Lalith Athulathmudali

Epitome of a pragmatic politician

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them” – William Shakespeare
If there was one Sri Lankan to whom all these statements apply, it is none other than Lalith Athulathmudali, whose death anniversary falls on April 23, 2007.
Today, when the country is yearning for real leaders, we feel his absence; who was born great, and achieved greatness and to this day, the people of this country thrust greatness upon his memory, 14-years after his demise.
Having had the good fortune of working so closely with him, I take this day to reminisce the unparalleled brilliance and the intellect of this politician par excellence.

The person
Lalith Athulathmudali was a lawyer by profession when he entered politics; a field to which he was no stranger. He was a great orator who had command over both languages and had a sharp mind, which made him a fast learner of any subject.
Serving in the government of Sri Lanka, he held important portfolios such as Trade and Shipping, Defence, National Security, Agriculture, Food and Cooperatives, Education and Higher Education.
In each of these fields, not only did he master the subjects but, was able to make significant improvements. Underlying this mastery was a keenness to serve the people and a drive to find the best and the most practical way to achieve the goals he set for the respective ministries.
Throughout his career as a politician, he dedicated his time for the people and left huge footprints on the paths of Sri Lankan politics, which no one else has been able to match to this day

A true leader
He was a true leader, who commanded every person in his ministries and received the respect and awe of all his staff. However, his forte as a leader, as I saw it, was the ability to delegate authority with confidence and allow himself enough time to strategise for further improvement.
He used delegation also to get out of situations, while empowering someone else in his team. He placed high confidence in his team, that the people serving him have had to strive for excellence that they were expected of.
When other leaders would burn themselves out, trying to do things by themselves, Lalith Athulathmudali was not afraid to delegate authority. He was not insecure about it. In fact, he gained as a leader, as he was able to enhance the capacity of others to perform at high levels.
He rarely checked on his staff. Once he entrusted someone with a task, he did not interfere, and this was his winning streak. This characteristic of his gave him time to meet people. And a fine feature of the great leader was that he actively listened to people who came to him in need, be it a farmer, labourer or, a government servant. He gave them his undivided attention. He could relate to and communicate with people from all walks of life.
He had the early hours of the day reserved for people and the rest of the day was dedicated for government and business people. Alas! Today’s politicians are afraid to delegate duties and neither have they the time to listen to people.

How did he draw people to him and make them so loyal? Athulathmudali never ‘pulled up’ his personal staff in public. He pointed out their mistakes in private and defended them in public, like a father would care for his children.He also had the good fortune of having people of great capacity and integrity such as Lakshaman de Mel (Secretary, Ministry of Trade and Shipping), Dharmasiri Peiris (Secretary, Education and Higher Education and Agriculture, Food and Cooperatives), and late Gaya Cumaranatunga and Harsha Wickremasinghe serving as ministry additional secretaries.

Cumaranatunga was so cautious that when he did not want any confidential information of meetings to leak, he wrote down the minutes in Latin. Senior Assistant Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries such as Preethi Jayaratne, Thilak Collure, P. Athukorale, Pushpa Ilapperuma, K.L.L. Wijeratne, C.P. Jayasinghe and David Soysa ( Directors of Merchant Shipping) to name a few of the brilliant persons who worked alongside this great man. Like me, they too would agree that working for him was a sheer pleasure.
They say that punctuality is the politeness of princes. And a true prince he was, when it came to time management. I remember once, when he arrived at the office and found that his personal staff members and senior assistant secretaries were late, he declared them ‘sacked’ instantly.
Later in the day, he wanted a letter to be drafted by one of them, when his private secretary informed him that Preethi Jayaratne (who had drafted many letters and speeches for him) reminded him that since all had been sacked, they were unable to work. He was quick to respond ‘tell them that they are all reinstated’. Such was the humour through which he maintained a close relationship with his staff, while maintaining strict discipline.

