By Uditha Devapriya –
For obvious reasons, the world doesn’t revolve the way most of us would want it. The rise of fringe movements that have taken on the Establishment, the apathy of Third Way centrism that was a cover for neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism, the rejection of conventional politics by the young, and the embracement of bigotry, sexism, and populism by the old (in the West) are all signs of an impending tragedy. What’s worse is that the narratives being spun to the people, for the most, are failing. Perhaps that’s why the US midterm elections didn’t play up to the hype that political pundits played along to. There was no blue wave, and even though the Democrats won several key governorships and control of the House of Representatives, the Republicans swept into the Senate with a clear majority, winning key swing states.
It would be rash to blame one party, or ideology, for the imbroglio this has resulted in. You can add, multiply, subtract, and divide, but whichever way you look, the truth is painfully obvious: it’s not the world we once knew. What’s true for the world is true for this country too. It’s not the country I used to know.
Part of the reason for that, I think, is the way the young react to political parties and political infighting in general. It doesn’t take a theorist to figure out that, no matter what the party, no one has really stood for the interests of the teenage, adolescent, and early adult demographic (between 18 and 24). Their indifference towards political movements stems, not from anger, but from disappointment: it cost the Democrats in 2016, when, shocked at the defeat of Bernie Sanders and upset at Hillary Clinton’s at times self-contradictory stances, they came down: 60 percent of the 18-24 year old segment had voted for Obama in 2008; for Clinton the turnout was, by contrast, 55 percent. Resentment can be tough.
As a former member of this segment (I turned 25 the day the US midterm elections were held), I can attest and even relate to the contempt with which those who belong to it treat conventional politicians. There was a glimmer of hope in 2015 when Ranil Wickremesinghe and his cohorts took over the parliament. For the first time in many years, a woman took over the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs; for the first time ever, a woman took oaths as Mayor of Colombo; for the first time also, many of the members of the Cabinet actively struck a chord with the young.
And it wasn’t just those promises of free Wi-Fi and free laptops and free tabs that endeared these politicos to them (in any case, we don’t have the statistics relating to how many of them voted for Maithripala Sirisena and the UNP). It was the idea of legislators actively taking into account their views, opinions, even prejudices. When a young man I know well, who supports Mahinda Rajapaksa, told me that he had no respect for Anagarika Dharmapala because of his chauvinism, I realised that these were views, opinions, and prejudices that transcended simplistic political dichotomies. These youngsters were hard to understand.
I know there are those who supported Ranil Wickremesinghe because of his school tie and elitist credentials (the school clique he institutionalised was one of many reasons why his campaign failed), but even those from this segment who were batting for him were focusing on younger blood: on Harsha de Silva, Eran Wickramaratne, Harshana Rajakaruna, and more than anyone else, Buddika Pathirana. If Mahinda Rajapaksa managed to conjure an image of himself as a baby-carrying populist who was in touch with the people, these parliamentarians conjured an opposite image: those who made it evident for us that politicians need not always carry those babies.
The need of the hour, in 2015, was a set of parliamentarians who could convince us that there needed to be a shift in the polity from the Executive to the Legislature. A crucial part of the campaign for this shift stemmed from the belief that the country needed meritocrats like Harsha and Eran. They were the face of the UNP.
For a while, this worked. From the UPFA I could think of only one politician constantly in touch with the young, and that was Ramesh Pathirana. But when Pathirana posted on Facebook the figures for AIDS patients in India and Sri Lanka and how the situation here would worsen if the ETCA deal was struck, he raised flak from the medical community for his serophobia. It was difficult to imagine Harsha and Eran indulging in that kind of below-the-belt mudslinging. It still is, because they are from a different calibre: while their cosmopolitanism can be squared with the UNP, if tomorrow a campaign for democracy is launched against the party leadership, for legitimate reasons, they would join in, just as Athulathmudali and Dissanayake joined in the movement against Ranasinghe Premadasa.
Tragically, however, and despite this, the kind of meritocracy they envisioned for the country failed, not because they had ulterior motives, but because, as Muralitharan aptly put it, people want three meals a day more than anything else. This is not to say that democracy, freedom, and liberalism are values that must be sacrificed at the altar of economics. Far from it. But the meritocracy that Harsha and Eran tried to usher in, with their very personalities, was one rooted in a cosmopolitan, class-based society, English speaking and wielding. It was as rooted, less so, though still rooted, in the elitist credentials and the school affiliations Ranil Wickremesinghe’s clique stood for. After all, both of them hailed from that same clique.
The young hence feel betrayed because the glimmer of hope they saw in 2015 faded away. Political partisanship has never been a strong point with them; they are moved more by ideas than by personalities and parties. But a country like Sri Lanka cannot move ahead with only ideas. It needs personalities and parties, because (and I can’t put this more clearly) it’s prone to instability in a way that the developed world is not. Emotions run high: the reality is that people would vote for anyone who sides with their preferred politicians. How else did the Podu Jana Peramuna garner more than 40 percent of the vote, outstripping the UNP and the UPFA, at the Local Government election? They weren’t voting for ideas; they were voting for those who sided with the former president.
The young didn’t think this way, and they went ahead and voted for ideas. When those ideas came crumbling down and not even Harsha and Eran could stop them from crumbling down, they grew tired. That bred resentment.
In this, I think they are correct and wrong. Correct, because neither party (not the UNP of Ranil Wickremesinghe, Malik Samarawickrama, and Ravi Karunanayake, and not the SLPP of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Keheliya Rambukwella, and Bandula Gunawardane) stood for their interests. Wrong, because this assumes that it is their interests alone, and their behaviour, that bode well for this country’s future.
Dr. W.A Wijewardena, in an article about the illusory appeal of the “goodies package” that the new government dished out to the public in the form of price cuts and salary increments, relates an interesting encounter he had with a group of MBA students at a State University. He had asked them as to what they would do if they were each given 10 million rupees, and he had got the following answers: they would buy a car, travel abroad, or spend the money on “various electronic equipment that have become the fashion of the day.” With that mentality, Wijewardana surmises, “the increased income through expanded government expenditure programs… would end up as incomes of people in other countries.”
I am not one to blame the young only for the mess we are in. The Rajapaksas, despite their merits, ushered in a period of economic prosperity that was rooted in garnering debt. Where politicians go, people follow, so the people yielded to the temptation of building up their personal fortunes through more debt. As of now, the per capita debt of this country is close to 500,000 rupees (according to the former government). Every child born to the country is burdened with that debt.
But then the young continue to live beyond their means. In a society where social position is determined by your wealth, it’s tempting to accumulate much more than what you can afford. The typical youngster’s response to my questions regarding frugality is that they want to have a good time, an attitude hardened by impossible school curricula, gruelling exams, and a hypocritical puritanism fostered on them, against their will, by an archaic education system. And yet, whatever the reasons for that, the consequence, which is a bunch of youngsters who while away time buying luxuries or aspiring for social positions beyond their status, is deplorable. Do they then have the moral right to point fingers at politicians? I don’t think so.
Perhaps I’m wrong there. Perhaps it’s not the politicians only. Perhaps it’s not the youngsters only. Perhaps it’s also the teachers, parents, guardians, and other officials supposed to be in charge of those youngsters who have, inadvertently or otherwise, contributed to our national imbroglio. Either way, they can’t be absolved.