Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe may be like chalk and cheese, in many respects, but they have a remarkable similarity; both of them are amazingly adept at bouncing back against tremendous odds. Whoever would have thought Mahinda would ever be able to turn the tables on the UNP-led yahapalana government, after his ignominious defeat in the 2015 presidential race, and the subsequent collapse of the UPFA government?

It took Mahinda only a few months to emerge politically strong again, and it is believed that he would have won the August 2015 general election if the then President Maithripala Sirisena, who was also the SLFP leader at that time, had not queered the pitch for him as the prime ministerial candidate of the SLFP-led UPFA. Rajapaksa’s political counterattack, which was known as Mahinda Sulanga (‘Mahinda Wind’), began to have an unsettling effect on the Yahapalana government a few months after the 2015 regime change. The SLPP, founded in 2016, had a meteoric rise in national politics and won the Local Government elections, the Presidential polls and the general election in 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively.

Ranil lost his seat in the 2020 general election, and his party, the UNP, was reduced to a single National List slot. His critics and opponents wrote him off and pronounced the UNP politically dead. But Less than two years later, he became Prime Minister and President in quick succession by playing his cards well. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga did so in 1994 by winning the parliamentary polls in August and the presidential election in November, but Ranil secured the premiership and the presidency without contesting any popular elections. Now, he is busy shoring up his image and reviving the UNP with an eye to the next election, which is very likely to be presidential, according to political observers, who argue that it will be much more advantageous for Ranil to face and election himself first, as the most experienced political leader in the fray, instead of making the UNP pit itself against the other political parties at a general election.

Mahinda’s temple visits

Divided as they may be, the Buddhist monks are arguably a formidable political force. They were one of the so-called Five Great Forces (Pancha Maha Balavegaya) that the founding leader of the SLFP, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike successfully marshalled to win the 1956 general election, a few years after his breakaway from the UNP. Some political analysts however discount the strength of Buddhist monks as a political force, given their disunity, but they are capable of carrying out effective political campaigns.

It was a prominent Buddhist monk—Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera—who was instrumental in engineering the 2015 regime change by ousting President Rajapaksa. Not to be outdone, Mahinda mobilized the Buddhist monks effectively, after his defeat, to stage a comeback. He began his campaign from Abayaramaya, Narahenpitya with the blessings of its Chief Incumbent Ven. Muruttetuwe Ananda Thera.

Abayaramaya as command centre

Abhayaramaya became Mahinda’s political command centre so much so that the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe derisively dubbed it ‘Mahindaramaya’.  The UNP and allies berated Mahinda for abusing places of worship for political purposes, but he succeeded in securing a bridgehead on the political front and carrying out a political onslaught against the Yahapalana government.

Mahinda has begun visiting temples again, having lain low since his forced resignation, and the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, last year. He has already visited several famous temples during the past two weeks or so. It is only natural that his political opponents are viewing his temple visits with suspicion. They think he is planning a political comeback, but he has told the media that he has no intention whatsoever of wielding power again, and the SLPP must forge ahead under a young leadership.

Mahinda is known to visit temples, but the increased frequency of his temple visits at present has made his political opponents wonder whether they are part of a political campaign. Mahinda may be telling the truth when he says he is not interested in regaining a hold on power, but he has left unsaid who, he thinks, should take over the reins of the party.

Mahinda grooming Namal?

Who is the young leader Mahinda has in mind? The answer is obvious. Mahinda being a leader who places his family before everything else, political observers are of the view that he is grooming Namal for the party leadership with a view to fielding the latter at the next presidential election. All his brothers are above 70 years, and it is not possible that he will groom any of his nephews as his successor at the expense of his eldest son, Namal. In dynastic politics, every leader’s wish is to clear the path for one of his or her children to secure the topmost position in the country.

Is Namal recognized as a national leader yet? Will he be acceptable to the SLPP seniors who are an ambitious lot? These are some of the questions being asked in political circles. SLPP MP Tissa Kuttiarachchi, a staunch Rajapaksa loyalist, keeps claiming at public rallies that Namal is the SLPP’s best bet for the next presidential election. He seems to be testing the water, maybe at the behest of Mahinda. But it is doubtful whether Namal has been able to make his mark in national politics as a promising leader. He is one of the Rajapaksa family members blamed for ruining Mahinda’s chance of securing a third term in 2015, and making the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government unpopular. The fact that he has failed to endear himself to the country’s youth became evident from the Galle Face protesters’ strident call for his resignation. He and his two brothers have become the targets of hostile social media campaigns.

So, if the SLPP is planning to make a comeback with Namal as its new leader, it will find its goal frustratingly difficult, and such a move is likely to cause more splits in the party. One may recall that the main reason for Bandaranaike’s exit from the UNP was that Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake wanted his son, Dudley, to succeed him. It is believed that Sirisena left the Mahinda Rajapaksa government because he was overlooked when the Prime Minister was appointed. Ambition is the driving force behind most politicians.

Mahinda planning retirement?

It is being claimed in some quarters that Mahinda is visiting Buddhist temples because he is planning to retire. But no political leader retires from politics while holding office, in this country. Sirimavo Bandaranaike did not retire even after being confined to a wheelchair.

According to data released by the Communication Division of the Parliament, in 2020, there were nine MPs aged between 71 and 80, and three MPs were above 81 years. The number of the MPs above 70 years must be higher at present. So, it may be seen that the Sri Lankan MPs do not retire due to ageing.

Television advertisements to boost the image of the SLPP have begun to appear, signaling the commencement of a campaign to revive the ruling party. So, it is not possible that Mahinda is exerting himself to visit Buddhist temples for nothing. But the task of reviving the SLPP is nothing short of Herculean, and Mahinda has his work cut out to rebuild the party.