Seventy-two-year-old Dinesh Gunawardena is Sri Lanka’s new prime minister. The leader of the House in Parliament took oath as PM on Friday.
He was the foreign affairs and education minister in the previous Gotabaya-Mahinda government.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe who is facing fierce public opposition to his elevation as the head of the nation may go for a national government if all political parties agree to join. If that happens, he might appoint a new prime minister later.
A stalwart of Sri Lankan politics, Gunawardena is known for his plain speaking. He is a close confidante of ousted prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and as the joint opposition leader, he kept the opposition flag flying high during the regime of Maithripala Sirisena and Wickremesinghe between 2015 and 2019. By a quirk of fate, he is now the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka under President Ranil Wickremesinghe whom he fought for decades.
Educated in the United States and the Netherlands, Dinesh Gunawardena is a trade union leader and a fierce fighter like his legendary father Philip Gunawardena, who is known as the father of socialism in Sri Lanka.
Philip Gunawardena’s love for India and efforts towards freedom against imperialist occupation started in the early 1920s in the USA.
He was a classmate of Jayaprakash Narayan and VK Krishna Menon at the University of Wisconsin where he advocated for freedom from imperialism in American political circles, and later led the Anti-Imperialist League of India in London.
But not many know that his family has close links to India and the entire family has strong pro-India leanings.
The Prime Minister’s father Philip and mother Kusuma had sneaked into India after escaping from Sri Lanka (then a British colony, Ceylon) during the Second World War.
They had joined the underground activists who were fighting for freedom and evaded arrest for some time. In 1943, both of them were captured by British intelligence who kept them at the Arthur Road jail in Bombay. After a year, they were deported to Sri Lanka and released only after the end of the war.
It is a matter of immense pride for him as Philip, Robert, and Kusuma all took part in India’s freedom struggle and went to jail in Bombay. Their association with India started almost a hundred years ago to free South Asia from the British Raj.
The first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru visited their family home in Sri Lanka to personally thank them for their unstinting support of India’s freedom movement and their personal sacrifice.
After Sri Lanka gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, both Philip and Kusuma went on to become members of parliament. Philip was a founding leader and cabinet minister of the People’s Revolution government in 1956. All his four children have also held high political posts, including the Mayor of Colombo, cabinet ministers, MPs, etc.
Dinesh Gunawardena, who has a clean image just like his parents, has been a powerful cabinet minister for over 22 years, arguing for a better relationship with India.
Culturally, socially, historically and even in the mythological aspect, India has been Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour for thousands of years and it is important to maintain the excellent relationship. There is a lot more to do in the coming days, say some of his close associates.
Sri Lanka is in great turmoil and Gunawardena may not be able to do anything that will leave his mark.