Explained: Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, and his India connect

Political veteran Dinesh Gunawardena, a noted ally of the Rajapaksa clan and a school friend of President-elect Ranil Wickremesinghe, was sworn in as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka on Friday amid an unprecedented economic and political crisis.

The 73-year-old leader, who previously held several cabinet posts, took the oath on Friday morning, a day later. Wickremesinghe was elevated to the post of president. Wickremesinghe replaced former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who resigned and fled to Singapore after months of protests by excited Sri Lankans.

Gunawardena, a hard-core leftist, belongs to a prominent political family in Sri Lanka that played a role in India’s freedom struggle.

Who is Dinesh Gunawardena?

A political veteran, Gunawardena is the leader of the Trotskyist nationalist majority Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), which is a constituent party of Sri Lanka’s ruling Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

In a political career spanning more than five decades, the 73-year-old served as the country’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Education. Most recently, in April, he was appointed as the island’s interior minister by former President Rajapaksa.

The Gunawardena family has played a prominent role in the political history of Sri Lanka. His father, Philip Gunawardena, was one of the first leaders to introduce left-wing socialism to 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 to introduce Marxism to the island. While his mother, Kusuma, was one of the first female MPs, his two brothers were also ministers in parliament.

It was after his father’s death in 1979 that Dinesh took over from the MEP. He first went to parliament in 1983, representing a Colombo suburb called Maharagama. He later became a leading opposition figure until 1994, according to PTI news agency.

Gunawardena studied at Colombo’s famous Royal College, where he was Wickremsinghe’s classmate. He then obtained an associate degree in management and business administration from the Netherlands Business University and a BBA in international business from the University of Oregon.

India connect of the Gunawardena family

Gunawardena’s parents were both involved in India’s freedom movement. While studying in London, Philip, the Prime Minister’s father, was in close contact with Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon.

In 1942 Philip fled to India, facing backlash for his participation in the anti-colonial movement. He is believed to have participated in India’s freedom struggle. His wife, Kusuma, later joined him and their eldest son Indika was born in Mumbai.

He helped encourage the cooperative movement in India by establishing the Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society (MPCS) system, ANI said.

Challenging way forward

With Sri Lanka in the midst of a severe economic crisis, both Gunawardena and Wickremesinghe have their work cut out for them. Inflation is at an all-time high and the country does not have enough money to pay for the import of essential goods, including food and medicines.

Late last month, Wickremesinghe had said the island’s debt-laden economy had “collapsed” and was heading for “bottoming up”.

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