Pinarayi Vijayan’s first ever victory in life was arguably in 1944, against infant mortality—of the 14 children born to agricultural worker Kalyani and toddy tapper Koran, only three survived to experience an impoverished childhood.
More than seven decades later, both Kerala and Vijayan, now the state’s chief minister, have come a long way. Kerala now has the country’s best human development indicators, and its infant mortality rate is almost at par with that of developed countries.
Kerala’s consistent investment in its social infrastructure meant it already had an advantage in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than half a million people around the world. For a state that reported India’s first Covid-19 case, back in January, it has succeeded in keeping its recovery rate high and death rate relatively low.
Kerala’s success was a result of not just the system but also the government working as it should: 76-year-old Vijayan and his government have earned international praise for their efficient, sensitive response to the crisis. Though he has a reputation for concentrating power in his own hands, Vijayan’s team of ministers, especially health minister K.K. Shailaja and, to a lesser extent, finance minister T.M. Thomas Isaac, have been in the news as well for their health management and financial relief packages, respectively.
In a country where both the central government and many other state governments have been moving towards centralisation of power, this is an achievement of sorts.
And yet, undoubtedly, it’s the first-time chief minister who has been in command throughout the crisis. With his governance credentials firmly established, Vijayan now faces a tough question: can the leader who presided over the Left Democratic Front’s (LDF) worst ever Lok Sabha performance in 2019 break Kerala’s historic record of never voting for an incumbent government and win a second straight term in next year’s assembly election?
Vijayan’s image makeover
In May 2016, when Vijayan took oath as Kerala’s 22nd chief minister, he was often described as an able administrator and a canny politician. He was said to be ruthless with rivals, both inside and outside the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and had an uneasy relationship with the media. An India Today story on his first 100 days in office described him as “one of the state’s most feared and respected politicians”.
Four years into the job, after two devastating floods and a pandemic, Vijayan’s administrative record has only been burnished.
But interestingly, his public image as a harsh, rigid politician also seems to have undergone a sea change in the meantime.
In April, a few weeks into the national lockdown, Kerala-based director Jeo Baby uploaded a video on Facebook which, at first glance, seemed to be one of Vijayan’s daily briefings on the state’s Covid-19 cases. But the voice that emerged was clearly not Vijayan’s gruff, matter-of-fact one delivering the latest updates, but instead a staccato, humorous message meant for Baby’s four-year-old son, warning him that “strict action” would be taken against children who didn’t brush their teeth before drinking their morning tea or bathe twice a day.
While the child called his father’s bluff easily, the video went viral and was a testament to what The Telegraph described as “the most watched — and trusted — event in news-obsessed Kerala”: Vijayan’s regular press briefings, where he engages seriously with almost all media queries.
“There has been a major shift in the public image of Pinarayi Vijayan ever since the floods of 2018. From a less-spoken leader known for his rigid approach and muscle power, he has evolved into a man of the masses,” says Renu Ramanath, a senior journalist and political observer.
A tumultuous tenure
In the six years since Narendra Modi came to power, the space for regional leaders to articulate their demands and differences with the central government has been shrinking. But Vijayan has still been successful in carving out a space for himself in the national conversation as a chief minister and Left leader who can deliver, as well as one who is unafraid to call out bigotry.
His tenure has, however, not been free of controversies. Vijayan also handles Kerala’s home portfolio and the government has faced several allegations of police brutality, including custodial torture. The CPI(M)’s own allies have accused the state police of orchestrating fake encounters. Vijayan came under widespread criticism after two young students were booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for alleged links with Maoists. They are still in jail.
The CPI(M)’s continued support for party members convicted of murder has also been a blot on the government’s image.
But with crucial assembly elections just a year away, the opposition Congress is now getting jitters over the goodwill earned by Vijayan and his government. There is also the Bharatiya Janata Party factor to contend with—while the right-wing party is yet to open its Lok Sabha account in Kerala, it did manage to win its first ever assembly seat in 2016. Now, political observers think there is a good chance that Kerala, which has historically alternated between the LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Front, could vote the LDF into a second term in 2021.
If that happens, the pragmatic, complex Vijayan, whose ideas of running a government have, ironically, sometimes run counter to the consensus in India’s left-leaning intelligentsia, will also extend some hope to those who have been in despair about the relevance of the Left movement in India.
A complicated Left leader
While most other Indian states and the centre have floundered in tackling the coronavirus crisis, often issuing and then withdrawing policies, Vijayan’s calm, understated governance at this time comes as no surprise to people who have worked with him.
