Vasu: Up Close and Personal | Daily News


Completion of 50 years as a Parliamentarian:

Vasu: Up Close and Personal

When the sixteenth Parliament was convened recently, it also marked the 50th anniversary of the oldest and longest-serving Parliamentarian, the only one to reach that rare double milestone. (Only two other politicians have achieved this milestone in recent times – Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Athauda Seneviratne).

Vasudeva Nanayakkara was elected to Parliament at the 1970 Parliamentary Election, representing Kiriella, at age of just 31, as a candidate of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) led by Dr. N.M. Perera. Serving as the Leader of the Democratic Left Front (DLF) and having contested the Ratnapura District under the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), he was sworn in as the Water Supply Minister on August 20, 2020 in Kandy.

During over half a century as a pre-eminent politician in the nation, Vasudeva has served as a Parliamentarian, a cabinet minister, and a presidential candidate. During his long tenure as a Parliamentarian, he has distinguished himself for his integrity and honesty, no mean achievement for a Sri Lankan politician. It is a matter of regret, though, that he will also be remembered for an indecorous gaffe directed at the then Prime Minister when according to press reports the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe attempted to prevent Nanayakkara from raising a Point of Order.

As a Parliamentarian, he has been an uncompromising champion of the rights of the minorities. He has been beaten, jailed, and forced underground for his political activism. His activism, compassion, and fearless honesty have won the hearts of the working class and minority communities.

It was as 10-year-old kids that we met as students at Richmond College, Galle in 1949, and ever since then, we have been close friends though most of our lives, though we lived oceans apart, in different continents.

Richmond was a politically active place creating an awareness and an interest among the students in the politics of then Ceylon through debates and discussions, particularly in the hostel environs.

Vasu at the time was a firebrand UNP supporter, mainly because his family was the primary benefactor in Galle for the UNP. His father was a wealthy businessman running one of the most successful wholesale and transport business in the South. His fleet of lorries transported much of the goods back and forth from Colombo to the Southern cities. The lorries had painted on them the name of the business as ‘Vasudeva & Co’, named after the owner’s eldest son. His father also owned tea estates and was an ardent supporter of the UNP. So, coming into Richmond, it was natural for Vasu to be a UNP supporter.

At the 1952 General Election, riding a wave of sympathy in the wake of the death of the first Prime Minister of the Nation D.S. Senanayake, the UNP, led by his son Dudley Senanayake, won the elections. In the ensuing celebrations, Vasu led the UNP group in the school, demonstrating around the school grounds. He was donned in green from head to foot with a green shirt, cap, and flag in hand, carried on the shoulders of friends as their leader.

Having been an admirer of socialism for a while, a group of us from Galle schools formed an informal socialist group in our senior years. Once a month we invited leading Trotskyite leaders as speakers, and one Sunday I had invited Tissa Vitharana, at the time a senior medical student at the Medical College who happened to be the nephew of the leader of the LSSP, Dr. N.M. Perera, to address our group. He motored down from Colombo in his Vespa scooter and gave a brilliant lecture to about 15 of us, including a couple of friends that we had invited to the lecture.

Among the reluctant invitees was Vasu. Before the lecture, I had been working on the empathy he has shown towards minor staff by preaching socialist dogma that I hardly understood myself. To my pleasant surprise, he was captivated by Tissa’s lecture and slowly but steadily drifted towards socialism. By the time the 1956 general Election rolled by, which was won by the newly formed Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Vasu was a true red-blooded socialist who was even more conversant with socialist philosophy and its demagoguery than the rest of us in the group.

Vasu became such a fervent supporter of socialism that while still at Richmond, he organized a strike among his father’s tea estate workers. His father promptly sacked the leader and got the workers back to the estate. The leader wanted to get his job back and sheepishly went and spilled the beans. His father was so furious with Vasu for initiating the strike that he nearly disowned his son.

Watching these developments on the sidelines was the now Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was in the junior boarding at Richmond College. Richmond indeed was the house of Rajapaksas. His father, D.A. and his uncle D.M. and his cousins George and Lakshman and his brother Chamal, were all Cabinet Ministers who were educated at Richmond and played in the college cricket team. Following his father’s death in 1967, Mahinda Rajapaksa took over as the SLFP candidate for the Beliatta constituency and was elected to Parliament in 1970 as the youngest Member of Parliament at just 24, the same year that Vasu was first elected to Parliament. Thus, the Prime Minister is also completing his fiftieth year as a Parliamentarian this year.

