Brand Pinarayi Vijayan is gaining a reputation as a no nonsense leader and fastidious administrator by mitigating coronavirus pandemic in Kerala and has become the face of the communist movement in India, but his party, CPI (M), which once pulled out all the stops to put ideology above individual leaders is finding itself in a quandary.
The mandarins of politburo who are arguably irked by the realpolitik of Kerala chief minister, including his building bridges with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and working closely with the union government in healthcare and national security issues; however, prefer to turn a blind eye at the digressions of the sole fundraiser .
While panegyrists embark on a charm offensive, building the image of their leader, the Tsars of AKG Bhavan at Bhai Vir Singh Marg, New Delhi, look emaciated and cut a sorry figure. The days of UPA rule when CPM general secretaries like Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Prakash Karat reigned as king makers are a wistful memory for apparatchiks. Present general secretary, the media savvy and pragmatic Sitaram Yechury is a shadow of his former self, and no longer a force to reckon with.
Ideologically inclined and didactic Praksash Karat who once taught even friends like Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi a lesson is no more feared. His telegenic wife Brinda, once called as a firebrand street-fighter is no more shuttling between television studios. The plight of other politburo members is worse. However, among the fading stars, a new red star Pinarayi has risen and is shining brightly.
Often described as granite minded, intimidating and inflexible by critics, Pinarayi Vijayan is no cult figure like EMS or AKG, or known for unwavering ideological positions like Achuthanandan. However, by his tactful and sometimes ruthless approach, he has risen as the master of the situation. At a time when Kerala is considered by many as a tinderbox because of the rise of Islamic terrorist groups and their deadly mix with Maoists, many think the state needs a strongman like Pinarayi Vijayan as the chief minister, though it is another matter that it was the fooleries of the communist movement in Kerala – CPM and CPI – which prepared the ground for the rise of fundamentalist groups.
Even the party hard liners in Kerala who once rebelled accusing Pinarayi of having no qualms about joining hands with class enemies, have fallen in line realizing his capability to hold fast the last red rampart in India. In fact, Pinarayi Vijayan is the first CPI (M) chief minister in Kerala who wields complete control over party and government – a rare feat which even leaders like EMS or EK Nayanar couldn’t achieve.
Pinaray’s feat of ending factionalism becomes all-the-more enviable as CPM Kerala unit had been in the grip of intense factionalism when he became the chief minister. Achuthanandan as the leader of opposition and later chief minister had built an image of an idealist with the unstinted support of hard liners. Though Pinarayi had managed to retain his iron grip over the party, it was a battle of nerves which lasted several years.
Factionalism in CPM was the hobbyhorse of Kerala Media. They pitted an idealist Achuthanandan against a revisionist Pinarayi, which prompted the latter to raise the allegation of a media syndicate based at Thiruvananthapuram trying to spread calumny against him. At one point, media were full of corruption allegations against Pinarayi in connection with the then Kerala government signing a contract with Canadian company SNC Lavalin to renovate a few dams of Kerala State Electricity Board. Political rivals and rival factions within the party often planted news against him and dug up his past involvement in the politics of violence in the killing fields off Kannur. After coming to power, Pinarayi has managed to make the same media toe his line, and they are now more loyal than the king.
Rhetoric and action
Pinarayi government hasn’t revoked the leftist policy of promoting public sector, and government owned education and healthcare institutions are still well funded; however the hyperbole of left leaders on outdated communist ideals is no more heard. Ubiquitous street corner meetings where local communist leaders spoke endlessly on revolution and class wars have disappeared. Children of communist leaders are mingling with capitalists with gay abandon. Only sound heard from hardcore leftists is anti Modi or anti Hindutva harangue, but Pinarayi has ensured it doesn’t go much beyond social media war-rooms often.
Anti-central government agitation, which was an inseparable part of previous communist governments is no longer a routine affair in Kerala. The efforts of Maoist groups to gain a foothold in tribal areas of the state were suppressed with an iron hand. UAPA, which the leftists including CPI (M) criticized as draconian at the national level, was implemented against two CPM youth wing members for their alleged Maoist connections. At least some of the actions of Pinarayi government have put CPI (M) national leadership on the defensive; however, they have won Pinarayi support from unexpected corners too. Meanwhile, in the last few months, political murders esp of Sangh Parivar cadres have come down.
Communication and PR strategies
Though Pinarayi has often been mocked for his retinue – advisors on different subjects numbering more than 20 – they are not useless as critics think. They have successfully filled the vacuum of ideologues in CPI (M), esp in the entourage of Pinarayi, and have triumphed in making the public believe that many of the traditional strengths of Kerala in health care and education are the result of the meticulous governance of Pinarayi government.
CPI (M) doesn’t have an EMS or P. Govinda Pillai at present to cover-up failures using ideological fig leaf. In their place the new PR strategists raise the hype of Pinarayi’s impeccable administrative skills and social commitment to highlight Kerala model and hide failures and ideological deviations.
The retinue which includes rocket scientists to economists sing their leader’s paeans all over the world including the West to give him an upper hand and help him to establish links with different groups in Kerala who have been traditionally anti-communist. As of now, everything is hunky-dory and Pinarayi is basking in glory. But, a weak base means, the edifice which the present left government built painstakingly may not weather the unexpected political storm.