As Kerala on Monday gave a tearful Red salute to the late CPI(M) Politburo member and former party state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, among those who couldn’t keep emotions in check was the usually always-in-control Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
At the condolence meeting held soon after cremation at Payyambalam beach in Kannur, Vijayan could not complete his speech as he welled up. “Usually, we try to get over the death of a leader through collective effort. But this is not a loss which can be mended immediately… But we give an assurance to party workers that we will try,” he said, before returning abruptly to his seat.
The moment was reflective of the long relationship and camaraderie between the two Kerala veterans, including the past six years of Vijayan as CM and Balakrishnan as party state secretary. This is unlike what Kerala saw in 2006-11, when there was constant tension between the CPM government led by V S Achuthanandan and the party organisation, then led by Vijayan as secretary.
There was no such friction between Vijayan and Balakrishnan, with the latter the undisputed No. 2 in the Kerala CPI(M) after Vijayan. In their long association, as long as their respective careers, Balakrishnan’s ascension to state secretary was almost fated – with him stepping into Vijayan’s shoes in 2015, when the latter stepped down after an innings since 1998.
Balakrishnan had similarly become CPI(M) Kannur district secretary in 1990, after Vijayan had held the post. When Achuthanandan came to power in 2006, Balakrishnan became a minister for the first time, and got the key portfolios of Home and Vigilance thanks to Vijayan’s intervention. Every time Achuthanandan and Vijayan clashed over issues, Balakrishnan defused the situation by brokering a truce.
Later, when Vijayan became CM in 2016, Balakrishnan followed him as party secretary. The latter’s whole-hearted support was one of the reasons Vijayan returned to power for the second time in 2021, bucking a Kerala trend.
Vijayan and Balakrishnan first met at a school in Kodiyeri village near Thalassery in Kannur in the late 1960s. The state secretary of the Kerala Students’ Federation (the predecessor of the CPI-M’s Students’ Federation of India), Vijayan had gone to the school to inaugurate a unit of the KSF, and met Balakrishnan, the school unit secretary, there. The friendship that sprung then barely ever faltered.
During the Emergency, both were jailed in the same block in Kannur’s Central Prison. Vijayan, then a CPI(M) legislator, allegedly faced police torture during his confinement. Balakrishnan, one of the few student leaders to be lodged under MISA during the Emergency, was asked by the CPI(M) to look after the senior comrade in prison.
In an article on Balakrishnan, which was released to the media on Saturday, Vijayan recalled those days in jail. “With the care of a brother, Balakrishnan had looked after me. That was an incident which showed the depth of the relationship between comrades,” he wrote, adding: “Our relationship was… like one between biological brothers. We walked along the same way.”