The Communist Superstar ; Pinarayi Vijayan
On May 2, the state of Kerala witnessed an unparalleled and historic mandate for the Left Democratic Fund led by Pinarayi Vijayan. The son of a toddy tapper, Vijayan’s meteoric rise in the most politically educated state of India made heads turn towards the South Indian state and the results surprised most of the political pundits who predicted that Kerala will continue with its pendulum political pattern of alternatively choosing the government – the LDF was able to buck the trend that has been etched in the state of Kerala since 1977.
The political maverick who rose to the echelons of power from the nerve centre of the ‘red’ district of Kannur – by winning in 1970 at Koothuparamba with 743 votes to sweeping Dharmadom in 2021 with a margin of 50,123 votes – the Chief Minister of Kerala has created history when he swam over a series of crisis situations and criticism for decades with nonchalant poise. Pinarayi Vijayan who helmed the role of the party secretary for a decade and a half came to power as the leader of the state in the last elections held in 2016.
The confident, hard-edged leader is easily the most powerful communist politician in the country, at a time when the party’s footprints have been diminishing in the nation. Pinarayi Vijayan’s progressive approach and resolute stance in the event of a chain of natural calamities and pandemic that the state faced in the last five years is a textbook example of strong governance that transformed the governance style of Kerala by adopting the best of the west and yet standing strong on the ideals of socialism.
Bagging 99 seats for the Left front at such a tumultuous time makes this victory even sweeter for the stalwart, for he has achieved it using his image as a strong leader to seek votes. Critics of Pinarayi Vijayan – including the old-time communists – had often commented that the last win of his government in 2016 was the result of the ‘good image’ his one-time mentor V S Achuthanandan had garnered for the party. These political pundits had to bite their tongue when the results were announced. Pinarayi Vijayan was the face of the LDF campaign. Posters didn’t find group photos of the 11 allies of the Left standing in line, holding hands. Unlike before, Pinarayi Vijayan was the mascot.
The 2021 elections arrived at one of the most turbulent times in the history of Kerala. The state is still reeling under its after-effects with a shocking level of unemployment. Naturally, it was assumed that the disgruntled youth would strengthen the anti-incumbency mood. However, the leadership of Pinarayi Vijayan and the clout he created among various demographics in the state steered his government to victory for a second term.
Pinarayi Vijayan’s message was simple: Feed the hungry, fill the bank accounts of pensioners, show guts in the face of adversities and create a sub-nationalism using the identity of Kerala. Coupled with a concerted effort to build a base in the grassroots, using the cadre party’s strength, socialist approach and progressive messaging, Pinarayi Vijayan is now the undisputed brand of communist politics in the country, and his reputation, strength, and popularity have edged past even the senior-most leaders in the politbureau. In the pre-poll phase, while the Opposition was looking towards the Congress High Command in Delhi, often causing delay and confusion, for the Left, at least the public perception was that the buck stopped with Vijayan. He called the shots and no political masters were hiding far away to make decisions for the party. Pinarayi Vijayan had the final say in the affairs of the state.
Another big support base that brand Pinarayi Vijayan secured was the trust of the youth of the state. He was able to address them in the right manner in a vocabulary they understood. Taking an undiluted stance against communalism and using the same to attack the politics of the BJP, he often put the message out that his UDF opponents led by the Congress won’t be able to take on the juggernaut of the BJP, nationally. He placed before them the Opposition’s track record in other states and suggested that the Left is the only true credible force to stop the saffron party’s rise in the state. Coupled with it, the soft support base for the Left from the actors and singers from the entertainment industry crafted an emotional unity among the people in favour of the Left. And who can forget the move of making the 21-year-old Arya Rajendran the Mayor of Thiruvananthapuram. It is no surprise that in the capital district, LDF was able to bag 13 out of the 14 constituencies. Malayalam playback singer Sithara’s rendition of the official anthem of the LDF, Keralam Orappanu Keralam, struck the right emotional chords among the youth. The imagery of the agrarian revolutions helmed by the communist movement and its contribution to restoring the land rights of the marginalised were all amplified in the anthem video that went viral. In the northern part of Kerala, the anthem kept playing in the campaign vehicles. “That song still gives me goosebumps. It evokes such strength,” says Akhil Nandakishore, a 27-year-old corporate executive in Kozhikode.
