In politically polarised Kerala, Preman VK, a carpenter from Thazhekadu village in Thrissur district, was always a fan of the veteran Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader VS Achuthanandan, and thus bitterly critical of his rival, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
“I hated Pinarayi Vijayan,” says the 40-something worker. “I always thought he was rude and ruthless, and saw him as the Gorbachev of the Kerala CPI(M). I never thought a day would come when I would look up to him as a leader, as one who can give a new lease of life to the communist party and our state,” he tells BL ink .
Agrees 20-year-old Sreeja K*, a student from Iritty in Kannur district. Sreeja belongs to what she describes as an apolitical family, but closer to right-wing outfits. “But I respect Pinarayi for what he did during the floods and now, when communal forces are trying to divide Kerala in the name of Sabarimala,” she says.
Preman and Sreeja are not alone. Considered a hardliner and tough nut, Pinarayi, as he is widely referred to in the state, for long was antithetical to what popular leader Achuthanandan stood for. If the senior leader enjoyed an affection that transcended party boundaries, Vijayan’s clout was largely restricted to the party cadre. Even when he took over as chief minister in 2016, not everybody in Left circles in Kerala was convinced that he would be able to lead the state.
Of late, though, as Kerala grapples with one crisis after another, the 74-year-old politburo member is being widely seen as a man of action, though still no-nonsense and unsmiling. In the middle of his five-year term, he is being hailed as a man who gets things done and is unshaken by the repercussions. The deft handling of the Nipah virus outbreak last June — it was contained within weeks — and the relief and rehabilitation during the August 2018 floods have helped change the perception about Vijayan. And that the government helped women enter the Sabarimala shrine, in response to a Supreme Court verdict, has garnered strong support from some sections of the people, especially the young.
On the popular short-form video app TikTok, the hashtag PinarayiVijayan has crossed 5.4 million views and thousands of youngsters now mimic his punchlines from his speeches (especially the one where he mocks BJP chief Amit Shah’s threat of pulling down Kerala’s Left government). His oratory is shared on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and hundreds of comments toasted his “stellar” leadership and “determination” during the Nipah outbreak, the floods and the Sabarimala controversy.
“He was our hero during the floods,” says 58-year-old Ahmed Kutty, who runs a small flour mill near Alappuzha. Thomas Verghese, a retired PSU employee from Thiruvalla, a region badly hit by the floods, agrees. “The relief operations were impeccable and the compensation was delivered to us without hassle,” he says.
If news reports and social media posts are an indication, there has been a shift in the popular opinion of Vijayan, who, until a few years ago, represented — at least to a significant section of Kerala society — all that could be wrong with the CPI (M) and its bastion Kannur, which has been witnessing widespread violence. A few years ago, Kerala’s media was abuzz with stories of the intra-party feud between Vijayan and his bête noire Achuthanandan, who is widely hailed as a champion of the rights of the marginalised.
In a party which has often seen a divide between the pragmatic and the unbending, many saw Vijayan as arrogant and rigid. In the late 1990s, the controversial SNC-Lavalin case, a financial scandal related to a hydroelectric infrastructure contract between the Indian government and Canadian company SNC-Lavalin, dented his reputation. It rocked Kerala politics for years, triggering a blitzkrieg of debates and campaigns for and against Vijayan. In 2013, a Special Court ruling cleared the Left strongman of the charges. The CBI has since moved the apex court against the decision.
“It was a turning point in Vijayan’s political career,” observes Ajith Balakrishnan, political analyst and social media commentator. “The acquittal offered him a new lease of life, though he already enjoyed a strong hold over the party machinery as the state secretary from Kannur.”
Agrees Shiju Joseph, psychologist and social scientist: “In a way, the Lavalin case shaped the persona of Pinarayi Vijayan. People started looking at him as someone who had survived an intense and negative personal campaign.”
Consequently, sections of the neutral middle-class started to view Vijayan as a leader who had been mistreated by the media. However, Vijayan’s own apathy towards the media did not help matters. “To be fair, not many political leaders in Kerala can present a point of view as clearly as Vijayan does — on media or offline. But he adopted an unfriendly approach towards the media and that worked against him,” says Rajeev Ramachandran, former coordinating editor, MediaOne Television. “For almost two decades, he maintained this attitude, and that caused a lot of damage to the CPI(M) and Vijayan’s public image.”
