by Kesaralal Gunasekera
The late Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali was best known in the public domain as a great politician, a skillful orator and a pragmatic leader. One thing known only to those who had close interactions with him is the unique ability he had in dealing with people. The skill and competence he had to work with people, is what is now called ‘emotional intelligence’ by the human resource experts. I write this primarily as a tribute to him on his 74th birth anniversary which fell on Friday. If any of the present day politicians could take at least a single lesson from his life as a true people’s representative, it would be a great good fortune to our country.
Having worked closely with him, I can vouch that he was a true people’s representative – and not just a mere politician. He had his own way of dealing with and helping his constituents to resolve their problems. He had set apart three days of the week - Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for people to meet him at his political office in Ratmalana. His office was open from 6 am and his staff required to arrive before him. This alone is indicative of his dedication to the people who elected him to parliament.
These public days had clear objectives - to meet the individual, give a patient hearing and send the person off with a satisfactory answer. In order to achieve these objectives, time management was the key. He wanted people with major problems to come the day before and I was tasked to meet them and get all the necessary information. The following day, in the presence of the person concerned I had to present the case to Mr. Athulathmudali, who wasted no time in taking action.
His services to people did not stop at those who voted for him. I remember that once he had recommended that the daughter of an LSSP stalwart be trained as a nurse. This upset some local politicians from the branch organizations who said she was unsuitable. Mr. Athulathmudali, as usual, kept his calm. He showed no signs of being upset that his staff was questioning his judgment and decision. One day he summoned the girl to his office asking her to bring her curriculum vitae and certificates. Keeping the girl in one office, he called in the local politicians who were having problems with the selection and asked them to interview the girl and go through her certificates to see if she is really suitable. They were embarrassed and were quick to realize that their complaints were based solely on the girl’s political background and not on her real qualifications. The matter ended there. It was interesting how Mr. Athulathmudali, instead of defending his decision, made them realize the importance of being impartial.
There were many other occasions where Mr. Athulathmudali was approached by party people to advise him on certain appointments. Once someone told him that Mr. Lakshman de Mel, a highly respected civil servant, was a leftist. This was cited as a barrier for him to be appointed into a high position in Mr. Athulathmudali’s ministry. Mr. Athulathmudali’s response was; ‘ I do not mind if he follows any other political ideology as long as he can do the work’. A similar concern was raised when Mr. T S Silva was to be appointed as principal of Hena Vidyalaya. A message was sent to Mr. Athulathmudali that Silva was a ‘blue eyed boy’ of late MP Vivienne Goonewardene. Mr. Athulathmudali’s reaction was the same; that irrespective of political affiliations, if the person can do the job, that is all that matters. Frankly, Mr. Athulathmudali had no fear of other political ideologies. Neither did he favour his own party . He never worked thinking that only those who voted for him or in his party are most suited to take up jobs. We truly miss the days of Mr. Athulathmudali where his vision was clear - right person for the right job.
He always led by example. His way of driving a message home was interesting and entertaining. During his time as the Minister for Education, he sent out a circular to all schools stating how a school prize giving should be conducted and the maximum time duration for it. Subsequent to this circular, he was invited by a leading girls’ school in Galle to be the chief guest at their annual prize giving. The function began with a welcome song, a dance and long and elaborate speech by the principal. I noticed that he was checking his watch constantly. Knowing what was in the circular, I was waiting to see a reaction from him as the prize giving ceremony was bound to exceed the allocated time. He called the girl who was compering the event and whispered something in her ear. The principal and teachers were curious to find out what it was all about. The girl announced the awarding of prizes on the instruction given by Mr. Athulathmudali. This, which was the last item on the agenda, was thus moved up. He distributed the prizes.
Then he was called to deliver his address. At the podium, his speech was brief. He said that his circular on school prize giving ceremonies gives a specific time frame and this time will be up in a few minutes. ``I cannot break my own rules" he said and wished all the prize winners all success and ended his speech. I was amazed. It was important that he distributed the prizes within the stipulated time and did not embarrass the principal and staff publicly. What was most important was that following the event, he spent over 45 minutes talking to the teachers and having tea with them. He simply delivered his speech informally during the tea break and also made sure that the principal and staff understood the circular on prize givings.
Mr. Athulathmudali is someone from whom we can learn about professionalism. He was also fortunate to have very professional and knowledgeable civil servants in his team. One such person that comes to my mind is late Mr. Gaya Cumaranatunga, Additional Secretary at the Ministry of Trade and Shipping, who was one of the finest officials who worked under him. They had a unique understanding and a way of working. When it came to high confidential and sensitive matters, Mr. Cumaranatunga would make his recommendations in Latin. Mr. Athulathmudali would also respond in Latin. This way, both maintained a high level of confidentiality when it was required and left no room for leaks. Mr. Athulathmudali was a scrupulously honest leader and those who were in his top team were equally honest and dedicated to public service.
