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“He is ours, yo!”

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on May 13, 2016

Star power: V S Achuthanandan has been the key campaigner for CPI(M) in this Assembly elections and tokens to his popularity are easily found at the rally venues. Photo: K K Mustafah   -  The Hindu

All in a day: VS Achuthanandan doesn’t break his regimen of minimalist diet and exercises even amidst hectic election rallies which witness huge turnout. Photo: K K Mustafah

All in a day: VS Achuthanandan doesn’t break his regimen of minimalist diet and exercises even amidst hectic election rallies which witness huge turnout. Photo: K K Mustafah

All in a day: VS Achuthanandan doesn’t break his regimen of minimalist diet and exercises even amidst hectic election rallies which witness huge turnout. Photo: K K Mustafah

All in a day: VS Achuthanandan doesn’t break his regimen of minimalist diet and exercises even amidst hectic election rallies which witness huge turnout. Photo: K K Mustafah   -  The Hindu

The Boys of CheGuevara are having fun at Kannambra. Photo: K K Mustafah

The Boys of CheGuevara are having fun at Kannambra. Photo: K K Mustafah   -  The Hindu

At 92, VS Achuthanandan is among the oldest candidates in the poll fray. In Kerala, he is a phenomenon. The man once considered a communist hardliner has grown to be the people’s hero

Kannambra is nondescript. The vengeful summer has cast a pale aura across the small, ho-hum village in Kerala’s Palakkad district. The early May morning is a little balmy and breezy, thanks to a short spell of showers the previous night. The morning sun, though, is burning nonchalantly. The festoons of red flags appear bright, fresh and bewitchingly hopeful in the daylight.

Streams of people are flowing towards a peepal tree along a narrow road. Women, some wearing red paper caps, carry giggling toddlers, while boys wearing t-shirts that scream ‘Boys of CheGuevara’ laugh boisterously. Tight-lipped volunteers in red shirts and khaki pants direct and re-direct traffic around the peepal.

Next to the tree is a make-shift pandal. Announcements from giant speakers blur the chatter of people. Soon, a white Toyota Corolla pulls over and the loudspeakers go berserk. As the door opens, the crowd systematically falls back to give way. A short, agile, old man in white kurta and mundu steps out. The man smiles at the crowd. Firecrackers punctuate the notes of mediapersons and women dash towards him in a trance. Hundreds of cellphones thrust into the humid air struggle to capture the hero.

Once the short welcome speech is over, the man climbs up the podium and gestures to the crowd.

Silence. Stark and beautiful.

And then Velikkakathu Sankaran Achuthanandan begins to skin and scythe rivals including incumbent chief minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “A multitude of scams have hit this government,” he intones in his characteristic way. “There is the bar graft, the solar graft, and myriad other grafts...” he says. The crowd is in a spell, akin to the audience of Beatles or Bob Marley decades ago.

Welcome to a day in the life of comrade Achuthanandan, senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and former chief minister of Kerala. At 92, VS — as friends, foes and frenemies call him — is India’s most popular communist leader in action, and arguably the world’s too. Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, said to be the most-written-about communist leader alive today, is three springs younger and has been out of active politics since 2006, the year the Left Democratic Front formed its government under VS in Kerala.

Not many political leaders in India can match his charisma, popularity and vigour. Thanks to a diet followed with military discipline and an agile mind that puts social issues into political context, even at this age VS is geared up for more battles, a feat few others of his ilk can claim.

“VS is a phenomenon, which the world outside Kerala will acknowledge sooner or later,” says VK Preman, a carpenter from Ochira in Kollam district. Preman is among the millions of people in Kerala who see in the Left leader a new era of hope and change. And that explains why the CPI(M), whose current State leadership is not quite in sync with the straitjacketed ways of VS, is forced to field the nonagenarian in this Assembly elections.

“It is difficult to find a communist leader these days who enjoys such mass popularity,” notes Prabhat Patnaik, economist and professor Emeritus, JNU. Patnaik was vice-chairman of the State planning board under chief minister Achuthanandan. The VS government of 2006 did make impressive changes in the State’s economy; it enhanced agriculture production, incentivised start-ups, strengthened self-help groups, gave fillip to traditional industries such as coir, cashew and handloom and rejuvenated ailing public sector units.

“He is a ‘model’ politician,” says Sarah Joseph, writer, feminist and activist. “He is a solid comrade, who never jumped ship even when rivals in his party tried to crucify him. He stuck to his guns and made his way.”

To the uninitiated, the VS way is an intriguing terrain to tread. Achuthanandan was born into a backward caste Ezhava family in Alappuzha in 1923 and lost his mother at four and father at age 11. He gave up studies and worked as a tailor’s help and, later, as a coolie at a coir factory. He got involved in trade union activities, which led him to communism.

He joined the Communist Party in 1940, a year after it was formed in Kerala. In 1946, VS played a key role in the bloody Punnapra-Vayalar uprising against CP Ramaswamy Iyer, the diwan of the southern princely state of Travancore. More than 1,000 people lost their lives in the armed uprising. When the CPI split in 1964, Achuthanandan was among those who founded CPI(M), and stayed with it ever since. The rest, as they say, is history — in present perfect continuous.