When the Left Democratic Front (LDF), voted to power in the 2016 Assembly elections, picked Vijayan as the chief minister, it appeared that post the SNC-Lavalin reprieve he had emerged as the party’s most powerful figure in the state. But the sidelining of Achuthanandan, 93 then, did not go down well with the cadre. Vijayan, supported by former party chief Prakash Karat, however, chose to be nonchalant and eventually succeeded in getting the patriarch to head the Kerala Administrative Reforms Commission.
His early days as chief minister were bumpy. “Vijayan is a leader accustomed to ‘ordering’ the cadres,” holds Harish Vasudevan, High Court lawyer and commentator. That approach worked well with the party workers, he says. “But after becoming the chief minister, when he extended that logic and tried to apply it to the whole of Kerala, he failed,” Vasudevan notes.
What slowly turned the tide in his favour is the efficient work done by key ministries such as education, finance and healthcare (handling of Nipah, for instance). And, then, Ockhi happened. In November 2017, the state government came in for criticism for its handling of the cyclone, which killed nearly a hundred people, devastated fishing villages in capital Thiruvananthapuram and caused damage worth over ₹2,000 crore. Vijayan’s leadership as well as the government’s efficiency were questioned in the Centre-State wrangle that ensued. “It appears the LDF and Vijayan himself learned the right lessons from Ockhi,” Joseph says.
Floods and after
The lessons from Ockhi proved to be a meaningful governance tool when massive floods hit Kerala in August last year, claiming nearly 500 lives, paralysing the state for weeks and delivering an unforeseen blow to its economy. During this period, Vijayan emerged as an able crisis manager, drawing global acclaim and earning a cult status for the perseverance and determination he portrayed while handling one of the biggest crises in the state’s history. Those marooned were evacuated, relief camps set up, people were compensated and were able to go back to their normal routine within weeks.
“A person who is otherwise rude, Vijayan showed the people that in times of crises he could be empathetic,” says sociologist Rajan Gurukkal. He could manage the situation because he had political control, was a CPI(M)worker with deep, regional roots and a leader of a disciplined cadre, adds Gurukkal.
There was a time when Vijayan’s opponents in the Congress called him “Mussolini in a mundu”, decrying what they described as his authoritarian behaviour. But the no-nonsense approached worked in dealing with the floods, winning him accolades from organisations cutting across political lines.
“Rescue operations under Vijayan were different when compared to those in other states,” notes MN Sanil, a dalit scholar who teaches at the SRM University, Delhi-NCR. “Civil society in Kerala is far ahead of that in other states and this helped Vijayan implement relief and rescue operations,” he says.
Post-floods, the mass media — especially social media — which wield a strong influence over Kerala society, began painting Vijayan in messianic hues. His life story, not well known outside Left circles, started attracting attention, especially among the young. Born on March 21, 1944, Vijayan grew up impoverished; his father Mundayil Koran, a toddy tapper, and mother Kalyani belonged to the backward Thiyya caste. After finishing high school, he worked as a weaver and later joined Brennen College in Thalassery for his BA degree.
He became an active member of the CPI(M)’s student wing and worked his way up the hierarchy. At 26, he was elected to the state Assembly; and was re-elected in 1977, 1991, 1996 and 2016. In 1996, he became a minister handling the electricity and cooperative portfolios. In 1998, he was appointed the state secretary of the CPI(M).
He was brutally assaulted by the police during the Emergency of 1975-77. His speech in the state Assembly, holding the bloodstained shirt he wore when the police tortured him, is part of cadre folklore. Vijayan’s no-holds-barred speech in October 2018 on women’s entry into Sabarimala also won him considerable support. “He has always been a grassroots leader and exudes compassion,” says R Mohan, a former civil servant from Thiruvananthapuram. “Most people have failed to see that.”
The floods redesigned his image as a strong leader, and so did the Sabarimala controversy — which erupted following the state government’s efforts to implement the SC order on allowing women of menstruating age to enter the temple, lifting a decades-old restriction on it. Some analysts believe he did not effectively handle the situation in the beginning (the government appeared intent on implementing the order without consultations, provoking religious outfits and the Sangh Parivar). But Vijayan showed consistency and determination in not letting the crisis blow out of proportion. He warded off riot-like situations, was partially successful in exposing the misinformation campaigns of the Sangh Parivar outfits and put the Congress on the back foot as it could not be seen supporting the Left, and ended up echoing the BJP on the issue.
Not everybody, however, considers Vijayan’s Sabarimala strategy a great success. “He should have taken time to announce the state’s stand (to allow young women to enter the temple) and avoided the consolidation of Hindu votes,” says Vasudevan. “But we never see Vijayan changing his political ideology for power,” he adds.
