The curious similarities between Pinarayi Vijayan and Narendra Modi
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Bengaluru/New Delhi: Recalling the advertising blitz triggered by Narendra Modi before the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader was sworn in as prime minister two years ago, the front pages of major newspapers in New Delhi were plastered with full-page ads on Wednesday, announcing the swearing-in of Pinarayi Vijayan as Kerala’s new chief minister.
Vijayan saying hello to Delhi was perhaps not an accident. It is almost like the entire political spectrum in India is now bookended by these two very similar characters, one on the right side of the spectrum and the other on the left.
First of all, who is Vijayan?
Only three out of the 14 children of Koran and Kalyani, a couple from Pinarayi village in north Kerala, survived—the high mortality rate was not unusual in an era when healthcare was out of the reach of most poor families and when the state was yet to attain the high scores on development indices it eventually got.
The youngest child was taken ill in the days immediately after birth, to the worry of his mother. However, the komarams (oracles) who frequented the house, adorned in red shawls and carrying heavy hooked swords, told the mother she shouldn’t worry too much.
The son, Pinarayi Vijayan, born in a family that eked out a living by tapping toddy from coconut trees, turned 72 on 24 May and became the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led (CPM) coalition’s chief minister of Kerala a day later.
Like Modi, who belongs to an OBC (other backward class) community called Modh Ghanchi, Vijayan comes from a disadvantaged Thiyya caste, pretty low down the social hierarchy.
The family was so poor that Vijayan only wore white “simply because there was no other colour I could have chosen in my school days in order to mask the fact that I didn’t have another shirt”, he recalled in a television interview.
Vijayan worked as a textile worker for a year after finishing school to earn enough to attend Brennen College in Thalassery in Kannur district. It was in college that he became a political activist as a member of the Kerala Students’ Federation (KSF), a youth wing of India’s undivided Communist Party.
In some ways, it seems Modi, who sold tea in his early years for a living, and Vijayan were destined to join the parties they became part of.
Vijayan was born in the same village (Pinarayi) where Kerala’s Communist Party was born at a 30 December midnight meeting, 77 years ago.
And he also rose through the ranks of the party at a speed unmatched by his peers.
In 1968, at just 23, Vijayan was appointed a district committee member of CPM’s Kannur wing. The party also gave him a ticket to contest the 1970 assembly election from Koothuparamba constituency in Kannur—a seat CPM had not won until then.
The 1970 election is unforgettable in the history of the CPM in Kerala, but for all the wrong reasons.
Although the CPM managed to keep a decent profile in every election, 1970 was one election where it was reduced to its lowest tally (28 seats) in the assembly, mainly because every other major party, including its allies, such as the Communist Party of India (CPI), formed a rainbow coalition to corner the CPM in the state. Many stalwarts of the party, including T.K. Ramakrishnan and E.K. Imbichi Bava, lost that election. But the 26-year-old Vijayan, who in those days sported a pencil-thin moustache and neatly parted hair, won from Koothuparamba in 1970 and walked into the assembly as Kerala’s youngest legislator, a record that is still unbroken.
As with many other politicians of that time, the revolt against the suspension of basic rights during the Emergency of 1975 was a turning point in Vijayan’s life.
In a well-known incident, he went to the first post-Emergency assembly of 1979 wearing a bloodstained shirt, roaring at the powerful Congress leader and chief minister K. Karunakaran. “The police put aside my identity card as an MLA and beat me to pulp. Is this politics? Is this democracy?”
Vijayan was appointed as the minister for power (his only two- and-a-half years of prior experience in governance in a five-decade-old career) in the 1996 E.K.Nayanar government.
Bureaucrats who worked with him then recall him as an able administrator.
“His motto was to get things done, within strict deadlines, even if that meant going a bit tough on the officials,” recalls a senior bureaucrat in that government, who didn’t want to be named.
However, the party asked him to take over as the state secretary, the highest position in the party at the state level, after the sudden demise of Chadayan Govindan in 1998.
It was during his 17-year term as secretary (the party’s longest-serving secretary in Kerala) that Vijayan acquired the image of a stone-faced dictator who almost always never smiles.
“He took over when the party was facing a severe crisis. M.V. Raghavan (an influential Communist leader who walked out of the CPM and formed his own party in a watershed moment in 1986) was still a threat. There were serious ideological and personal differences within the party,” says a CPM leader who contested the 2016 election and lost.
Pinarayi also became the most hated figure for right-wing activists in the state during this time, according to a leader of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
“It was a tough time for RSS after he became CPM secretary. He played a major role in resisting RSS violence against his cadres and was also quick to react against the attacks on his cadres,” said the RSS leader, on the condition of anonymity.
While Vijayan emerged as the most powerful force in CPM’s Kerala unit, this period also saw both him and his supporters being accused by political opponents within the party—mainly by a faction led by CPM’s one-term chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan—for “deviant tendencies”, such as their alleged support to Fourth World theorists and their affluent lifestyle.
The Fourth World theory is an alternative to Marxism, and propounds class cooperation as opposed to class conflict.
Vijayan’s image was further dented when he was booked by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) “for political corruption” during his term as minister. The charge was that he managed to secure funding for a cancer hospital in north Kerala while awarding a power contract to Canadian company SNC-Lavalin, which CBI said amounted to political gains.
A CBI court acquitted him of the charges 2013, which set the ball rolling for his comeback to electoral politics.
The path followed by Modi and Pinarayi to reach the apex of an elected government is marked by similar events, although on a vastly different scale.
In Modi’s case, the 2002 Gujarat riots when he was the chief minister of the state continues to cloud his image. In Vijayan’s case, the brutal 2012 murder of T. P. Chandrasekharan, a former colleague-turned-rival party politician, had people wondering how such an event could have taken place without the knowledge of senior party leaders.
Both Modi and Vijayan hired public relations (PR) agencies that came up with slogans to communicate just enough hope to their respective voter bases to bring them to power.
In Modi’s case, his promise of Achche Din (good days) was enough to enthuse the party rank and file and even the whole country. Vijayan’s Ellam Sheriyaakum (Malayalam for “everything will be okay”), in the words of a top executive at a PR agency, was a tool to soften “the hard man leading the party” image that had gotten them this far.
Modi and Vijayan also had to sideline rivals within the party to head the elected government. While it was senior party leaders such as L.K. Advani in Modi’s case, it was Achuthanandan in the case of Vijayan.
“While Modi is right of centre and Vijayan is left of centre, they both mean business but look at reality from different vantage points,” says J. Prabhash, professor of political science at the University of Kerala.
For Vijayan, success lies in carrying the opposition along, said Prabhash.
All that aside, the political dynamics that Vijayan will face will be completely different from what Modi faced when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) took the helm two years ago, said analysts.
The CPM has lost ground in its one-time bastion West Bengal and has been limited to Tripura and Kerala. With the party considerably weakened in West Bengal, which it ruled for more than three decades until 2011, its governance in Kerala will decide the survival of the largest remaining communist movement in the democratic world, say analysts.
“The party has never been in such a weak position in their electoral history. Whether it is in Parliament or in the states, the presence of Left is at a vanishing point,” says M.G. Radhakrishnan, editor of Asianet News television channel.