Mahapola Scholarship
One of his footprints that time cannot erase is the Mahapola concept. The reason behind the scholarship was that his father passed away when Lalith was just about to leave for studies abroad. He made a request to the government of the late Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who presented a proposal to parliament, through which he was provided a grant.
The creation of the Mahapola Scholarship was his way of repaying. Initially, Mahapola set out to provide scholarships for 422 undergraduates and part of the funding for this was his personal contribution. However, the collecting of funds was not an easy task. Therefore the maestro came up with the plan for Mahapola Lottery, which sold five million tickets annually, and the proceeds fed into the Mahapola Trust Fund.
The creation of the Development Lottery was the brainchild of the late President J.R. Jayawardene and Athulathmudali. It should not be forgotten that Dr. Wickrema Weerasooriya played a big role in the setting up of the Development Lottery Board which provided 50% of its earnings to the President’s Fund and the remaining 50% to the Mahapola Trust Fund.
What is unique about this is that Athulathmudali ensured that the Mahapola Scholarship Scheme was sustained so that students could benefit for many, many years to come. Up to date, 150,000 students have benefited from this scheme.

Mahapola Trade Fair
Similar to the Scholarship Scheme, he also wanted to help out with school infrastructures; hence, the concept of Mahapola Trade Fairs came into being. These seven-day trade fairs gave the small-scale entrepreneurs the space and opportunity to sell their produce. The fairs were held at schools and alcohol and gambling were strictly prohibited. There were also stalls of different ministries disseminating information to the public on services available to them.
The public got their bargains, information and clean entertainment and it was a win-win situation all round. However, what contributed most to making these trade fairs a success was Athulathmudali’s ability to mobilise a vast number of people and have their commitment.

Apart from the aforementioned ministerial officials, Wimal Amarasekara, (Chairman SLPA), K.S. C. De Fonseka (Managing Director SLPA), H.A. Wijegoonawardhane, Lionel Fernando, S.M. Gunadasa, S.K. Wallipuram, R.A.P. Goonetilleke, A.D. Weerasinghe, Ranjith Thenuwara, Godwin de Alwis, Mr Pasqual, Dhamasiri Fonseka, Shyamila Perera and Sita Wimalasena. There were many more people whose names I have most unwittingly left out, who contributed to the success of not only Mahapola but, all his work and he really appreciated all of them all the time.
Some of the key people who carried the Mahapola concept and the activities of all the ministries to the public, through the media were Premil Ratnayake, Richard de Silva, Udya Manawasinghe, late Bundala Hemapala, late Tissa Jayawardhane of SLBC, and the late Dharmadasa Kuruwita who was the compere for all Mahapola on-stage activities.

However, I will be failing in my duty, if I did not mention the tremendous support given by the two Deputy Ministers; M.S. Amarasiri and Mahendra Wijeratne, to make the Mahapola Concept a resounding success.
Athulathmudali was also the pioneer in dialoguing with school children through the Mahapola “Gnana Dharshana” Programme. It was an interactive session where O/L and A/L students could freely exchange views with the Honourable Minister and that was part of his vision to create generations of intelligent people.

Exporters’ Forum
He created history by setting up Sri Lanka’s first Exporters Forum, bringing together exporters from all over the country to discuss their issues. As Trade Minister, he admitted that the open economy was too open but, given the years of a restricted economy, prior to UNPs election in 1977, he knew that it was inevitable. Therefore, he was keen to strengthen Sri Lanka’s exports.
At these meetings, which were regular and systematic, any exporter could approach the Minister and he did not procrastinate in making decisions. As a result, the exporters benefited tremendously, and they felt they had the support of the State in their business ventures.
The members of the Exporters Forum which he created, felt that he was on their side, for such was his ability to relate to people from any walk of life. He also set up Export Production Villages and encouraged village level individuals and groups to have production lines which are still in existence. However, whether they still receive State patronage is a question.

Ports and shipping
It is sad, but when the Sri Lanka Ports Authority celebrated 25 years in 2004, not a single reference was made in their 3 page Supplement to Athulathmudali, who was the driving force behind bringing the Port Talley Corporation and Port Cargo Corporation together and forming the Sri Lanka Ports Authority through an Act of Parliament.
When he took over Trade and Shipping in 1977, Sri Lanka was placed 169th in the world for shipping ports. However, within 12-years, he was able to take the Port to the 29th position in the world, a feat none can match, for which had the dedication of late the Vimal Amarasekara, K.S.C. De Fonseka and the dedicated staff of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.

