Pinarayi Vijayan

Man of the moment

Print edition : June 10, 2016

Pinarayi Vijayan arriving at the Collectorate in Kannur to file his nomination on April 25. Photo: S.K. MOHAN

IF you wanted an effective chief minister who would offer a sharp contrast to Oommen Chandy, you could not perhaps do better than to choose Pinarayi Vijayan.

On May 20, after a brisk discussion in the party’s State unit, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury announced at a crowded press conference that Pinarayi Vijayan would be the new Chief Minister and that the veteran party leader, V.S. Achuthanandan, would henceforth be “the Fidel Castro of the revolutionary movement in the State”.

With Achuthanandan and CPI(M) State secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan by his side, Yechury told the media that “like Castro, Achuthanandan will continue to guide and inspire the party”, and that though “V.S.” had been at the forefront of the party’s successful electoral campaign, the CPI(M) legislature party had decided to nominate Pinarayi Vijayan for the top post, considering Achuthanandan’s “advanced age and poor health”.

There were no protests, as it happened during the party’s darkest hour in 2006 when factionalism, with the two leaders on opposing sides, was at its peak. Kerala has learned since then that riding on populist storms or being affable alone should not be the grounds for judging how a leader functions—when, for instance, widespread corruption seeks to engulf every unit of the government, loot and plunder of the State’s resources is rampant, governance is sluggish, and the seminal principles behind the idea that is Kerala itself is under threat.

In Pinarayi Vijayan, his party, and many in the State now, see a saviour. True, he is a man with unnerving eyes. He is certainly not a conversationalist. His face is often a mask, impregnable, bereft of even a twitch. Yet, his mind is sharp and his convictions are strong. In public meetings, party forums and media interviews, he speaks with remarkable clarity. He commands respect, draws doting admirers and cautious enemies. Of late, some people suspect, he has been smiling more frequently.

To those unfamiliar with his usual ways, it may all be a sign of ruthlessness, an unsettling trait in a person holding a public position. Also, many who know him well talk of his true nature, the warmth that he shows in personal relationships and his “wry sense of humour”. They say that he always keeps his word, never lets a friend down, instantly connects with ordinary people, and always takes care to ensure other people’s welfare.

Vijayan was born on March 21, 1944, into poverty as the son of a toddy tapper and was moulded in the dirt roads of Pinarayi, a small village near Parapram in Kannur district. Local activists and party sympathisers, including a brother, were for long hunted down or tortured by the police. He grew up reading religious epics to his mother and on the scary tales about ghosts and spirits and police torture that his mother narrated back to him. He was forced to break his studies and work for over a year as a handloom weaver immediately after his school years. But Vijayan was determined to study further and later joined Brennen College in Thalassery, where he became a member of the Students’ Federation (it later became the Students’ Federation of India in 1970).

He became the Kannur district secretary of the Students’ Federation in 1967. The late 1960s were, however, a time when the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) was setting up its branches in the areas around Thalassery. During the “Tellicherry riots” in 1971, modern Kerala’s first major communal conflagration, Vijayan, as a local leader of the party, played a crucial role in calming frayed nerves and checkmating angry mobs that raged through the once-peaceful localities of the city in a deliberate act of communal vendetta against minorities. In 1977, during the Emergency, as the district secretary of the CPI(M), he was jailed and underwent a period of extreme suffering under police custody. After his release, as an opposition Member of Legislative Assembly, he made an emotional speech about custodial torture in the Assembly which caused a sensation in the State, leaving the then Chief Minister, C. Achutha Menon, red-faced. The CPI was then sharing power in Kerala with the Congress, and the State police was under the control of the powerful Congress Home Minister, K. Karunakaran.

