On a sweltering afternoon on March 30, at a public ground in Kanhangad in Kerala’s Kasaragod district, a car halts near a waiting crowd. As Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan alights from the vehicle, the crowd surges ahead, mobile phones go up as if in salute, slogans pierce the air and CPI(M) central committee member P Karunakaran announces: “Kerala’s captain is here — the captain who led Kerala in crisis.’’
Unlike neighbouring Tamil Nadu, which has monikers for its leaders (Kaliagnar, Thalaivar and Captain) — Kerala hasn’t had that tradition, with a rare exception probably being the late Congress leader K Karunakaran, who was called ‘Leader’ in party circles. But as Kerala votes on April 6, the ruling Left Democratic Front’s (LDF) entire campaign has revolved around this branding of Vijayan as ‘captain’, as the man in charge.
As the LDF hopes to buck the trend of voters alternating between the CPM-led front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), Vijayan is its only headliner and, amazingly for someone known to deliver the most tepid of speeches, its principal crowd puller.
The crisis manager
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Vijayan as the man-in-charge is an image that has been steadily building over the last few years with his government’s handling of successive challenges — cyclone Okhi of 2017, Nipah outbreak of 2018, the devastating floods of 2018 and 2019, and last year’s pandemic.
During the floods, Vijayan operated as a commander of a rescue mission would. The temporary war room he set up coordinated with uniformed forces, state machinery and volunteer groups. Every evening, he would address the media and update the public about the magnitude of the calamity and the government’s efforts towards restoring normalcy.
Vijayan also activated the three-tier local bodies, mostly party-ruled, to respond swiftly to the post-flood rehabilitation challenges. He took the Opposition into confidence and converted the rescue and rehabilitation efforts into a people’s movement.
Vijayan’s acumen as crisis manager was in display again during last year’s Covid lockdown.
While images of migrant workers left high and dry came from across the country, in Kerala, around 4 lakh migrant workers were under the care of the government or entrusted in the care of their employers.
A five-decade-old tradition
Not after C Achutha Menon, the CPI leader who took over as CM in 1969, has Kerala had a chief minister with two consecutive terms in the state. Which is why, Pinarayi Vijayan, the LDF's CM candidate, is being watched for whether he will end up breaking the state's tradition of alternating between LDF and UDF governments.
The humanitarian crisis triggered by the lockdown saw the government stepping in with two welfare measures — free food kits and advance payment of welfare pensions. An estimated 87 lakh PDS card-holders in Kerala were given free kits with rice, wheat, pulses, tea, sugar, cooking oil, spices, suji and soaps. The monthly pension scheme to six categories, including elderly farm workers, single women and the elderly, covers an estimated 61 lakh people, with the government spending Rs 32,034 crore over the last five years.
In December, the government announced that the food kits would continue to be distributed for another four months. Besides, in the budget for 2021, the government increased the monthly welfare pensions from Rs 1,500 to Rs 1,600 — a move seen as taken with elections in mind.
From northern Malabar region to Thiruvananthapuram in the south, these welfare measures have been a talking point among voters.
“Pinarayi should come back to power. He ensured we didn’t starve. He ensured food reached families in their most difficult times — the floods and now, during the pandemic. We cannot be ungrateful to him,” says Basheer, a daily wage worker in Kozhikode town.
P Kumar, who runs a small textile shop in Nemom in Thiruvananthapuram, enthusiastically shows text messages from the bank of the Rs 1,600 credited into his account as old age pension.
During the pandemic, Vijayan emerged again on television with his 6 pm Covid bulletin, his measured updates on the pandemic and its spread reassuring people and sending TRPs soaring. Besides sharing data on testing and positivity rates, Vijayan would speak about the government’s relief measures, the need to care for each other and the destitute.
As this bulletin became a staple in almost every home, Vijayan’s image as a cold, impassive comrade underwent a makeover, especially among women.
During those days, his was the only voice that emerged from the government’s side. Though two ministers and the chief secretary shared the dais with the chief minister for the daily press briefings, it was only Vijayan who fielded questions and offered clarifications, never once turning to his colleagues or the top bureaucrat.
