Sustaining Youthful Dreams

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By Uditha Devapriya

Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power on a sweeping mandate that promised national security, prosperity, and dignity. For reasons he must be aware of these promises have now gone out of the window. They were particularly valued and look up to by the young: the same electorate that had entertained high hopes for the Yahapalana administration. With the downfall of that Government, they naturally, and justifiably, believed that a Rajapaksa restoration could improve things. This is why Rajapaksa’s campaign focused on students and young professionals so much: because he knew they mattered.

Unlike the Yahapalana promises of free Wi-Fi, salary hikes, and price reductions, Rajapaksa’s campaign promised to look into the future. This was what the young were looking for: tired of populist appeals and promises, they wanted a person who could improve things in the long term. The more urban suburban middle-class youth had long envisioned a meritocratic society, a polity run by technocrats. With Rajapaksa’s track record as Defence Minister and head of the Urban Development Authority, they thought they’d found their man. This is why videos of jubilant teenagers praising him made the rounds on every TV channel.

For this, they were ready to cut him some slack. When President Rajapaksa avoided a debate on live TV with Sajith Premadasa, they scorned his opponent, not him. When Anura Kumara Dissanayake questioned his military and political career, they pounced on Dissanayake’s past and cast aspersions on his claims. When his managers inserted interactive ads in every newspaper, they eagerly lapped it up. A young man I knew, who had until then steered clear of political debates, found himself asking questions at one of the many Q&As his managers organised on social media. Put simply, Rajapaksa exuded a charm the young found it hard to disengage from. In the end they came in droves to vote for him.

Street art optimism

The optimism and jubilation that surrounded the 2019 Presidential Election seems almost unimaginable today. Starting in the cities, and spreading to every corner in the country, the young painted every other public wall and public space. There was no particular logic to what they drew, but then graffiti of this sort transcends logic. They felt happy at whom they had voted for and they wanted to let everyone know how happy they were. Be it drawings of military heroes or depictions of the country’s flora and fauna, these paintings epitomised a youthful ardour, the optimism of a nation on the way to the top.

In An Affair at Ward Place Hotel, one of the characters exclaims, “Politics is theatre, theatre is politics!” This is a cliché, but it holds true everywhere and anywhere. It certainly held true of Sri Lankan politics in late 2019. While Rajapaksa’s team came up with an impressive set of policies, President Rajapaksa made several visits to public institutions, advising them sternly to improve their services and cater to the people better. To be fair, this worked, at least for the one institution that benefitted from his visit, the RMV. Disenchanted by the broken promises and shattered hopes of the Yahapalana regime, the young looked up to a man who could ensure security and dignity, and with that prosperity.

The Yahapalanas had only themselves to blame. Praised by one foreign Government after another, they refused to acknowledge that they had come to power on a rather confused mandate. They were led by a man who had defected from his opponent’s party and alliance and assumed the presidency with the aid of other parties. He connived to grab leadership of the ruling party, the SLFP, upon coming to power, yet let the UNP, an outfit he had not even campaigned from, dominate parliament, going as far as to sabotage his party’s attempts to secure a majority by unceremoniously sacking its Secretaries. To top it all, his Government gave the impression of running over and neglecting the concerns of a constituency which, to nationalist politicians, seemed left out, belittled, and marginalised.

In hindsight, these concerns look trivial and unimportant compared to what we are seeing through and suffering today. Issues of race and religion, and controversies like the use of elephants at peraheras, no longer sound relevant. Yet these topics were what dominated headlines and gossip back then. The people’s appetite for them never wavered, especially the appetite of younger electorates. When Sri Lanka ran into the possibility of fuel shortages because of CPC employees striking against alleged foreign intervention in the sector, the young man sitting in front of me in the van confidently declared, “We will suffer, but it’s all for the betterment of the country, isn’t it?” Such sentiments were by no means exceptional; they were shared by a great many of his kind, his age, and his class.

The incompetence of the yahapalana administration, an administration they had helped come to power on the basis of its promise of establishing a different political order, pushed the middle class youth, particularly those from nationalist and conservative backgrounds, to think of a better alternative than what the Joint Opposition were proposing. While Mahinda Rajapaksa was clearly loved by those who would vote for him no matter what, in particular the Sinhala and Buddhist heartlands of the south, north-central, and north-western regions, in places where he did not court much support, especially towards the west, there was talk, debate, and discussion about an alternative Opposition programme.

Filling the void

It was this void that Gotabaya Rajapaksa filled. Full of enthusiasm, those who supported the Joint Opposition gradually turned to the brother of the man they had helped to prop up. This did not go well with many of those in the JO, as the defections from the SLPP alliance should tell us today. Yet overwhelmed by the mood of the moment, the JO had no choice but to throw its weight behind the new presidential figure. Earlier, ideologues allied with the JO, thereby paving the way for  Mahinda Rajapaksa, who couldn’t contest as President again, to become Prime Minister. This strategy changed: from acting as the Raul to Mahinda’s Fidel, Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed control of the whole ship.

The young reacted predictably. They had for long envisioned a politics free of politicians, a meritocracy where qualifications mattered and the will of the people could be subjected to the intelligence of an elite. This, Viyath Maga and Eliya made use of, even as the yahapalana administration broke apart under the weight of its own contradictions. Moved to anger and disgust, the urban-suburban youth attended VME seminars, encouraged by their promises and pledges. The organisers of these seminars explained matters simply and very succinctly, breaking down statistics and proposing roadmaps for the future. There were, to be sure, not a few conspicuous absentees at these events, but that did not really matter.

Dayan Jayatilleka was not one of the absentees, yet he was one of the loudest critics of what was happening. In perhaps the finest piece of commentary to emerge from the yahapalana era, Dr Jayatilleka observed this of Viyath Maga’s economic philosophy.

“The economic policy model that was unveiled in some detail by Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Viyath Maga convention was not entirely unproblematic. As a growth strategy on the right flank of the Mahinda Rajapaksa coalition and under Mahinda, it would be quite useful. In other words, as a sub-set of a larger Mahinda Rajapaksa policy paradigm it would be quite fine. However, if it is either a stand-alone model or the dominant one, driving economic policy as a whole, it will generate contradictions.” 

Here, then, was the problem: while clearly catering to an urban and suburban youth – an upward aspiring middle bourgeoisie – VME’s economic programme risked nothing less than the destabilisation of Sri Lankan society. Dr Jayatilleka saw what few others, critics or even supporters of the Yahapalana administration, did, namely, that a Rajapaksa administration without the policies of the most loved of the Rajapaksa brothers would not just break apart, but would also chip at the legacy of the whole family. For all his faults, Mahinda Rajapaksa had always been known as a doer. VM’s policies and proposals ran the risk of tarnishing his reputation and alienating his supporters. This is what has happened today.

Put very simply, in their clamour for a meritocratic alternative to the yahapalana regime, Sri Lanka’s middle-class youth voted for an administration that finds itself helpless in the face of the country’s worst crisis in decades. Disillusioned and disgusted, the young who lent their support to Rajapaksa’s Government have now turned the other way. They once had certain dreams: a good education and a way of helping the country prosper. Today they cling to just one hope: a VISA to the West. In their eyes, this regime has let them down. Utterly helpless, they feel drained of any hope, both for themselves and for their country.

The writer can be reached at [email protected]