Although in today’s context politicians are hesitant about decentralizing, Mr. Athulathmudali was an expert in the matter. This is one reason why he was so efficient in multi-tasking. He trusted his team to do the best on his behalf. I remember one day when a Buddhist monk came to his office with a problem. The monk was narrating a long tale of woe. I knew that time was of utmost importance to Mr. Athulathmudali. But he was not willing to tell the priest that he was getting late. He would never make any person feel that their problems are not important. Honestly, their problems were very important to him. He listened to the monk and said ‘The ideal person to handle this is Lal Gunasekera’ and called me in. He handed over the monk and the problem to me and instructed me to find the best solution. I attended to the problem and resolved it before long.
Two weeks following the incident, I attended a ‘bana’ sermon at a friend’s place and the same priest attended. He mentioned the incident and thanked Mr. Athulathmudali for his prompt action. This shows that decentralizing authority and tasks only made him more popular and not otherwise. Mr. Athulathmudali carried only his diary and a pen. The pen was his weapon. He did not need to carry piles of files with him. His ability to resolve issues was such that he only needed to write what action to take. With one stroke of the pen he would give instructions to one of his competent staff. He knew how competent the staff was and made sure that they knew it too.
I believe that all his staff enjoyed working for him as much as I did. Shyamila Perera was his Co-ordinating Secretary and Legal Officer. She was one of the most trusted persons of the minister. Mrs Preethi Jayaratne was his Senior Assistant Secretary who also wrote his speeches. One day the minister arrived early and none of the members of his personal staff including Preethi and Shyamila were around. The minister declared ‘ Tell all of them that they are sacked’. We all arrived and heard this news and waited. We knew that we would be required to be at his service before long. He was such a team player and he would be lost without the team. Around 11 am, the minister called his private secretary, Upali Gooneratne, and said ‘ Please tell Preethi to attend to this speech, I need it by afternoon’. This was conveyed to Preethi who very casually stated that since she has been sacked, she is unable to perform the given duty. Mr. Gooneratne conveyed this to Mr. Athulathmudali .‘ All right,All right’ said the Minister, ‘ tell them that all are now reinstated!’. It was a pleasure to work with him. In this situation both the sacking and refusal to work was done in jest and that is the culture that prevailed in his office. The staff was also free to make jokes.
It goes without saying that there was none to beat his wit. Even today I cannot think of a single politician who can even come close to, in terms of his wit. At a Heads of Departments meeting at the Ports Authority I can still recall a conversation he had. Mr. Leslie Fernando who was a working director at the Ports Authority and a veteran trade unionist, exclaimed that the identity cards worn by staff were undecipharable due to the small print. Since it was a time where the Port was under threat, all staff were required to wear ID tags in order to be identified at sight. "Sir," Leslie said, "Even when you come bosom to bosom, it is difficult to read the name." The quick response from the Minister was," Leslie, you must understand that when you come bosom to bosom, the name is immaterial." Everyone present were in fits of laughter, including Leslie.
Mr. Athulatmudali never carried a purse or money with him. One day a group of students walked into his office on a flag day to sell some flags. He called me in and asked me, " Lal do you have any money?’ I reached into my pocket. I too did not carry a purse. But I had some money. I pulled everything out; both notes and coins, and handed over a 100 rupee note to him. ‘What’s this?’ Don’t you have a purse?’ He asked me. "Sir, you need a purse only if you have a lot of money. I do not have a lot of money and that is why I keep everything in my pocket’ I explained. He took the 100 rupee note and put it in the till. That, I thought was the end of the story. After about three weeks he went on an overseas trip and upon his return handed over a beautiful leather purse to me. I was truly surprised that he actually remembered. I still have that purse. It is more a souvenir now than ever before. To me it is a symbol of how much he cared for his staff.
Moving on to yet another story about his interactions with staff I recall this. We all knew he never carried any money with him. Mr. Jayasena Perera, his coordinating officer, once said in jest ‘ Sir langa rupiyal dekak wath ne athey.’ Although this was said in his absence, the news has reached Mr. Athulathmudali. One day, Mr. Athulathmudali called Jayasena and gave him a two rupee note. Jayasena was non-plussed and asked why? "I heard that you said that I don’t even have two rupees with me’. Jayasena quickly took the two rupees and said thank you. Then he said ‘Sir, can you give me another two rupees?’. Mr. Athulathmudali could not help laughing, for he did not have any more money with him. Jayasena also laughed. He has proved his point.
