People take part in sports for diverse reasons. Basically, they combine physical activity with personal, social and emotional benefits. Socially, sports forge connections and nurture teamwork and communication skills. But these may not be the only reasons why some people, especially politicians, engage in sports, as evident from the softball cricket matches played in Nuwara Eliya on Saturday (12) with the SLPP parliamentary group, or the Rajapaksa loyalists in it, to be exact, taking part in them. They took place under the aegis of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who himself batted briefly for the fun of it, and was seen enjoying the company of his loyalists more than anything else.

Mahinda has the habit of engaging in sports activities or performing Yoga for the camera presumably in a bid to have the public believe that he is physically fit enough to remain active in politics. He is not alone in doing so. Even US President Joe Biden does so; he runs about and cycles but at times loses his balance and suffers nasty falls. Hence the need for the elderly political leaders seeking media attention to be cautious when they try to make a public display of what remains of their physical strength.

Muscle flexing

Mahinda may not be in the best of health, and he has obviously lost the spring in his step, but that does not deter him from making a determined bid to prevent a further disintegration of the SLPP parliamentary group, which has already suffered several debilitating splits. Former Minister Basil Rajapaksa controls the SLPP MPs, as is public knowledge, but it is Mahinda who, the Rajapaksa loyalists think, is capable of enabling their beleaguered party to recover lost ground, if not make a comeback. They want him to act as the face of the party and drum up enough support for it, the way he did in the past so that they could ride on his coattails and continue to savor power, which they cannot bring themselves to let go of, for obvious reasons.

Saturday’s cricket encounters in Nuwara Eliya may also have been intended to be a kind of muscle flexing by the SLPP for the consumption of its political rivals, whose protests and other hostile actions prevented the government politicians and their supporters from moving about freely in public for fear of attacks. But most social media activists did not take kindly to the cricket matches, and some of them even posted a host of nasty comments on it. The main thrust of the propaganda onslaught on the SLPP MPs including Mahinda was that they were enjoying life while the people were suffering. Reflected in the reaction of the politically-conscious netizens is the growing public antipathy towards the incumbent administration and its leaders. The polity is still resentful.

Leadership lacuna

The SLPP MPs’ overdependence on Mahinda to turn around their party is indicative of a leadership lacuna in the SLPP, which is devoid of second level leaders of national recognition. It is believed that Mahinda is grooming his eldest son Namal, MP, for party leadership, but the question is whether the latter will be acceptable to the ambitious party seniors as a leader besides the general public. Basil is weighed down by his US citizenship, which prevents him from entering Parliament or running for President. He can overcome this obstacle by emulating his elder brother Gotabaya, who renounced his US citizenship to secure the presidency, but whether he will do so remains to be seen. Perhaps, he prefers to be the power behind the throne without holding political office while retaining his US passport.

Mahinda used to be a political magnet; he would win elections for the SLFP and then the SLPP almost single-handedly. He retained that ability even after losing the presidency in 2015, and turned the tables on the Yahapalana government in 2018, when the SLPP scored a mammoth victory at the local government elections, before going on to win the parliamentary elections and the presidential polls in 2019 and 2020 respectively. The SLPP seem to think he is still capable of such a feat.

Marketing Mahinda

What basically enabled the SLPP’s victory against the Yahapalana goernment was the Mahinda Sulanga (‘Mahinda Wind’) campaign initiated by some SLFP dissidents, who hitched their wagons to the former President, who remained popular despite a humiliating electoral setback. The ‘Mahinda Wind’ became a political twister of sorts for the UNP-led government, which underestimated the Rajapaksas’ comeback efforts. The Rajapaksa loyalists in the SLPP parliamentary group seem to think Mahinda is still a highly marketable brand, and they will be able to turn the tide with his help, again, despite last year’s protests that forced him to resign as the Prime Minister. In fact, they have had to do so for want of a better alternative.

The prospect of having to face an election sooner or later is not the only worrisome proposition troubling the SLPP, which is in disarray. Some SLPP MPs have already rallied around President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has presidential ambitions and has launched his re-election campaign for all practical purposes. Some of them have openly said he is the best candidate the ruling alliance could think of and they will extend their unstinted support to him. The SLPP apparently has no formidable presidential candidate to take on the Opposition, and the possibility of more of its MPs throwing their lot with President Wickremesinghe cannot be ruled out. The SLPP will suffer another crippling split in such an eventuality and its chances of winning a future election will be further diminished.

Speculation is rife in political circles that State Minister Nimal Lanza, of all people, and some other SLPP MPs loyal to him, have gravitated towards President Wickremesinghe. The Rajapaksa loyalists therefore may have sought to use Mahinda to neutralize President Wickremesinghe’s supposed pull on the SLPP parliamentary group and resorted to Saturday’s gimmick.

The SLPP has its work cut out to swing the current situation, and gimmicks and rhetoric will not help it with the task, which is unnervingly gargantuan. Its popularity remains extremely low and its leaders have not yet been able to shore up their images.