New Delhi-based senior journalist Venkitesh Ramakrishnan, who has worked with Vijayan in the Left students’ movement, says he has “inherent crisis management and administrative talents”.
“Right from the beginning, he has shown exemplary crisis management expertise and helped the party and its feeder organisations survive many severe challenges. He was part of Kerala’s celebrated cooperative movement and provided it with clear direction and clarity,” said Ramakrishnan, who is currently working at Frontline magazine.
The journalist, however, has misgivings about the impact of some of Vijayan’s decisions on his party as well as the larger Left movement.
“His contributions as the top leader of an Indian communist party and his democratic convictions within the party and while leading the government are debatable. I have differences with a number of his political approaches which have, in fact, watered down the larger Leftist agenda. As administrator, he lent his ears more to bureaucrats than fellow politicians,” said Ramakrishnan, who has also worked at Deshabhimani, the CPI(M)’s mouthpiece in Kerala.
One of Vijayan’s actions which even hardcore supporters found hard to justify was the 2016 appointment of Gita Gopinath, a neoliberal economist, as his financial adviser. Prabhat Patnaik, renowned Marxist economist who was the vice-chairman of the Kerala Planning Board when V.S. Achuthanandan was chief minister, had said at the time that using government resources to attract private investment could harm the “Kerala model”.
Though even senior CPI(M) leaders expressed their displeasure at the time, Gopinath continued in the post until 2018, when she was appointed as the Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund.
Communist Party of India leader T.K. Vinodan said that his party has openly expressed its disagreement with Vijayan on many occasions, including over the controversial 2009 alliance with Peoples Democratic Party leader Abdul Nazar Madani, who was alleged to have terror links. He also pointed out that Vijayan’s current position is unprecedented in Kerala’s Left movement.
“Never in the history of the communist parties in Kerala have organisational and administrative powers been consolidated in one individual like this. Inside the CPI(M) and government, Vijayan is occupying a high position that seldom tolerates any kind of criticism and scrutiny,” said Vinodan.
From poverty to power
Vijayan’s rise to the top has been long, arduous and often controversial.
He grew up in Pinarayi village in Kannur, where Kerala’s Communist party unit was formed five years before his birth. After finishing school, he earned money as a textile worker for a year to pay the fees for a degree course at a government college in the nearest town, Thalassery. During his college days, Vijayan became an activist of the Kerala Students’ Federation, which later merged with other students’ unions functioning under CPI(M) in different states to become the Students’ Federation of India.
Decades later, in 2017, when Sangh Parivar forces tried to prevent him from speaking in Mangalore in Karnataka, Vijayan ignored their threats and addressed a mammoth rally at which he recalled his past at Brennan College where, he said, he walked amid “dagger-wielding RSS men”.
It was his fight against the RSS at one level and Congress at another that helped 24-year-old Vijayan find a place in the CPI(M)’s Kannur district committee in 1968.
In 1970, he won the assembly election from the Kuthuparamba constituency to become Kerala’s youngest MLA. He shot to prominence in 1971-72 during the infamous Thalassery riots, where he played a crucial role in restoring normalcy and communal harmony.
During the Emergency, despite being an MLA, Vijayan was beaten up badly by the police for leading a protest.
“His speech in the post-Emergency assembly of 1979 was, in fact, a new beginning. He delivered a powerful speech against police atrocities while holding his bloodstained shirt. But it may be an irony that the police committed several similar kinds of excesses under his rule in the past four years,” said Kannur-based senior journalist K.A. Antony.
In 1996, Vijayan was appointed electricity minister in the E.K. Nayanar government. While officials who worked with him have remembered him as a tough administrator with a no-nonsense approach, his short tenure as minister also landed him in the SNC Lavalin corruption controversy, which has hounded him for decades.
In 1998, he resigned as minister to take on what was arguably a more powerful position—the state secretary of the CPI(M)—after the death of prominent leader Chadayan Govindan.
During his 17 years as secretary of the party state unit, Vijayan waged a huge factional war with V.S. Achuthanandan. Critics say he managed to suppress voices of dissent in the party with an iron fist.
For the BJP, Vijayan was always a hated figure because of the tough stand he took against its growth in Kannur.
