W. Dahanayake: A Prime Minister like no other

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.

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Overwhelmed by W. Dahanayake … A Few Insights into the Politics of Yesteryear

File:Wijeyananda Dahanayake portrait.jpg


Filed under accountability, life stories, parliamentary elections, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, travelogue, unusual people, world events & processes

9 responses to “W. Dahanayake: A Prime Minister like no other

  1. Thanks for providing this interesting write up on Dahanayake. As my father had admired his ‘independent’ streak, I remember hearing quite a few anecdotes about his political career, when I was young. Here are few, which are missing.

    (1) Dahanayake’s parliamentary speeches were interesting to read. Occasionally, he came up with humorous ditties. One that was popular was directed at S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike AD was something which went like, ‘I don’t like you Banda dear, because you change from year to year.’

    (2) It was said of Dahanayake, that he was in ALL parties of his times, except that of Federal Party of Celvanayakam.

    (3) While being a stop-gap prime minister, Dahanayake sacked so many of his Cabinet ministers.

    (4) He once said that the D in his name stands for discipline.

    (5) He also formed his own party, after being sacked from SLFP, and contested the March 1960 election, with his party LPP label, and lost!

  2. Sarath Gamini De Silva

    When I was an intern house officer at the GHC in 1973, there was a good friend of Dr. Dahanayake being treated in our ward. He walked into our quarters to ask about him.He ended up giving a half hour lecture on a healthy diet to about 10 doctors who gathered to see the great man.

  3. Sarath Gamini De Silva

    He formed his own party, Lanka Prajatantravadi Pakshaya, LPP, after he lost the prime minister’s post in 1960 March and lost the Galle seat in March elections by 483 votes. Party symbol was umbrella and the colour purple. During the campaign, the town was flooded with people carrying purple umbrellas, distributed free.

  4. K. K. De Silva

    Dr. Dahanayake joined the staff of St. Aloysius College, Galle in 1928 & left in 1936 to become a politician. He was a trained teacher & taught Latin, Mathematics, History, Geography & Moral Science, in addition to being the Games Master. It is recorded that he acted in the College plays many of which were adaptations from Moliere’s comedies.

    • Anthony

      Do you know the staff at St Aloysius, during Mr Dahanayake’s time. I know my grandfather was teaching with him at the College? May be around 1928-1930
      His name is Donald De Silva

      • Anthony

        Dear All
        I would like re-phrase my question. My Grandfather Norber Donald De Silva became good friends of Mr Dahanayake during his associate with St Aloysius. This is what my mother mentioned to us. Donald was a BSC graduate of University of London in 1922 and initially he had taught at St Joseph’s Colombo. I am not sure exactly which year at St Aloysius. I am thinking late twenties due to Dr Dahanayake started at St Aloysius around 1928. My grandfather took up as the Head Master of De Mazenod College Kandana, when this new Boys School was opened in 1931 and taught till 1955. Love to hear any information about Donald De Silva and St Aloysius connection

  5. Ranil

    My late grandmother Mrs. Sylvia Bibile of Bibile Walauwa, Bibile, was the wife of the 6th or 7th generation Ratemahattaya of Bibile – C.W. Bibile (who died 1936). In 1944 she was THE Walauwa Lady of Bibile – what you might call the ‘dowager duchess of Bibile’, residing in the ancient Bibile Walauwa and presiding over the family land holdings and still enjoying the aura of my deceased grandfather’s ‘Rate Mahattaya-ship’. She had a lot of prestige and ‘soft power’ in all of Bibile. She told me how WD came and saw her at the Walauwa to seek her blessings to contest Bibile, and how he impressed her with his simplicity and down to earth humility. She gave her blessings to WD and the word spread that he was the preferred candidate of the Walauwa ‘Dingirihamuduruwo’. This was 1944 when the Walauwa gentlemen and ladies still held a lot of influence over the villagers. Her judgment of WD perhaps was proved true over many years.

    • THIS is a very useful note — it reveals the many-sided dimensions of the electoral processes in the mid-20th century and the continuing weight of the Goigama aistocracy THEN [besides Daha’s politicala cumen]. Many thanks.

  6. Duleep Goonewardene

    Mr.Dahanayaka had been the Minister of Education when my father Mr. Douglas Goonewardene was Principal of Alutgama Vidyalaya a school he served for 38 long years.Around 1960 the first laboratory of the school had been built but its use was stayed due to the delay in obtaining the lab equipment.” Start even with a kettle and two test tubes” Dahanayaka had urged. That had been how Politicians of yesteryear had encouraged Educationists.This fact is mentioned in the Biography of my father along with the History of the school.

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