Parliament bomb attack
He was one of the persons seriously injured in the bomb attack in Parliament .When he was taken to one of the back entrances of the Sri Jayawardhenepura Hospital, it was padlocked. His security officer, knowing the urgency of taking Athulathmudali to the hospital, drew out his pistol to shoot open the padlock. Athulathmudali, in his semi conscious state, told him not to. He wanted to be taken through the correct entrance.
He also wanted treatment locally, because he trusted the local doctors and they in turn did not fail him. People prayed and sent good wishes for his recovery. And he was very keen that all those letters were replied to. I pay tribute to the local media, particularly to the Divaina newspaper, which carried a daily update on his recovery, to bring solace to the public.

On national security
When Athulathmudali was entrusted with the newly created National Security Ministry, he had no special training on the subject but, he was a Minister who could even brief the heads of the armed forces on matters of national security. I still recall one such briefing he had with the commanders of the security forces when the LTTE launched suicide bomb attacks.
His message to them was very clear and simple; it was not about how to counter suicide attacks or, how to catch the suicide bombers but, how to stay alive. He laid out four instances in which a VIP could fall prey to a suicide bomber; when you are leaving home in the morning, when you are going home after work, when you come to office and when you leave office. It is not rocket science.
His assessment was based on the fact that the suicide bomber will monitor you over a period of time, before launching the attack and that he or she would not stay in one place. His simple advice to the heads of security forces was to keep on changing the times of arrival and departure.
He also stressed that the top brass should not travel together and that they should often change their vehicles. His words of advice are valid even today. When you consider all the leaders and military people who fell victim to LTTE’s suicide attacks, over the years, and even in the recent past, haven’t they been correctly targeted at one of these four instances which Athulathmudali envisaged they would? How was he able to achieve such greatness, one may wonder. The secret behind this success was that he had a sixth sense called common sense and he was not afraid to use it.

The Ratmalana Electorate Development Foundation (REDF)
The founding of the Electorate Development Foundation in 1980 gave the people of his electorate hope for life. Athulathmudali’s vision was to give people different vocational skills.
He started a driving school, English and Stenography and Secretarial classes for which people in the calibre of the late B.K. Cooray, late Gunapala Peiris, late Eustace de Silva, late Mr Hapugoda, late B.D.Y. Seneviratne, late S.W. Goonawardhane, late K.P. Gunaratne, Upul Jayasuriya and Manel Liyanage were placed in charge.
Always a practical and far sighted person, Athulathmudali obtained a dealership from the Petroleum Corporation and the profits of the petrol station went into fund the activities of the REDF. He was also supported by the businessmen in the electorate, in this venture.

Democratic United National Front (DUNF)
The political context in the late 80’s, forced people like Athulathmudali to bring in an impeachment on the then President. It was not done for personal gain but, in a bid to restrict dictatorial leadership. However, he was removed from the United National Party as well as Parliament. However, he, together with the late Gamini Dissanayake, were able to create the DUNF in 1991. At the 1993 Provincial Council Election, even after Athulathmudali’s death, the Party was able to secure 975,000 votes.
This showed the confidence that people had placed on him. It also showed the calibre of the leader people needed. The United National Party has not been able to recover from the self destruction it launched by sacking senior and stable members like Athulathmudali and Dissanayake. Neither have members of the party seem to have learnt the lesson that sidelining senior members does not help at all.

Ethnic issue
He was of the firm belief that there should be a negotiated settlement for the armed conflict. And, he reiterated that the State had to weaken the LTTE, to bring them for talks. However, he made it very clear that weakening did not mean killing people.
He had the utmost respect and care for human life and was deeply concerned when lives were lost. To him, whomever was lost, was a tragic loss for the country. He was particular that there should be minimum sacrifice of human lives and when a negotiated settlement is reached one day, the people of the nation should not feel that the sacrifices made by those who are no more, were not in vain.

A tribute
There can be volumes written about the late Athulathmudali, for he continues to be a legend in this country. His intellectual brilliance, together with a necessary arrogance, saw him shine both locally and internationally. His wit and humour made those around him feel that he was one of them.
However, there was one strict order which all his subordinates had to adhere to; he never wanted anything named after him. Therefore, significant achievements he made for the country were given to the people. However, that alone has made his name synonymous with his work. And, he was a leader, who could walk freely in any part of the country.

These are just two reasons why he is still alive in our memories. And, the greatest tribute we can pay him today is at least try to follow his advice and the path to inner freedom he showed us. I conclude with this quote taken from the long essay he wrote after his near death experience;
“Life is never to be given away, it can only be taken from us”
– S.V.D Kesarralal Gunasekera










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