Some believe that the floods and the Sabarimala issue have helped create a persona of Vijayan that can match or even outsize the larger-than-life image of Achuthanandan. “Even as an Opposition leader, Achuthanandan was able to cultivate the image of being a political leader actively involved in people’s movements. He became a crowdpuller by identifying with the downtrodden. But Vijayan wasn’t able to do that,” notes political analyst Balakrishnan. Agrees Sanil: “While Achuthanandan is seen as an ideal, puritanical leader, Vijayan is considered a pragmatist.”
To counter Vijayan, the right wing has been in attack mode, even hurling casteist abuse at the chief minister. This, however, helped Vijayan earn public sympathy. A recent cartoon in the pro-BJP Janmabhumi daily, ridiculing Vijayan’s caste and implying he was unfit for the job, created an uproar. “The firm stand he has taken towards implementing the SC court order on Sabarimala deserves to be lauded,” says Sunny M Kapikad, a dalit activist. “The verdict would have bitten the dust had it been any other chief minister.”
Vijayan has also anchored his Sabarimala strategy on Kerala’s renaissance past and values, upholding the teachings of dalit and OBC reformers and philosophers such as Ayyankali and Sree Narayana Guru. “He did not base it on popular communist events or ideas,” observes Kapikad. He extended that strategy when he conceived the idea of a Vanitha Mathil, a symbolic women’s wall from Kasargod in the northern tip of Kerala to capital Thiruvananthapuram in the south. It is estimated that nearly 50 lakh women took part in the event on January 1, which also brought together caste, gender and rights organisations that otherwise stay away from CPI(M) campaigns. “That was a master stroke,” notes Joseph. “Not many expected Vijayan to pull it off.”
Of course, the strategy — two women’s secret, police-supervised early morning entry into the shrine on January 2 — has not pleased everybody. G Vijayaraghavan, former member of Kerala’s planning board, says the chief minister and his team went overboard on the Sabarimala issue and the police was not able to control the violence that followed. “It looks like he’s not getting the pulse on the ground. He may have the right intentions, but the implementation of the SC ruling had hiccups,” Vijayaraghavan says.
VT Balram, Congress MLA from Thrithala in Palakkad and a vociferous critic of the Left in general and Vijayan in particular, stresses that the chief minister’s ways are undemocratic. “He behaves like an autocrat and doesn’t value differences of opinion,” says Balram. In fact, the state’s Salary Challenge order that came just after the floods, asking government employees to contribute a month’s salary to the Chief Minister Distress Relief Fund, was criticised by many as draconian. Soon, the government clarified that it was not a “mandatory” exercise. Similarly, the government move to force all public servants to take part in the Vanitha Mathil also triggered a row as many saw it as a reflection of Vijayan’s rigid and autocratic ways.
Further, while the chief minister may have executed the SC order on Sabarimala, he failed to take along the believers with him. “This is not how an elected representative or a chief minister should function. In the Sabarimala issue, his statements and stances were provocative and he had scant regard for the feelings of a section of the people,” Balram says.
Breaking from the past
His critics believe that if Vijayan has to become a real changemaker, a lot more needs to be done. “His style of functioning continues to be in the Kannur style, one that identifies ‘enemies’ and tackles them. That is now extended to State politics and refined in ways that makes the violence less noticeable,” says J Devika, feminist scholar and teacher at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Thiruvananthapuram. “It exudes a certain kind of masculinity and, in a way, is similar to that of (Narendra) Modi. Yes, the masculine attributes — such as the double-chanku (double-gut) hero Vijayan — hold some charm among youngsters, but they can be counter-productive,” she points out.
Dalit scholar Sanil observes that Vijayan and his party are yet to work out an anti-caste agenda. “The CPI(M) has not developed an anti-caste agenda like the dalit groups have. It (caste) now becomes central to them only because of the casteist remarks thrown at Vijayan,” says Sanil. He believes that any kind of alliance between the Left and the dalit groups in Kerala can be a game changer.
“Such an alliance may lead to progressive, anti-caste, anti-religious, anti-capitalist struggles within the limits of parliamentary democracy, and Vijayan, if he has the will, can lead this from the front,” says Sanil. Devika too believes that Vijayan should use his popularity to build an overarching alliance of workers, women, dalits and other downtrodden sections. “He senses the opportunity. But will he seize the moment,” she asks.
Also, will the ghost of SNC-Lavalin come back to haunt Vijayan ? “People will eventually forget it,” believes Balakrishnan. “But what could pose a threat to Vijayan is the perception among a section that he tampered with their religion and customs. That could be a problem.”
*Name changed to protect the privacy of the respondent