Nihal De Alwis of Kalahe, Richmond & Nugegoda …. whose preferred title was “The World’s Poorest Prime Minister”
Most Srilankans would by now have forgotten the poorest Prime Minister the World had, the late Dr W. Dahanayake! “W” was a poor man’s politician. When he lost as Prime Minister after the 1960 elections, he gathered his suitcase and asked his Secretary Mr. Bradman Weerakoon to drop him at the Fort Station to take a train to Galle. Bradman then told him that it was his responsibility to see that he goes home safely and provided him with a pool vehicle in which the former PM proceeded to Galle where he lived with his twin brother K. Dahanayake. He had no vehicle of his own, nor did he have a house, and it was his twin brother “K” who provided him free accommodation with his office room in front.
Dahanayaka commenced his political career with local politics, becoming the first Mayor of Galle in 1939. Later he contested the State Council seat of Bibile in 1944 and won. But he returned to contest his home constituency of Galle at the first Parliamentary election of 1947. His opponent was businessman and planter Mr H.W.Amarasuriya. Mr Amrasuriya was one of the richest men in the South, spending a lot of money in the campaign. At his political meetings W, said in Sinhala “There is a tree with money and I am shaking it , please pick up the money and vote for me”. In Sinhala “ Mama Salli Gaha hollanawa, sahodarawaruni salli ahulagena mata chande denna”.
In 1956 he was elected from the MEP, headed by the late Mr. S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, who chose him as Minister of Education in the new Government which he formed. As Minister he provided a free bun to all school children, earning the nick name “Banis Mama”. In 1957 “ W” was invited as the chief guest for the Richmond College annual prize giving and I recall the Principal Mr E.R.De Silva mentioning in his welcome speech “’The two Dahnayakes ( including his twin brother “K”) were one class lower than me but when I reached Senior Cambridge they had already passed it as both were brilliant students who had earned double promotions.”
As Prime Minister in 1960 he lost to bus magnate Mr. W.D.S. Abeygunawardena but he returned to Parliament a few months later at the election which came after the then government lost in the Throne Speec . In 1965 he became the Minister of Home Affairs. He was always the poor man’s politician. Anyone could walk into his office at Richmond Hill Road, Galle, and meet him to discuss their problems and obtain relief and even take any amount of free telephone calls, with no questions asked. He was there at any funeral, wedding or public function even though he was uninvited. His mode of transport was the bus and train. Once I met him travelling by bus while I was proceeding to Imaduwa in the same bus, when he asked me about my destination and I informed him that I was attending a funeral of an old teacher in my village school who was residing at Imaduwa. Then he said he was also proceeding to the same place and asked me more details about the deceased as he wanted to address the gathering, which I obliged and at the funeral he held forth, and delivered an oration in good Sinhala speaking with the information I had provided him.
He was a man with no wealth, but had a great heart, and whether rich or poor, a high a government servant or menial labourer, with any problem who sought his help, he was always there to help them. He was a man with great values. They say one’s values are one’s destiny. They shape your decisions and your actions. It makes sense to know what they are. He believed that value is not an outcome such as having high positions and lots of money but a standard to live by — something one thinks important such as service to the public, honesty, accountability, fairness, independence, dependability, loyalty and other noble principles of life.
He goes into history as the only Government Minister who never went abroad and left these shores in his whole career as a politician, which is certainly a World record! My cousin Gerald De Alwis who served as a senior public servant in the Galle Kachcheri (later retired as Director Land Reforms Commission) has this to say : “The GA in Galle Mr Navaratnarjah one day asked Daha, “Sir, how is it that you being one of the senior politicians did not think of going abroad?” His prompt response was “Socrates never left the shores of Athens”.
During Mrs. Bandaranaike’s regime (1960-65) there were severe controls on cloth, and in protest he walked into Parliament in a span-cloth (“Amude”). He will also go down in history as the politician who made the longest speech in Parliament, over 13 hours. My cousin Gerald de Alwis in his Memoirs sums up his career thus : “He was a shining star in the galaxy of politicians and added lustre to his vocation.” He was a real statesman par- excellence, whose dedication to service to the common man was sometimes misunderstood by many public servants. A man who used “Poditricks” in Politics.
Srilanka can be proud of politicians of his caliber rather than talk about Presidents of other countries, like Uruguay. Whilst today some politicians make use of their positions to amass wealth for generations to come, especially in our country, he would remain a shining example and a role model to all budding politicians.
Richmond College Galle can be proud of this politician who was poor and humble and never sought high positions, but preferred to abide by his principles and live with a clear conscience. Daha was a good listener. He was a polite person who listened with care to ensure that he respects the thoughts and feelings and ideas of others, whatever may be their status or skills.
It is my belief that he never sought approval, but always did what he thought was right. He had immense confidence in himself and did not care whether they liked him or not, but was happy to serve them even if they did not like him.