But while these moves and public appearances helped build Vijayan’s image, they also invited criticism around the personality cult building around him. He has also been called “mundu udutha Modi (Modi in dhoti)” with reference to his autocratic style of functioning and alleged lack of consultation with allies.
C P John, chief of the Communist Marxist Party (CMP), a faction that broke off from the CPM and is now part of the UDF, said Vijayan “is not guided by the politburo but PR agencies”.
“Instead of addressing issues such as landlessness of weaker sections and tribals, the government speaks about the food kit. Ration is a basic right. Vijayan talks as if it is charity from a feudal king to his subjects. His emergence as captain shows the crisis in the party,’’ said John.
CPI(M) politburo member M A Baby, however, dismisses the idea of the personality cult. “Vijayan has not taken any credit for the achievements. The idea of ‘captain’ emerged from the public in Kerala. People of the state have seen how Vijayan led them through crises, be it floods or pandemic. The party didn’t bestow that title on him,’’ he said.
Under Vijayan, the LDF government has been unabashed about its shift to a capital — and market-intensive development strategy.
The LDF is showcasing work done on the GAIL project — its Kerala leg is a 503-km pipeline from Kochi to Bengaluru and Mangaluru — as among its key achievements, though it had opposed the project while in Opposition.
With protests against land acquisition, which the CPI(M) had spearheaded while in Opposition, now subdued, several delayed road projects are now being executed, including the Thalassery-Mahe bypass which was conceived 50 years ago.
If in 2012 Achuthanandan had rushed to Kudankulam to join the anti-nuclear protesters, Vijayan cleared land acquisition for the 400 kV power highway from Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu to Madakkathara in Kerala.
Former chief minister Oommen Chandy says, “The CPI(M) should apologise to the people of Kerala for delaying infrastructure projects. They protested against the GAIL pipeline calling it a bomb ticking underground. They led protests against land acquisitions, delaying highway-widening work. But now they have no problem taking credit.’’
In 2019, Kerala became the first Indian state to tap into the market for masala bonds, with the state-owned Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) debuting on the London Stock Exchange to raise development funds. A decade ago, the CPI(M)-led government was divided over taking loans even from the Asian Development Bank.
While the KIIFB has come under the scanner of the Comptroller and Auditor General, with the auditor saying its borrowings have no legislative nod, the government has raised money from the domestic and international market to finance 900-odd projects worth Rs 7,000 crore.
So while the relief and welfare measures were mainly targeted at the lower rungs of society, for the middle- and upper-middle classes, Vijayan had his development agenda to showcase in the form of a massive infrastructure push with funds routed through KIIFB — primary health centres to rival private hospitals and high-tech classrooms in government/aided schools.
Last month, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had accused the KIIFB of corruption, saying, “What is this organisation? We also make a Budget in the Union government. We don’t give all money to one particular agency… total questionable operation. If this is budget-making, no wonder Kerala is going into a debt trap.”
Baby dismisses these criticisms: “There are detractors who say the state’s debt liability is going up. There is nothing wrong in availing loans for development. Even the US has huge debt liability.’’
Even as Vijayan earned the image of a doer, his office and the departments he handled faced several scandals and controversies, with the gold smuggling case landing right at the CMO’s door — Vijayan’s principal secretary M Sivasankar was arrested in the gold smuggling case.
But while critics point to this case and a string of other allegedly high-handed decisions under Vijayan — the MoU for deep-sea trawlers signed despite opposition from fishermen, slapping of UAPA charges against two CPM cadres in Kozhikode for alleged Maoist links, ‘encounter’ killings of eight alleged Maoists, besides others — his supporters point to the government’s decision to put on hold the amended Kerala Police Act as sign of its responsiveness.
Days after the government brought in a controversial amendment to the Act that mandated a jail term for any “offensive” social media post, it withdrew the law following a hailstorm of criticism from across the political spectrum.