As for the Opposition, the power siblings Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi’s whirlwind campaign didn’t transform into votes. They dined with the locals, cooked local cuisine, dived into the sea with the fishermen, rode a tractor in Wayanad— none of these worked in their favour. The 76-year-old Pinarayi Vijayan was able to win the hearts of the youth which the 50-year-old Congress scion couldn’t achieve.
Trust of Minorities
The Left party’s rise to power was always because of the backing of the Ezhava community among the Hindus. Traditionally, the Christians never voted for the red party. The Muslims in the state traditionally preferred the Indian Union Muslim League.
But Pinarayi Vijayan’s welfare schemes changed the minds of minorities. His strong stance against the Union government’s vindictiveness against minorities in the backdrop of implementing the CAA amendment gave more power to the leader. Pinarayi Vijayan kept repeating a simple message. “CAA won’t be implemented in the state of Kerala.” The strategy worked for him as the Left, under his leadership, was able to breach even the citadels of the Muslim League. The League lost in 12 seats where Muslims are in the majority. The ruling government’s no-nonsense messaging against CAA and NRC did attract the minority votes in large numbers to the Left. Inexplicably, the traditional voters of the Congress placed their trust in the leadership of Pinarayi Vijayan. The swing is clear by the results as the Indian National Congress was able to win only in 21 seats out of the total 95 which they contested. The strategic tie-up with the Kerala Congress Mani group, helped the LDF win 5 seats from the Christian stronghold as well.
Vijayan introduced new reforms within the orthodox communist ideology. Unlike his predecessors, he kept a global vision for the state and was open to ushering in private players to the market. When Pinarayi Vijayan took charge in 2016, he appointed Indian-American economist Gita Gopinath as his economic adviser. Gopinath, who is currently the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund is a staunch propounder of neo-liberal policies. It certainly raised eyebrows within the communist ranks. But, the approach paid dividends for the party. Under his leadership, Kerala has become the 8th state to complete ease of doing business reforms. Pinarayi Vijayan, even as he projected a deep animosity with the Union government’s policies of governance, left no stone unturned to work closely with the Ministry of Road and Highways under Nitin Gadkari and was able to attract a large chunk of investment for the development of roadways in Kerala. Vijayan’s first government ensured that the state proactively helped in securing the land for the construction of highways without delay. The defunct Palarivattom bridge which was a symbol of the previous Congress government’s corruption was repaired in record time. The completion of the GAIL pipeline as well as the speed of completion of power projects despite a slew of natural calamities shifted people’s votes towards the Left. The expansion of Kochi Metro, the ambitious Silverline project that would connect both ends of Kerala with a high-speed train, the water metro project, the K-Fon project that envisions providing free Internet to millions and the visible improvement in the quality of state highways and national highways helped Vijayan to be the symbol of development as well.
When his first government set up the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board, it helped the government bring in out-of-budget revenues for infrastructure projects. The only difference Pinarayi Vijayan brought about, keeping in line with the ethos of the Left, was to invest in education infrastructure, whose investment clearly wouldn’t yield any revenue for the cash-strapped state immediately. But, in order to create a strong human capital in decades, the government modernised government schools. The shoddy-looking government schools got a complete makeover. Last October, Kerala became the first state in India to digitalise more than 16,000 schools. As many as 3,74,274 digital classrooms were set up across the state. More than 11,275 schools were equipped with hi-tech labs.
Keeping pensioners and homemakers happy
When Pinarayi Vijayan’s first government announced a hike in pension from Rs 600 to Rs 1,600, the senior citizens, who constitute a sizeable chunk of Kerala’s population, surely have lent their blessing to the Left. As per 2019 statistics, 19.95 percent of the total revenue expenditure of the state goes as pension, using up Rs 19,938.41 crore. Hiking the welfare pension to Rs 1,600 certainly reaped rewards in terms of votes. The previous Congress government led by Oomen Chandy was unable to provide such a relief to the pensioners. Additionally, as part of the manifesto, the LDF promised to hike it to Rs 2,500 within five years. It also announced that they would bring homemakers and domestic maids under the ambit of its social welfare pension scheme.