Two decades passed before Kerala began to take note of this key politician from the troubled district of Kannur, when he became the Minister for Electricity and Cooperation in the E.K. Nayanar government in 1996 (which launched a decentralisation campaign). It was a period of acute power crisis in Kerala, a legacy of the previous Congress government. Pinarayi used his reputation as a tough, no-nonsense and efficient leader to great advantage, went into even the nitty-gritty, and turned the situation around. He would start his day early, take lethargic officials and erring union leaders to task, and make quick and bold decisions. Even his enemies continue to praise him for his role then as one of the ablest Ministers Kerala had seen.

But it was also a time when factionalism was raising its head in the State unit of the CPI(M), especially following (chief-ministerial aspirant) Achuthanandan’s famous defeat at Mararikkulam in the 1996 election. In the State conference of the party held in Palakkad two years later, several top leaders (known as the CITU lobby) were replaced in the State Committee by a younger crop led by Vijayan, who had the blessings of Achuthanandan. A senior party leader, Chadayan Govindan, became the party secretary, but on his untimely death a few months later, Vijayan, who was then Achuthanandan’s trusted lieutenant, resigned as Minister and became the State secretary of the party.

But soon, the two leaders would drift apart. The 16 years that followed, during which he emerged as the most powerful leader of the CPI(M) in Kerala—he was the party secretary for three terms—were also the most challenging period in Vijayan’s public life.

During this period, factionalism was at its height in the State party, with Achuthanandan (who became Chief Minister) leading a kind of solo challenge to Vijayan’s leadership. As the intense rivalry within the CPI(M) began to influence the policies of its government, the party came under severe attack from its political opponents for what they often described as “the deviant tendencies” within it. The conflicting stands of its leaders on key government policies was in sharp focus—whether it was on the decentralisation campaign experiment, taking loans from international lending agencies, evicting illegal encroachers of government land, or dealing with the lottery mafia in the State.

Vijayan himself became a target of accusations in the alleged SNC-Lavalin “corruption case”, concerning a 1997 agreement signed by him (when he was the Electricity Minister) with SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian company, for the renovation of three hydroelectric projects in Idukki district, a deal initiated by a United Democratic Front (UDF) government in 1995-96. That case has continued to haunt him, even after a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court cleared him of all charges on November 5, 2013.

Thus, while Achuthanandan won the enmity of many of his party colleagues but became the darling of the media and the general public by taking morally upright views on many such controversial issues, Vijayan was left to face the flak and defend himself and the party. Ironically, it was a role that endeared him to a lot of his comrades, but perhaps made him unpopular everywhere else. At one stage, in an unusual outburst (in an interview), Vijayan described the media focus on this inner-party struggle as an attempt to “create a division” within the CPI(M) by portraying “some people as super humans, the real representatives, the fountainhead of all good qualities.... And, on the other side, to consecrate others as the epitome of all deeds that are ugly and bad in this world.”

Surely a lot of that media onslaught was unfair; as a result of which, even today, Pinarayi Vijayan evokes that tinge of a doubt in people on whether he had at times indeed done something wrong. But as recent events have proved, it is Vijayan who has eventually emerged triumphant in the battle, and even the voters of Kerala now want to put it all behind them and move forward.

It is, thus, a new Kerala that now beckons this extraordinary politician, warts and all. It wants to trust and follow him, as a glance at his extremely popular official Facebook page would show. One thing is clear. By nature, he will be a stronger, more efficient and more modern administrator than many of his predecessors. He is ruthless and bold when it comes to issues like communalism. He takes calculated risks. He is generous in his praise and sharp and deadly in his criticisms.

But Kerala too has changed: it now demands more accountability from its rulers; there is mounting intolerance of corruption; civil society is maturing; there are stronger demands for better public services, and concerns about a faltering economy, growing inequalities and attacks against women.

There is also a vibrant social media, which, as it did during this election, mobilises public opinion so fast that it can make or mar the fortunes of leaders and political parties. Moreover, there is “Kerala’s own Fidel Castro”. But his role in the new scheme of things is as yet unclear.

R. Krishnakumar

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