Those between 18 and 25 years wanted change, a peaceful revolution and above everything else, a new leader
Most of those who defected from the SLFP to the Hansaya were also young, fresh faces that had made their fortunes in the UNP
Alongside promises made of change there were promises made of free wi-fi
There was, and always will be, a rift within the young between the english speaking crowd and those whose mindsets are manifestly of a different sort
Sri Lanka needed a revolution, we were told. This was way back in 2014, when the Uva Provincial Council Elections confirmed that the UNP, far from being the eternally defeated, could wield enough support among the grassroots for it to come back to power. That it did return as a majority owed more to Maithripala Sirisena’s candidature than anything else, but for now let’s forget that. Let’s concentrate instead on a key element and demographic which voted this present government to power: the youth. Specifically, those between 18 and 25 years. They wanted change. They wanted a peaceful revolution. Above everything else, they wanted a new leader. One who would do away with old structures, call for reform, and basically end corruption.
It was a new face they wanted and it was a new face they got. I distinctly remember the days following the January election when sections of this youth put up posts on Facebook and other social media outlets to the effect that finally, the old order of nepotism, corruption, and mafias was done, and that finally, a Maithri Yugayak would emerge. It was hard at times to figure out whether they were batting for Maithripala, the force behind the man, or that most youthful of the two mainstream parties, the UNP. Especially among those hailing from Colombo and its suburbs and surrounding areas like Wattala, Kandana, and Pannipitiya, the overwhelming belief was that Ranil Wickremesinghe stood for their interests. Much was made of the fact that the key drivers of the change in 2015 were fresh faces, politicians like Eran Wickramaratne and Harsha de Silva who had worked tirelessly to get the greens back in power.
This was true even of those whose parents were traditionalists, who preferred the old order to a potential new and, until the last minute, hedged their bets on Mahinda Rajapaksa. One of the most glaring mistakes the Rajapaksa camp committed in its last few months was to ignore this demographic. True, the SLFP has more often than not been a petty bourgeois party which historically stood up for the interests of elderly Sinhala Buddhist conservative middle class tradesman and merchants (an observation Regi Siriwardena made decades ago), but with Mahinda Rajapaksa there came another reason for the youth to despise the blues: Namal Rajapaksa and his all but completely politicised youth outfit, the much derided, cast aside Nil Balakaya. When most of those who defected from the SLFP to the Hansaya were also young, fresh faces that had made their fortunes in the UNP (I am talking about Naveen Dissanayake and Vasantha Senanayake), the writing was, literally, on the wall. The young had wanted their opportunity for revenge.
There was a classist element to all this. To be sure, the Mahinda Rajapaksa Cabal was seen as flirting with vested interests that made it more capitalist than the UNP. But consider that in the days immediately preceding and following the 2015 Election, it was rather difficult to separate the triumphalism surrounding Ranil Wickremesinghe’s return from the biases and the prejudices harboured by the privileged young against the village. While these biases did not come out in gushes and torrents, a facebook post there and a twitter comment here made it obvious that these for the most English educated or half-baked (gandabba) population equated the victory of the Greens to a victory of a new society that would privilege technocrats and meritocrats above everyone else. (For those who believe that all it takes to rid a country of such class biases is to bring those meritocrats to power, I highly recommend Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy.) What transpired in 2015, thus, was the substitution of a vibrant, overwhelmingly UNP-led culture of class differentiation (buttressed by a Kolombian mindset and by powerful school cliques) for a more conservative culture of class differentiation. Alongside promises made of change there were promises made of free wi-fi. This was not a coincidence. The then opposition knew what stimulated the young and they knew what it would take to turn the youth voter into a supporter. The man that they had to choose was probably the most unique presidential candidate in the history of this country. I need not delve into those infamous comments made over the Enrique Iglesias concert, comments which proved that this president was more fundamentally tied to the base of his party (which Regi Siriwardena pointed out) than his predecessor. The worst that Mahinda Rajapaksa let out regarding this demographic, after all, was his remark that the known devil was better than the unknown.
