A shining star on the political firmament | Sunday Observer
Lalith Athulathmudali:

A shining star on the political firmament

23 April, 2023
From left: Lalith Athulathmudali, J.R. Jayewardene, Gamini Dissanayake and Ranasinghe Premadasa at the  funeral of Actor-politician Vijaya Kumaratunga
From left: Lalith Athulathmudali, J.R. Jayewardene, Gamini Dissanayake and Ranasinghe Premadasa at the funeral of Actor-politician Vijaya Kumaratunga

Atribute to former Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, whose 30th death anniversary falls today.

Lalith William Samarasekera Athulathmudali, PC, cheated death once, but he was not so lucky the second time. He barely survived the grenade attack inside Parliament on August 18, 1987, in which two others were killed. But Lalith, one of the bravest politicians that I have come across in my journalistic career, succumbed to an assassin’s bullet in Kirulapone exactly 30 years ago.

To date, many theories on this assassination that rattled an entire nation are swirling around. Regardless of who physically pulled the trigger and who ordered the assassination, one fact is not up for debate: the cowardly assassin took away perhaps the most brilliant politician of contemporary times from our midst.

His brilliance was not only academic – Lalith was an alumnus of both Oxford and Harvard – but even more importantly, it was political too. Lalith was renowned for sheer political acumen and a down-to-earth demeanour. Lalith was truly, utterly genuine and honest. Those who knew him intimately say that Lalith did not even known what jealousy and envy meant.

Consummate ease 

Lalith, a product of Royal College, Colombo, had a way with words in any language which enabled him to get his message across to the masses with consummate ease. His command of Sinhala and English was impeccable, but only a few know that he spoke a number of other languages fluently. Once, at an event in Germany, Lalith switched to fluent German during his keynote address, surprising the audience and the interpreters who scrambled to switch again from German to English. He also spoke French fluently. Whatever the language, he spoke lucidly and appealed to everyone. He spoke from his heart, with no strings attached.

A brilliant lawyer by profession, oratory was not his only forte. Lalith’s multi-dimensional versatility was well known. What set Lalith apart from most other politicians was his vision for the future.

As a Minister of Education, Lalith knew the country would suffer in the future if the State neglected the education of children. He also knew that abject poverty was an obstacle to higher education – although education itself was free all the way to university level, that is only half the story. There are many other expenses from food to travel that every undergraduate has to incur.

Mahapola scholarships

This was the premise behind the Mahapola Scholarship program envisaged and implemented by him in the early 1980s. The actual Mahapola (Big Fair) itself, which raised funds for the scholarships, also became a focal community event. Only a few people know that Lalith donated his entire salary to the Mahapola Scheme.

During his political career, Lalith also served as Trade and Shipping Minister and Agriculture, Food and Cooperatives Minister and introduced many other novel concepts. As Trade and Shipping Minister, he was instrumental in enacting several important laws such as Intellectual Property Law, Consumer Protection Act and the Anti-Monopoly Law.

Lalith also had a vision for a strife-free nation. When he was in charge of national security, the conflict in the North and the East had reached a peak. Lalith was in the forefront of the attempts being made to resolve the conflict through a variety of approaches. As National Security Minister and Deputy Defence Minister, he was instrumental in turning the largely ceremonial Army to a fully equipped professional outfit. The same applied to the Navy and the Air Force, which too were readied for battle.

There are many who believe that if the Army’s Vadamarachchi operation was allowed to go ahead without any external interference, the battle against terrorism would have been won in 1987, without letting it drag on for another 22-long years. Lalith also realised that national security encompassed a gamut of other issues, from food security to energy security, a topic we have discussed in our editorial on the opposite page.  

Unlike many other politicians past and present, Lalith did not, however, use battlefield successes to whip up euphoria or to score political gains in the South. Racism was anathema to him. He knew that Sri Lanka would go places only if it could resolve the ethnic conflict and create a conducive climate for all communities to live together in harmony. He was open to all avenues in this regard.

Statesman par excellence

This sterling quality was one factor that made him rise above communal politics. Lalith was no ordinary politician – he was a statesman par excellence though he did not become the President (he wanted to contest the 1988 Presidential election, but the nomination went to Ranasinghe Premadasa) or even the Prime Minister.

The powers that be denied him the latter opportunity and Lalith, Gamini Dissanayake, G.M. Premachandra and a few others embarked on a new journey afterwards, forming a new political party (Democratic United National Front) with the ‘Eagle’ symbol. Lalith was harassed in various ways after the impeachment episode and the formation of the DUNF, but he did not flinch.

Nevertheless, bitterness or revenge was not on his mind. He simply wanted to carve another path through the new political party to take the country in a different direction sans discord and rancour. One cannot thus stop wondering where the country would be today if Lalith and a few others like him (Lakshman Kadirgamar comes to mind) lived on.

Indeed, politicians like Lalith are a rare breed. It is rare to find a politician untainted with corruption, communalism, bias and hypocrisy. Lalith eschewed all these. Today’s young politicians must study the life and times of Lalith and emulate his ideas and deeds if they hope to shine in the political firmament in the future.

Like all other politicians, Lalith worked hard to please his constituents in Ratmalana, but he had the ability to focus beyond those confines and reach out to the entire country. He was a truly national-level politician. He was in fact globally renowned – every major newspaper carried an article about him in the days after his assassination and condolences poured in from all corners of the world.

His affinity to the masses was one reason why every house, shop and place of worship had a white flag when the news of his assassination spread in April 1993. At his funeral, an unprecedented crowd converged on the General Cemetery in Borella. Lalith’s legacy will live on in the hearts of millions who adored him and shed tears when he bade goodbye. His far-sighted vision lives on through the thousands of university students who complete their degrees thanks to the Mahapola Scholarship scheme. If at least some of them aspire to follow in his footsteps to serve the Sri Lankan society with selfless dedication and relentless dynamism, Lalith’s untimely demise would not have been in vain.