BJP has accused Vijayan of masterminding a series of political murders targeting the Kannur-based leaders of the party, including its then state leader KT Jayakrishnan, who was hacked to death in 1999 in a classroom, in front of school children. The Congress and Indian Union Muslim League have also accused Vijayan and the party of promoting murder politics in the north Kerala region, especially Kannur.
However, political violence in Kerala is a two-way affair. The CPI(M) has also lost scores of activists and leaders in attacks allegedly planned by the BJP and UDF. In 2012, the murder of CPM dissident T.P. Chandrasekharan led to a huge outcry against the party. 12 people, including three CPM leaders, were sentenced to life imprisonment after a special court found them guilty in 2014.
Vijayan, however, has always maintained that he and his party have never promoted violence and that workers have only acted in self-defence when targeted by hit squads.
A liberal hero
Vijayan became a favourite of Indian liberals when his government stood firm in the face of Sangh Parivar protests against women from entering Sabarimala temple after a Supreme Court ruling. This subsequently had a large part to play in the rout faced by the CPI(M) in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in Kerala.
The government also gained goodwill for its handling of the floods in the past two years, as well as its quick response to the Nipah virus outbreak. But it was the measured, scientific way in which Vijayan and health minister Shailaja tackled the coronavirus outbreak that has impressed even critics.
Writer Paul Zacharia and veteran journalist B.R.P Bhaskar, both prominent critics of Pinarayi in the past, have said in recent days that the chief minister has won large-scale public confidence by instilling security into the minds of people, an opinion backed by others.
His regular press conferences and sensible tweets have also been held up as symbols of good governance and transparency, sometimes in contrast with the central government’s actions.
“The Prime Minister has never convened a press meeting during this pandemic and answered queries. No other chief minister has attempted such a large number of press briefings. Now the press meets of the chief minister themselves are turning into a Kerala model,’’ said journalist Ramanath.
Long-time political observers point to a gruesome incident from 1993 to illustrate how much of a change there has been in Vijayan’s demeanour.
At the time, angry CPI (M) workers vandalised and set fire to the Parassinikadavu Snake Park after candidates backed by expelled party leader M.V. Raghavan won the governing body election in a prominent cooperative hospital in Kannur. Raghavan, a former political mentor of Vijayan, was also the president of the charitable society that managed the snake park.
Many reptiles, birds and animals were burnt in the fire or stoned to death by party workers in the attack, which lasted for more than two hours. Vijayan, the face of the party at the time in Kannur, had justified the violence then.
Decades later, in his briefings, Vijayan regularly urges people to show compassion and feed stray dogs and other animals that are starving because of the lockdown, inspiring many to do so. He has also sanctioned funds to feed captive elephants and temple monkeys.
With hardly a year left for the assembly election, the CPM and its allies are hoping that the enormous goodwill generated by Vijayan and health minister Shailaja will work in their favour.
On a larger level, Kerala is the CPI(M)’s last bastion and an electoral debacle in the state would severely dent its national existence. Former chief minister and veteran leader Achuthanandan, whose immense popularity was crucial to the LDF’s victory in the last assembly election, is not active anymore due to age-related ailments.
Though Achuthanandan was Vijayan’s bête noire in the party and the feud between them had created several instances of organisational crisis, the popularity and goodwill enjoyed by Achuthanandan had always worked in favour of the LDF in the elections. Now, the party only has Vijayan as a leader with a considerable mass base.
As Kerala is known for anti-incumbency waves during each election, the LDF is also keeping an eye out for any controversy that may suddenly erupt, eclipsing the track record gained from the Covid-19 fight.
“The massive good press received by the government internationally is seen as a matter of pride for Malayalis both inside and outside the state.”
What gives hope to it is that the UDF currently seems to be a divided house with no clear strategy to counter the crisis management record of the government. Wild accusations from its top leaders belittling the role of minister Shailaja also ended up creating a controversy.
The fact that the government hasn’t faced any major scandals so far in its tenure gives it an advantage. Another factor that could work in its favour is the massive good press received by the government internationally, seen as a matter of pride for Malayalis both inside and outside the state. Translated versions of these news reports have been making the rounds of social media and WhatsApp groups.
Analysts, however, warn against any over-confidence, especially in a state like Kerala.
“The seeming advantage of the ruling parties is partly due to the image of an opposition in disarray. But in Kerala, depending on who leads the opposition, they are also capable of quickly getting their act together. We have seen this during the Lok Sabha election. They too are capable of last-minute surprise moves,’’ said John Samuel, president of Thiruvananthapuram-based Initiative of Sustainable Development and Governance.