“He’s come, VS has come.” Women, sitting in the front row of a CPM rally whispered to each other as they stood up and craned their necks backward. On cue, crackers burst in the background, a white plume of smoke rising up toward the golden-yellow evening sky of Kerala’s Palakkad. As a white sedan, carrying veteran leader and former chief minister V S Achuthanandan, made its way towards a small stage, young footsoldiers of the party couldn’t help break into their favourite slogans in praise of their beloved leader.
“Dheera sakhave veeyese, iniyum iniyum munnottu” (Brave leader, oh VS, let’s march forward),” the slogans rang out. Helped by his aides, VS, wearing his traditional white jubba-mundu, climbed the stage and waved to a crowd of nearly a thousand people.
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At 95, Achuthanandan, fondly called VS, doesn’t have to go through this drill. At an age when most politicians, if not dead would prefer to bask in the sunset years of their life, VS, the sole surviving founder member of the CPM, continues to toil in the heat and dust of electoral politics, doing what he does best — rallying crowds in favour of his party. His speeches may not be extempore anymore — he reads from a paper these days — but they continue to be fiery and seldom watered down for political correctness. He starts off slowly, but it doesn’t take him long to find the right rhythm and pace.
“India is trudging through a very disturbing political climate. This election is significant in that it will determine the future of India. The most grievous charge is that the ruling party is engaged in spreading communalism and creating riots across the country. We know that the RSS, the Hindutva organisation, is leading the BJP. It is the same organisation that does not accept our Constitution, our secular values, our national flag and our anthem. Their sole aim is to turn India into a land of caste Hindus,” VS thunders, each of his words punctuated and stressed for emphasis in his trademark style.
A few minutes into his address, it becomes clear that VS’s words are largely aimed at the BJP and the RSS even though the party has a marginal presence in the state. This time though, the BJP, which has never won a Lok Sabha seat on its own from the southern state, is attempting to make inroads into the Left’s predominant Hindu vote-bank on the back of the Sabarimala agitation. It fancies its chances especially in Thiruvananthapuram, which it lost by a whisker in 2014, and Pathanamthitta, the nerve-centre of the Sabarimala protests.
VS, who as chief minister between 2006-11 took a strident ideological line by hitting out hard against religious dogma irrespective of faith and spoke in favour of gender equality, minces no words as he takes on the BJP as well as the Congress on the issue of Sabarimala.
“Today, both the Congress and the BJP have equally become protectors of traditions and beliefs. What were these people preaching till yesterday? Didn’t the BJP say they wanted women to enter Sabarimala? Didn’t they write articles and speak about approaching court for the same?” he asked.
VS remains the Marxist party’s central crowd-puller even today. (Express photo: Vishnu Varma)
“How quickly did their beliefs change? Now, they say women must not enter Sabarimala. Even a chameleon cannot change colours so quickly,” he said.
He concludes his address by requesting voters to identify the ‘hammer-sickle-star’ symbol on the voting machine and register their support for MB Rajesh, sitting MP from Palakkad who is fighting for a third consecutive term.
His energy and enthusiasm notwithstanding, VS’s age, in many ways, has caught up with him. Unlike the hectic 2014 Lok Sabha campaign or even the 2016 Assembly elections, his rallies this time are limited to one or two a day, mostly after the sun goes down. There’s another marked change — for the first time in many decades, his name has been left out of the party’s star campaigners’ list. Nor is his picture on the ruling LDF’s main election posters. Forever a rebel, he has little say in a party dominated entirely by his bete-noire Pinarayi Vijayan. In a way, his marginalisation within the party is complete.
But, if there’s one thing that none can take away from him, it’s his acceptance among the party cadre at the grass-root level and the wider public. Priya, a young home-maker who sat in the front row and later walked up to the stage to shake VS’s hand, feels there’s no politician as honest as him. “It’s because of him that such a large crowd has assembled here,” she says. “We elected him from Malampuzha because we wanted him to become the chief minister again. But unfortunately, it didn’t happen,” she adds. “He’s a comrade who has made a lot of sacrifices,” Sukumaran, a party member, says. “Today’s communist party leaders are nothing compared to him.”