Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has pulled off what no other government in Kerala could do since 1980, when the broad contours of the LDF-UDF coalition politics first got formalised. He managed to steer the LDF ship safely to the shore with a resounding margin of 28 seats, as the CPM-led front remained just one shy of touching the aspirational 100-mark. The significant difference is: he managed to achieve this without leaning on CPM icon and his one-time mentor V.S. Achuthanandan.
Kerala has chosen to go with a strong leader who showed the gumption to brook no interference from the central leadership. He has proven to all naysayers that he is indeed the Captain of Kerala and a brand in his own right. Sure, the PR exercise helped but there was ample material to work on. By grabbing the chance for a successive second term, he has also achieved what Achuthanandan failed to pull off in the 2011 Assembly elections by the narrowest of margins.
It would not be correct to say Pinarayi Vijayan has emerged from the shadows of his mentor. For, he had already done that in 2016. Nor can it be said there is anyone in the CPM, either in the politburo or in the state party hierarchy, who can claim to be quite in his league as far as being a power centre goes.
He has made a strong statement that here is a pragmatic version of Communism that finds nothing untoward in holding hands with the capitalist class and has the ability to send both the BJP and the Congress packing. In other words, here is the Kerala brand of Communism that is in no way second to other states while pursuing the development agenda and, at the same time, continues to place a premium on the welfare state model.
Pinarayi Vijayan is sending out a clear message to those occupying the anti-NDA space—especially when the Indian National Congress is fast receding from the electoral reckoning—that he is going to be a force to reckon with at the national level too.
Kerala’s Own Strongman
Clearly, the makeover of the no-nonsense CPM state secretary, not given to small talk and one who brooks no dissidence, first into a chief minister and then a mass leader has not been an easy one. His journey in the past five years has hardly been smooth as his cabinet was rocked by three resignations in the first couple of years and a fourth one barely a week after the election. Taking on the role of state home minister, he had enough on his plate with a number of custodial deaths marring the early part of his tenure. He refused to buckle under pressure from the Opposition.
What followed was a slew of natural calamities—Cyclone Ockhi in late 2017, the killer floods of 2018 and 2019. The state was swept by a tide of viral infections, Nipah in May 2018 and now COVID-19. All these challenges played a significant part in grooming the leader in him, paving way for the emergence of a pan-state leader who was till then a CPM strongman.
On the one hand, these challenges went a long way in shaping the unperturbed manner in which he responded to a procession of allegations that rocked not merely his government but often turned into personal attacks against him. The dexterity with which he parried not only the Opposition but about half a dozen national agencies, including the NIA, ED, Customs and CBI, showed that here was a leader who could take on both the Centre and the state opposition with equal ease.
In this age of optics, image matters a lot to people. Especially when the state is the underdog and manages to ward off attempts by the Centre to make it buckle under pressure. Kerala saw the rise of its own strong man, who had the chutzpah to stare down Messrs Modi and Shah.
Thus, the gold smuggling case that had many agencies gunning for the chief minister’s office and the related foreign currency hawala case could be fought under this banner. The many allegations, some of them with merit—backdoor appointments flouting the Public Service Commission waiting list, instances where MNC consultants were seen calling the shots on behalf of the government in deals involving offshore companies and, finally, the deep sea fishing deal—saw the government backtrack. There was damage control; the charges did not stick as the deals were called off before they could be formalised.
Pinarayi’s ‘Mann ki Baat’
But these were nothing compared to the Sabarimala storm Pinarayi withstood. Though he faced much flak from the devotees, he was determined, to the point of being stubborn, in sticking to his guns. Much like many other issues which he fought up close and personal, he stood his ground through the 2019 Lok Sabha poll rout, before he reversed the political discourse with a couple of welfare measures—food kits and senior citizen pension. And he was not averse to publicising these deeds, using the media to the hilt.
There were enough indications that he was consciously creating this image—a chief minister who was not afraid of the central government, especially a leader like Narendra Modi, and a strongman who cared for his people and was willing to lend them a helping hand. The masterstroke, however, was his decision to share the daily COVID data through live telecast that allowed him direct entry into almost all households in Kerala.
And, unlike political briefings, he had a captive audience hanging on to his nearly hour-long health updates. It was Pinarayi Vijayan’s own ‘Mann Ki Baat’ and the people of the state listened to him every day. Irrespective of political leanings, the chief minister became a familiar face in family gatherings, his inimitable style of speech had top of the mind recall. A mass leader was, thus, being made.
Clearly, the evolution of the chief minister over the past five years helped Kerala decide in the April 6 elections. With a tidal wave in favour of bharana thudarcha (continuation of the ruling coalition) sweeping the state, there was no place for the anti-incumbency wave, which otherwise made a landing in the state every five years since 1980.
This is the sixth in a seven-part series on the Kerala elections.