“This election was fought from the kitchens in Kerala,” said a prominent pollical analyst in the state. Pinarayi Vijayan was able to give solace to homemakers during the first five years of his rule through a slew of packages for them.
The elaborate food kit caught the fancy and trust of women in the state. The food kit included more than 18 items of provisions and it was distributed through ration shops with no confusion.
It is said that the true mettle of a leader emerges during a crisis. Since 2018, the first Pinarayi Vijayan government has been facing myriad crises. When two subsequent floods followed by Covid ravaged the lives of the people, the Chief Minister changed his tack. From a persona who was not very ‘media-friendly’, began a new level of discourse with the media. Pinarayi Vijayan’s media interactions became an every-day activity. Through the media, Vijayan gave minute updates about the steps taken by the state in combating the crisis. Beaming live across a dozen news channels, almost an hour-long update by Vijayan changed the course for the communist government. He did his homework and was not shy of fielding questions from the media. In a state which is always hungry for the latest updates, Pinarayi Vijayan’s evening wrap-up solidified the perception of him being a strong leader who was unmoved or confused by the tide of unfortunate events.
Date of Birth
21 March, 1944
Place of Birth
1 Son, 1 Daughter
Some interesting facts
After completing his schooling, Pinarayi Vijayan worked as a loom weaver for a year.
It is also said he has worked in a bakery in Karnataka
Young Vijayan is rumoured to have been a fan of Tamil superstar Rajinikanth
He became the CPI(M) state secretary in 1998 and remained in that position for 17 years
During the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, he was arrested and allegedly tortured by the police
Pinarayi Vijayan’s speech, holding aloft his blood-stained shirt, in the Assembly, after his release is considered an iconic moment in Kerala’s legislative history
Pinarayi Vijayan has authored at least seven books in Malayalam. ‘Matham, Madhyamam, Marxism’, ‘Nava Keralathilekku’, ‘India vs RSS’ are the noted ones
Did you know?
MAY 20 seems like a lucky day for him. It was on this day that CPI(M) leadership picked him as the new Chief Minister of Kerala back in 2016. In the second term, he was sworn in as Chief Minister on the same day in 2021
Family members claim he never speaks politics at home
Positions held by him
State president and secretary of Kerala Students Federation and president of Kerala State Youth Federation
President of Kerala State Co-operative Bank
Elected to Kerala Legislative Assembly in 1970, 1977, 1991, 1996, 2016 and 2021
Minister in Kerala government between 1996 and 1998
Secretary of the Kerala state committee of the CPI(M) between 1998 and 2015
Has been a member of the CPI(M) politburo since 2002
Chief Minister of Kerala since May 25, 2016
1962: Joined the Government Brennen College in Thalassery for pre-university studies
1964: He joined Communist Party of India (Marxist)
1968: Elected to the Kannur district committee of CPI(M)
1970: First victory in Assembly elections from the Koothuparamba constituency in Kannur by 700+ votes at the age of 26
1977: Won the election from Koothuparamba for the second time, defeating Abdul Khadar of the RSP by 4401 votes
1978: Elected to the CPI(M) Kerala state committee
1986: Elected as the CPI(M) Kannur district secretary
1988: He became a member of the CPI(M) state secretariat
1991: Won the election from Koothuparamba for the third time, defeating P Ramakrishnan of Congress
1996: Served as the Minister of Electricity and Minister of Cooperatives in Kerala
1996: Won the Assembly elections from Payyannur seat defeating KN Kannoth of Congress
1998: He was elected the state secretary of the CPI(M)
2002: Became a member of the CPI(M) politburo
2016: Elected Chief Minister of Kerala after getting elected from Dharmadom, defeating Mambaram Divakaran of Congress
2021: Breaks four-decade-long pattern of rotational government. Under his leadership, LDF gets second term