In the days immediately preceding and following the 2015 Election, it was rather difficult to separate the triumphalism surrounding Ranil Wickremesinghe’s return from the biases and the prejudices harboured by the privileged young against the village
Voters make errors. That’s a given, particularly in a democracy. I for one personally prefer such errors being made to an administration that is so complacent that it does not allow opponents to contend against it. In Sri Lanka especially, as even travel guides have pointed out, the political experience has been such that voters always turn out incumbents in the name of change, and this despite the most hardcore, unbearable, authoritarian administrations (the two UNP regimes in the eighties, for instance). In every era such errors are made concerning who’s to succeed whom and which party should topple the incumbent. It is a fallacy to consider that the young have always been behind errors and decisions regarding change, but it is reasonable to surmise that, as with 2005 (when they wanted an end to the war), 2010 (when they wanted peace), and 2015 (when they felt that the end of the war was not the beginning of peace), they believed that a change in scenery was sufficient to effect the change they wanted. Given that political errors are made factoring in certain political dynamics, it is interesting to delve into what constituted errors made by this demographic in 2015.
In 2015 change was, as I observed before, equated with the election of technocrats and intellectuals. Siding with Maithripala Sirisena on one hand were the new faces - Harsha, Eran, and Harin Fernando (all of whom have been either sidelined as deputies or pushed into relatively insignificant portfolios) - and on the other hand were the intellectuals - the artists, the academics, the talkers. Change was advertised in rosy words because the Hansaya consisted of people who were able to rationalise the “badness” of Mahinda’s regime and the “goodness” of Maithripala’s regime in terms which appealed to the youth. When Thisuri Wanniarachchi wrote “The Last King of Sri Lanka” (Mahinda being the king), people didn’t just read it, they read into it. It’s easy to dismiss the scintillating, terse prose, the brash unravelling of political flaws it indulges in, and the stunning weight of its epiphany at the end as wishful thinking now, but for many of us then, it was anything but: we badly wanted the Rajapaksas to be toppled, and the young were at the forefront of that campaign. Writers like Thisuri provided the grist to their mill.
However, let’s not forget here that there was, and always will be, a rift within the young between the english speaking crowd and those whose mindsets are manifestly of a different sort. Such a distinction is hard to create or for that matter sustain, but it soon became apparent when the values associated with the former camp - feminism, gay rights, opposition to the death penalty - clashed with the values associated with the latter camp and when that clash took on a political dimension. When Thisuri wrote that tract lambasting popular schools in and around the metropolis and the culture of misogyny which (according to her) formed the crux of big matches and trucking, to give just one example, she received one blistering comment after another from those who had ironically earlier been united with her in their opposition to Mahinda, but who at the same time retained the same qualities which the likes of Thisuri associated, rather justifiably, with Mahinda Rajapaksa. Laying aside the point that most of her tirades against big matches and trucking were based on misplaced extrapolations (not to mention her animus against Sinhala Buddhist schools), it was a piece that deserved more, much more, than the childish, immature, and misogynistic remarks it attracted.
As even this rift between the two faces of the youth indicates, there was a marked contradiction at the heart of the Maithripala campaign, and the young, believing that all it took for a change in the political scene was a change in the political scenery, believed that the values they stood for, with respect to the english speaking crowd, would be protected and preserved by the new administration. There is a wide gulf between the Thisuri Wanniarachchis and hardcore Royalists of this world, and this gulf, which was bridged and patched by the toppling from power of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, re-emerged when Maithripala Sirisena (inadvertently?) brought back the old rhetoric of misogyny and authoritarianism. That was the biggest political error the young made this time: assuming that they were united as one, when in reality they were split into two. The two corners of this youth - the Kolombian and the non-Kolombian - naturally remain as alienated from each other as they always were. The non-Kolombian youth are fast being attracted to the Gotabaya Rajapaksa phenomenon. That’s where the rub lies. And with it, our tragedy.