According to N P Chekkutty, a leading political analyst, Vijayan is the only leader after Karunakaran to find acceptability across all regions of the state — Malabar, Central Kerala and Travancore. “Pinarayi knows Kerala’s politics. He is undoubtedly the tallest politician in the state’s recent history. In fact, his image has a Teflon coating now,” said Chekkutty, explaining why the string of recent controversies and scandals haven’t dented his image.
Sceptics say that if Vijayan looks good, it’s in no small part due to the incoherence and confusion in the Opposition UDF camp.
Especially for the youth, Vijayan’s image of a bold, decisive leader is a definite plus over the UDF’s seemingly messy, out-in-the-open contradictions.
Ashley Joy, a 23-year-old marketing professional from Chalakudy in Thrissur, says about the UDF, “Who is their leader? Will they find time to govern the state after sorting out all differences? They are always busy pulling each other down.”
With every passing moment in the CPI(M), Vijayan’s hold on the party and his Cabinet has got stronger. Never before has the party or the LDF been controlled by an individual as in the last five years.
Vijayan’s tenure has also been marked by a tense relationship between allies CPM and CPI, with the latter accusing the bigger party of sidestepping it.
While taking the Kerala Congress (M) on board the LDF, Vijayan brushed aside the reluctance of the CPI, eventually setting aside 12 seats for regional Christian party and making it the third largest constituent of the LDF behind CPI.
A CPI leader says, “The party had to sacrifice to make space for the KC(M). We were opposed to the decision, but remained silent only because our aim is to come back for another term.”
Ahead of the elections, Vijayan made it mandatory for legislators who have had two consecutive wins to stay away from the electoral battle.
Besides being aimed at blunting the anti-incumbency factor, the move helped keep out candidates who were proving to be a liability. For instance, by using the rule to keep out Speaker P Sreeramakrishnan, Vijayan reduced the dollar smuggling case, allegedly involving the Speaker, into a non-issue.
Similarly, by denying tickets to P Jayarajan, E P Jayarajan and M V Jayarajan, the party heavyweights of his home district Kannur, Vijayan has once again underlined his supremacy.
Yet, this chop-and-change style also saw unprecedented protests by CPI(M) workers and sympathisers against the official candidates, forcing the party to change candidates at least on two seats.
But one issue that could prove to be a factor this election is the intensifying conflict between the Christians and Muslims over sharing minority rights.
The Church leadership, which has expressed its displeasure over the increasing influence of the IUML in the UDF, has shown signs of getting close to the LDF. On his part, Vijayan has been keeping the Church leadership in good humour with measures such as providing 10 per cent reservation for economically backward classes and hiking MSP for rubber from Rs 150 to Rs 170 per kg, a major source of income in the Christian-dominated belts.
“He gives Muslims a sense of security. He has proved that he would stand by our rights,” said C P Sirajudhin, manager of the Markaz orphanage in Kundamangalam near Kozhikode.
While Vijayan and the LDF are positioning themselves as the only effective bulwark against the communal politics of the BJP, the government’s position on Sabarimala, and its series of flip-flops, have only served to underline a lack of clarity. From what was seen as an all-too-eager rush to implement the Supreme Court’s decision on temple entry for all to expressing regret over the 2018 police action against devotees, the party has travelled a long way. The issue has returned to haunt the government with the upper-caste Hindu outfit, Nair Service Society, lashing out at Vijayan and accusing him of “taking believers for a ride”.
His supporters, however, see this too as a sign of flexibility, an essential tool for political survival. They point to the results of successive elections to make their point. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections held in the aftermath of the anti-temple entry protests, the LDF lost 19 of 20 seats to the UDF. Since then, the LDF has gone out of its way to woo devotees. In the local body polls held last year, the LDF came back with a big win. While the BJP hopes to pin down the government on Sabarimala, the game is up in the air.
Amidst this and all the other uncertainties that make up an election, what is certain is Vijayan’s near complete hold on the party and its apparatus. Will a win or a loss change that? Over to April 6.
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