Despite his father's admonitions, Vasu remained a socialist, immensely distraught of the social injustices he observed that compelled him to abandon his promising law career and devote his time and energy seeking comprehensive and lasting remedies for the social ills plaguing Sri Lanka.

Vasu joined the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) as a student in 1958. When he was first elected to Parliament at the 1970 Parliamentary Election, representing Kiriella for the LSSP, he was the youngest of the recognized stalwarts in the LSSP, led by several political legends of the time. Vasu was at the forefront of the trade union struggles. The LSSP peaked in political strength in the 1970s but has declined gradually during the last 30 years. The police imprisoned Vasu for a year for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the government during the failed youth uprising of 1971 led by Rohana Wijeweera. Once out of jail, Vasu spearheaded the movement to nationalize Sri Lanka’s large tea, rubber, and coconut plantations, which are remnants of the colonial economy.

In 1977 when the LSSP was expelled from the United Front Government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the LSSP leadership expelled Vasu, then the leader of the LSSP Youth League, along with his idealist colleagues from the party, blaming their agitation for speedy reforms for the privileges lost from no longer being in the coalition Government and its Cabinet. Vasu went on to form the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) with a non-communal socialist agenda.

Vasu stands firm in his belief that each ethnic group should have the right to maintain its identity and determine its fate. In 1983, the Sri Lankan government, in a calculated attempt at shutting down all opposition to its policies, banned Vasu’s party and a few other leftist groups, falsely accusing them of fomenting racial riots. The Leftist groups found themselves without the option to defend their rights under the Emergency Rules, and Vasu was constantly on the run during his two-year hide-and-seek with the law. He was masquerading dressed as a Middle Eastern sheik when he openly visited the legendary attorney President’s Counsel D.S. Wijesinghe, at his residence at the Thimbirigasyaya junction where I was visiting, as I always did, during my trips to Colombo. Vasu was confident he was not detectable in the form he was in and dared even to speak to Policemen seeking information.

In the highly emotionally charged battlefield of ethnic politics of the time, many of his colleagues paid the price with their lives. Vasu feels lucky to survive the terror-filled late ’80s when paramilitary death squads and the extreme nationalist insurgents reigned; neither group respected the middle ground that Vasu and his colleagues were espousing.

Vasu had always been the maverick in the LSSP and ready to criticize the government and even the party, whenever he felt either was deviating from its stated mission. In 1994, the LSSP joined the People’s Alliance (PA), the front led by the SLFP. Vasu had by then returned to the LSSP from the NSSP following a disagreement with his protégé Dr. Wickramabahu Karunaratne who now leads the NSSP. However, in 1999 Vasu, the LSSP Member of Parliament elected from Ratnapura, was once again expelled after publicly criticizing the PA Government.

After his expulsion, Vasu floated the Democratic Left Front (DLF). The LSSP gradually lost strength. The Congress of Samasamaja Youth Leagues that Vasu led had been disbanded. At the 2010 elections, both the LSSP and the DLF contested under the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Once again, Vasu won elections as an MP from the Ratnapura District and was appointed as National Languages and Social Integration Minister after the 2015 elections.

Many consider that Vasu’s finest hour came when he placed a wreath on the front table of the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1976 during the No-Confidence Motion which was tabled by J.R. Jayewardene, as the Leader of the Opposition at the time. When the Sergeant-at-Arms approached to take Vasu to Parliamentary custody, leaders on the Left and the Right, N.M. Perera, Colvin R. De Siva and J.R. himself formed a ring around Vasu so that Sergeant-at-arms could not approach Vasu.

At the recent 2020 elections, he was once again elected to represent Ratnapura. Having been sworn in as a Minister in the current Cabinet and addressing his supporters, Vasu lamented that he has so far failed to find a way to close the gap between the rich and the poor that he had sought all his life and that he may have to bid farewell to life before he finds one. But after a half a century as a politician, he remains sincere to his cause and untainted by any allegation of corruption. That is quite an achievement for a Sri Lankan politician. That may also be his ultimate legacy.