Political veteran Dinesh Gunawardena, a known ally of the Rajapaksa clan and a school friend of newly-elected President Ranil Wickremesinghe, was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka on Friday amid an unprecedented economic and political crisis.
The 73-year-old leader, who has previously held multiple Cabinet posts, took oath on Friday morning, a day after Wickremesinghe was elevated to the President’s post. Wickremesinghe replaced former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who stepped down and fled to Singapore following months of protests by agitated Sri Lankans.
A hard-core leftist, Gunawardena belongs to a prominent political family in Sri Lanka that played a role in India’s freedom struggle.
A political old-timer, Gunawardena is the leader of the Trotskyist majority nationalist Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), which is a constituent party of Sri Lanka’s ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
In a political career spanning over five decades, the 73-year-old has previously served as the country’s foreign and education minister. Most recently, he was appointed as the Home Minister of the island nation in April by former president Rajapaksa.
The Gunawardena family has played a prominent role in Sri Lanka’s political history. His father, Philip Gunawardena, was one of the first leaders to introduce leftist socialism in Sri Lanka before the country’s independence from the British in 1948. Widely known as the ‘father of socialism in Sri Lanka’ and the ‘Lion of Boralugoda’, Philip was the founder of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the first political party in Sri Lanka, which introduced Marxism to the island nation. While his mother, Kusuma, was one of the first female members of parliament, his two brothers, too, were ministers in parliament.
It was after his father’s demise in 1979 that Dinesh took over as leader of the MEP. He first entered parliament in 1983, representing a suburb of Colombo called Maharagama. He later became a leading Opposition figure till 1994, according to news agency PTI.
Gunawardena studied at Colombo’s renowned Royal College, where he was Wickremsinghe’s classmate. He went on to earn an associate degree in management and business administration from the Netherlands Business University and a BBA in international business from the University of Oregon.
The Gunawardena family’s India connect
Gunawardena’s parents were both involved in India’s freedom movement. While studying in London, the prime minister’s father, Philip, interacted closely with Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon.
In 1942, facing pushback for his participation in the anti-colonial movement, Philip fled to India. He is believed to have participated in India’s struggle for freedom. His wife, Kusuma, later joined him and their eldest son Indika was born in Mumbai.
He helped encourage the cooperative movement in India by setting up the Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society system (MPCS), according to ANI.
Challenging road ahead
With Sri Lanka in the middle of a severe economic crisis, both Gunawardena and Wickremesinghe have their work cut out for them. Inflation rates are at an all-time high and the country has not had enough cash to pay for the import of essential items, including food and medicines.
Late last month, Wickremesinghe had said the island nation’s debt-laden economy had “collapsed” and was heading for “rock bottom”.