Another quality that I and many others who worked with him truly admired is the fact that he NEVER reprimands or humiliates his staff in public. He never had to shout at people or publicly humiliate them to show that he was the boss. Everyone knew it and everyone respected him for the way he treated staff. Some days when I knew that he would get late to reach office, I would be late too. One day I was late and found that he has already arrived and started work. Not only that, he has given instructions to his chief security officer Mr. Muthu Banda not to allow anyone in. So I had to wait outside with his security men.
He was meeting members of his constituency that day and I knew that before long he would need me because I knew the background to all the issues that were being presented to him. "Where’s Lal? Where’s Lal?" I heard his voice. Someone may have itold him that I was waiting outside, he said ‘ Enna Kiyanna, Enna Kiyanna’(Tell him to come) as if nothing was wrong. I was summoned immediately and without any questioning I was allowed to perform my duties. However, by keeping me locked out of the office, he sent a subtle message that I needed to arrive before him EVERY DAY. He never spoke about it. But I still do, because he was such a great boss to work for.
On another day I was late for a meeting. I decided to take a side entrance, so that he would not notice me walking in late. I was wrong. He had noticed me walking in stealthily like a rogue. I was expecting some kind of remark. To my sheer humiliation, he just looked at his watch. I could have sunk in my seat. But by not pulling me up in front of a crowd, he taught me to be punctual.
Mr. Athulathmudali was someone who could relate to people from all walks of life. During the time he and Mr. Gamini Dissanayake created the Democratic United National Front, there was a huge following behind them. Once we were travelling to Polonnaruwa for a meeting and stopped on the way to get diesel for the jeep. Mr. Athulathmudali got off the vehicle and spoke to about two people. Within two to three minutes, there was a crowd of over 100 people around him. That was the charisma he had and to this day; people remember him for being a true representative of the people.
I want to end this tribute with two stories which are both hilarious and also show the wisdom he had in dealing with people. A gentleman from Ratmalana (I wiil not reveal his identity), once came to see him. It was very clear that the person was drunk and was looking for an argument with the minister. The issue was real but Mr. Athulathmudali did not want to argue because he did not want to reveal certain facts which could be damaging to other persons concerned. But most of all he did not want to argue with someone who was drunk. He told the gentleman: "Today is not a good day for me, because I am drunk. So I am not in a position to argue or resolve this issue today. So, why don’t you come tomorrow?" Since the minister was not willing to have an argument, the gentleman was compelled to leave. He never returned. Mr. Athulathmudali did not hurt his feelings either.
This happened when Mr. Athulathmudali held the portfolio of Minister for Trade and Shipping and his office was located on the seventh floor of Rakshana Mandiraya. His faithful office aide, the late Sasana Perera, had accidentally left the tap in his office toilet half open on a Friday. When we came to office on Monday the whole place was flooded and the minister was compelled to operate from his secretary’s office. The carpets had to be removed and cleaned. The cost was high. The enquiry revealed that since it was Sasana Perera’s responsibility, the cost of cleaning should be deducted from his salary. The cost would have been a few thousand rupees which was a huge amount at the time. When this was communicated to Sasana, he was upset and angry and stormed in to Mr. Athulathmudali’s office saying;
‘Sir, mage padi kappanna hadanawa’ ( sir they are trying to cut my salary)
Mr. Athulathmudali, as if he knew nothing about the incident, enquiry and the final decision, retorted:
‘Apo! Padi kapanna denna behe. Eheme karanna kaatawath behe" ( Cannot allow salary to be cut. No one can do that)
Sasana then explained what has happened and whined that the Secretary has made a decision to recover the cost from his salary. Mr. Athulathmudali still pretending not to know the issue, asked the enquiry file to be brought. He read it carefully and told Sasana:
‘Sasana, you must go and thank the Secretary for only deducting the cost from your salary, because according to the inquiry recommendations, you must be sacked. So the Secretary Sir has been very kind to you and has reversed that decision. Isn’t it better to have a salary cut than to lose your job?'
Sasana was more than happy to pay the cost of damage from his salary, than to lose his job. To this day, I marvel at the way he handled people. Such creative intelligence! A friend of mine who listened to all these stories said, ‘ You are a very fortunate person to have worked with such a great man.’ Indeed I am. And on his birth anniversary, all I can say is that I am truly glad that he was born in this country and allowed us to witness and learn from his great leadership qualities and leave a legacy behind as a genuine representative of the people.
May he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana.
(The Writer is a former Member of Parliament)