Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan (File image: PTI)
His opponents call him “Modi in Mundu (dhoti)” due to his style of functioning, while for party men, Pinarayi Vijayan is the “iron man” of Kerala holding the last citadel of Left politics in India. Bucking a trend of 40 years of no incumbent getting re-elected, Vijayan is storming back to power in Kerala on May 2, as the election results are being announced.
The way he managed the floods, Nipah and COVID-19 has gained recognition globally, and earned him the names “captain” and “iratta chankan” (man with two hearts, a compliment to his fortitude). However, it was not an easy ride for Vijayan, a handloom weaver and son of a toddy tapper, as the chief minister of Kerala in his first stint.
His five years at power was marred by several controversies and scams, but the way he managed these crisis situations turned out to be the plus points for the incumbent chief minister in winning the hearts of the electorate. Compared to traditional communist chief ministers in Kerala, Vijayan was always seen as pro-industry and someone who is not playing to the galleries in terms of development projects.
“As a leader, he is committed, determined and his qualities also include perseverance and resilience. What made him a successful chief minister is that he was the least image-conscious and was not playing to the gallery. It was because of this quality that Kerala managed to come back to the growth and development trajectory after decades,” said John Brittas, senior journalist, who was elected as CPI (M) nominee to Rajya Sabha on April 24. It was this pro-industry strategy that led to him appointing Gita Gopinath, who later went on to become the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, as his economic advisor soon after becoming the chief minister.
“There are several examples of him not playing to the gallery, like GAIL Pipeline project, national highway development, Edamon-Kochi power highway and even the decision to re-open bars closed by the Oommen Chandy government. He could bring back the focus to the development agenda,” Brittas added. In the case of the 444-km GAIL pipeline, the Kochi-Koottanad-Bengaluru-Mangaluru pipeline project (KKBMPL), the company was almost on the verge of winding up the project due to land acquisition woes with even religious groups too standing against it. However, despite these protests, Vijayan went ahead with the land acquisition, keeping his promise of state’s aid in completing the project, when he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the first time on May 28, 2016.
It was this attitude that helped him in coming back to power in a state that has not re-elected a government since 1977. Many consider the turning point for Vijayan in becoming a popular chief minister was the way in which he managed the 2018 Kerala floods that claimed more than 483 lives. Till then, Vijayan was considered as a media-shy chief minister. He was even criticised for cancelling the weekly press conference by the chief minister.
“The chief minister is not a PRO (public relations officer). If there is anything important it will be informed,” Vijayan once said. However, when the floods happened, he started doing daily press conferences making the people believe that the ‘captain’ is leading from the front.
“There were a lot of scams and controversies – including the gold smuggling scam, Sprinkler deal and issues related to backdoor appointments. However, he managed to tide over all these crisis situations mainly because of his leadership qualities in managing Cyclone Ockhi, two floods, Nipah, and now COVID-19,” said B R P Bhaskar, a senior political analyst.
He also holds the record of holding the office of the party secretary in the state for the longest period between 1998 to 2015. It was his visionary outlook about the growing media scenario that led to the CPM starting Kairali TV, one of the first channels started by a political party in India. A CPI-M strongman, Vijayan, had earned the reputation of being a hard taskmaster and an organisation man during his tenure as the party secretary. Vijayan is perhaps the only Left chief minister, who managed to get complete control over the party. He had to tide over a spirited campaign to pip V S Achuthanandan by becoming the chief minister in 2016.
“He may also be holding the record for having the maximum number of media interaction by an Indian chief minister, through his daily media briefings,” Brittas sighted as a sign of Vijayan’s aggressive media strategy. Now, he is a familiar face to the households in Kerala, with the people glued to his daily press conferences, taking his popularity to an all-time high. Maybe this is the reason why Kerala’s ‘captain’ managed to do what communist stalwarts like E M S Namboodiripad, C Achutha Menon, E K Nayanar or V S Achuthanandan could not do, by storming back to power.