, on his demise, was succeeded by Batty Weerakoon. Vasu had by then returned to the LSSP from the NSSP following a disagreement with his protégé Dr. Wickramabahu Karunaratne who now leads the NSSP. However, in 1999 Vasu, LSSP Member of Parliament elected from Ratnapura, was expelled after publicly criticizing the P.A. government.
After his expulsion, Vasu floated the Democratic Left Front (D.L.F.). At the 2004 elections, LSSP won one parliamentary seat. Its lone M.P., Dr. TissaVitarana, the same person who went down to address a young Trotskyite group where Vasu was a visitor when he was exposed for the first time to the socialist theory and practice, was named Minister of Science and Technology. The LSSP gradually lost in strength. The Congress of Samasamaja Youth Leagues that Vasu led had been disbanded. At the 2010 elections both LSSP and D.L.F. contested under the United People’s Freedom Alliance. LSSP members did not win any seats but its leader Dr. TissaVitarana was named as a national list member and appointed as Minister of Scientific Affairs. Once again, Vasu won elections as an M.P. from the Ratnapura District and was appointed as Minister of National Languages and Social Integration. At the 2015 elections, he was once again elected to represent Ratnapura as was in 2020.
Vasu had always been the maverick in the LSSP and ready to criticize the Government and even the party, whenever he felt either was deviating from its stated mission. That resulted in his shuttling in and out of the party, but he never joined any other party. He, of course, formed his own breakaway party whenever he was out of the LSSP.
As a Parliamentarian, he has been an uncompromising champion of the rights of minorities. He has been beaten, jailed, and forced underground for his political activism. His activism, compassion, and fearless honesty have won the hearts of the working class and minority communities. Addressing a meeting recently in Marapana, Ratnapura, just following his appointment as Minister of State for Water Supply in the present Government, he said that the “It is the underprivileged who lack water and proper sanitation facilities, and that is the real story of the chasm between the haves and the have nots. I have been searching all my life for ways and means to close that gap between the rich and the poor, but I have so far failed, and I am afraid I may have to bid farewell before I find one.”
After half a century of political life, he remains, perhaps, as the only politician who is considered sincere to his cause and untainted with any allegation of corruption. That in itself is quite an achievement for a politician who has been at the forefront of governing over such a long span of time in Sri Lanka. That may also be his ultimate legacy.