“If this is what the IUSF means by socialism, then I am dead against it!”
— A young middle-class protester, on being told what socialism means
Insofar as they were directed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the protests at Galle Face cut through political parties and other differences and unified people. At Gotagogama I came across not just his critics, but his former supporters as well. Representing a respectably wide section of the country, the #GoHomeGota movement gained a resonance and a relevance that has never been seen or matched before. It also provided an opening for groups, which had until then lurked in the fringes, to come out into the open.
Prime among these groups, of course, were the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP). Among eft formations it is these groups that have caught the imagination of the young, predominantly from the middle-classes. The reason isn’t hard to find. At a time when parliamentary politics has become synonymous with everything that’s wrong in this country, protesters tend to look for alternatives.
After April, when the protests at Galle Face temporarily dulled down, both the FSP and the IUSF depicted as those alternatives. People were ready to accept them, and accept them they did. This was symptomatic of two trends: the growing animus against the Rajapaksas, and the radicalisation of the middle-classes. The latter development was more than just ironic: the middle-classes that had once advocated baton-charging the University students were now, effectively, heralding them as their saviours, even heroes.
The IUSF’s greatest strength has been its sloganeering. Reduced to their barest, simplest essentials, these slogans have fired off people. For a long while they failed to move the urban middle-classes. Having joined other social groups in demanding Rajapaksa’s exit, however, they too have shifted in their opposition to the IUSF.
Under its charismatic convenor, Wasantha Mudalige, the IUSF has been able to mobilise more than just students. The contention that the IUSF does not form the core leadership of the protests is true, in that sense, to an extent only: since at least April and May, they have stood out in a way others pretending to be leaders in the protests have not. It’s not correct to say, as very many on social media do, that they do not speak on behalf of the movement: it was the IUSF that organised parades, walk-ins, and the endgame of the aragalaya.
In many respects, however, the IUSF, and the FSP, with which the IUSF is allied politically, exhibits the weaknesses and limitations of Sri Lanka’s New Left. It has been able to mobilise a radicalised middle-class, but its incorporation of the latter has meant a whittling away and toning down of its policy proposals: this is a fate the JVP has met as well, vis-à-vis the NPP. Couched in anti-establishment rhetoric, focusing on the eradication of corruption, the IUSF has yet not been able to come out with a comprehensive document that outlines its vision for the future. Though siding with the Left, it has not been able to convince its followers to move to the Left. Its ideals are utopian, its tactics questionable.
Groups like the IUSF have succeeded in marketing socialism. But marketing socialism is not the same as converting people to socialism. Much of the rhetoric the IUSF has mustered revolves around issues like health and education reforms, cutting military spending, and vetting Parliament to ensure only clean MPs get in. Yet the IUSF, like many other student-led Left groups here and elsewhere, have not yet come out in public and explained how we can achieve these goals. What reforms must we see through, for instance, to ensure that our children have better access to schools? These are hard questions. The problem isn’t that the IUSF hasn’t answered them; it’s that no one has asked them.
The rank and file of the IUSF, of course, is made up of a lower middle-class, mostly rural or suburban, whose conception of revolutionary politics seems focused on widening access to public goods like schools and universities. In this the IUSF is no different to the JVP, except that the JVP has since of late, through the NPP, tilted more discernibly to the middle-classes. The IUSF has not, so far, embraced a middle-class worldview, but its ideals are no different to those which dictates the JVP-NPP’s policies. In both cases, what we have is a young petty bourgeoisie cloaking its demands for greater access under radical slogans.
My critique of the IUSF, however, has less to do with its class composition than with the fact that it is taking refuge in what N. M. Perera called “an ambalama on the path to socialism.” In marketing and popularising socialism among the middle-class, groups like the IUSF have managed to make socialism synonymous with captivating slogans like “system change” and “regime change.” It has turned socialism on its head and presented it as a panacea to every ill in the country. Yet it has failed to convince the middle-classes that socialism is more than an abstraction: that it is an economic ideology, and that it involves a radical transformation of the society we live in and the State we elect every five or so years.
My concern with the IUSF’s leadership of [a section of] the aragalaya is that it seems to have failed to go beyond its populist reformulation of socialism. I strongly believe that the future of this country depends on a definitive tilt to the Left, if not the centre-left. It also depends on active engagement with Parliament. This is why Kumar Gunaratnam’s call to go beyond the legislative process smacks of the same mistakes made by Rajapaksa: it assumes the will of the people, without bothering to assess it. If the IUSF and FSP are serious about bringing socialism to Sri Lanka, hence, it should confront these mistakes, stop flirting with the upper middle-classes, and start a serious debate on the future of this country.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at [email protected]
By Uditha Devapriya