The rise to fame

Achuthanandan was not so popular until a couple of decades ago. He was known as a hardliner, the uncool communist who focussed only on striking out enemies within and outside the party. At least two party Congresses reaffirmed this notion. The media found his body language too rustic to strike a chord with the masses. But he was open to a makeover, and found an unusual ally in the popular art of mimicry, which got a shot in the arm with the advent of cable television. “We found his mannerisms cool and amusing,” says Diana Silvester, the producer of the hugely popular satire show Cinemala on Asianet. “When we chose him for imitation, not many in the middle-class living rooms knew him. The actor who played him had to be briefed.” But the show became a hit, and with it VS. Ever since many actors have aped his strangely-intonated, oddly-rhythmic manner of speaking and the audience loved it. The show and its myriad clones made VS a living room sensation and helped demystify his tough-nut Stalinist image.

“VS is among the few politicians in India who realised the potential of mass media, particularly television, early on,” observes V Abdul Muneer, who teaches mass media at EMEA College in Malappuram. Muneer, whose doctoral work studies the influence of televised electoral debates on voter behaviour, says Achuthanandan ensures the issues he picks up fill prime-time news and debates. “VS evolved as a poor man’s hero when people were disenchanted with the romanticised notions of communism,” observes Shiju Joseph, clinical psychologist in Thiruvananthapuram. “He represented the same old tough and rough, ‘anankastic’ personality who could trigger and treat your nostalgia.”

Shiju says, the current VS is a “hero born after Achuthanandan turned 80 years old.” It is easier to trust someone who is considered asexual, he reasons. Soon, VS became a living, growing folklore. Srinath Krishnamoorthy, a former IT professional, who is now working on a book on Achuthanandan says, “VS is an inspiration to youngsters who like to join value-based politics.” Krishnamoorthy lauds VS’s social media interventions. The leader whose party had opposed computerisation decades ago joined Facebook sometime back and now enjoys a huge fan following.

In fact, the issues VS picks to fight have also helped build the hero’s image. When political parties stayed away from gender and green issues, VS cherry-picked and brought them to the public sphere. Be it encroachments on the pristine hills of Mathikettan in the Western Ghats, corruption scandals against Congress veterans or cases of sexual harassment of women, VS fought them and struck an emotional chord with the people. To assist him was a pack of dedicated bureaucrats, partymen and media persons (infamously billed The Syndicate by rivals).

The causes VS chooses to champion strike a chord with many. “Take issues such as the deadly endosulfan pollution in Kasargod or the recent land issues; VS studies them with missionary zeal and patience and acts like an activist if the issue falls in sync with his line of politics,” says Harish Vasudevan, a lawyer in the Kerala High Court. If he is convinced, no one, including his party bosses, can deter him, says Vasudevan. “This is something you never expect from a politician of his age.”

This crusader approach has had a big impact in Kerala. “Isn’t that sexy?” asks a journalist working in Bengaluru. “He does things which the bravest among the youth dare not touch. His energy level is amazing.” C Bharath Chandran, a cardiologist in Thiruvananthapuram whom VS consults, agrees. “His chronological age may be 92, but his biological age is in the sixties or seventies.” He never breaks his regimen of minimalist diet and exercises even amidst hectic election rallies. “He never skips a meal or his morning yoga and walks,” says his press secretary KV Sudhakaran.

“He has a curious mind and an open approach to issues,” says Joseph C Mathew, who was VS’s IT advisor and is an ally. “He is always under the spotlight, so he doesn’t act. His is not fleeting fame or popularity,” says Mathew. VS’s mental strength and the élan with which he takes on rivals and issues has impressed Mathew. His supporters consider his stance on the political murder of TP Chandrasekharan, in which CPI(M) workers were allegedly involved, courageous.

All said and done, VS means realpolitik, feels Sarah. “Over time, VS has compromised some of his stands for the sake of practical politics,” she says, while acknowledging that no other political leader in the history of the state has made such a social impact. “But he disappointed us with his silence on the alleged ‘VIP’ in the Kiliroor sex scandal case, and other crucial issues in which he had inside information,” says Sarah.

Even though VS is yet to face a convincing corruption charge against him, rivals did put to good use allegations of corruption and misuse of public office against his son VA Arun Kumar. Political observers feel he has gone back on his crusade against corruption. They cite his current stand in the much-debated Lavalin corruption case in which the former party secretary and, reportedly, his in-house bête noire and CM-hopeful Pinarayi Vijayan, is allegedly involved. And there were rumours that he would be sidelined during the Assembly polls, much to the delight of his critics in the Left, especially on social media.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, if the election rallies are any indication, a VS wave is sweeping the State. As Dhivin, one of the ‘Boys of CheGuevara’ in Kannambra tells me with a swagger, “He is ours, yo!” As VS’s car leaves Kannambra, a man who has come with his three children tells his friend, “It’s this resilience and strength that actually makes him a formidable rival to the BJP and even Narendra Modi. I wish VS would emerge as a national leader. He is a bigger legend than EMS Namboodiripad.”

If the Left wins, will VS become the chief minister again? I ask the man. “With VS, the sky is the limit when it comes to springing a surprise,” pat comes the reply. “Let’s see the results on May 19,” VS tells BLink sitting in his campaign headquarter in Chandra Nagar, Palakkad, “We will make it really big this time.”

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Published on May 13, 2016
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