Thiruvananthapuram: It’s easy to dismiss 88-year-old Velikkakath Sankaran Achuthanandan as an anachronism, even as a leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), itself not always known for being at the cutting edge of change.
That’s why the party itself would like nothing better than to see him retire as chief minister of Kerala. Twice the party has sought to deny Achuthanandan an assembly ticket. Both times—in 2006 and 2011—its desire to project a more youthful image has been thwarted because of Achuthanandan’s popularity. If the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) wins the 13 April elections in Kerala, the state could end up with a chief minister who’s 93-years-old by the end of the five-year term.
Achuthanandan is accused of having fostered a personality cult within the CPM to the detriment of the party itself. Of a piece with this is the bruising conflict with state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan that has dominated the past five years of his administration and has decimated the party, according to a top CPM member who didn’t want to be named.
Political analyst Paul Zachariah says Achuthanandan is a “thorough failure as an administrator” and that the hype around him is “like a balloon”.
“He has no understanding of administration nor political acumen. He has no understanding of issues in a larger perspective,” Zachariah says. “But as a politician, he is interesting. He is a master at playing to the gallery.”
This has included leading protests against the conversion of paddy fields into farms for the cultivation of other crops. He and his supporters stormed plantations and destroyed the cash crops that had been planted there as part of a drive to ensure more rice production in the state.
Munnar, the tea estate town nestled in the Western Ghats, was the scene of an eviction campaign, which showed him going up against the likes of Tata Tea Ltd. What this actually achieved isn’t clear. But to the people of a state that has had little to offer its people by way of meaningful employment opportunities, he appeared to be attacking the established order.
His supporters say Achuthanandan has been one of the few Kerala chief ministers with the courage to take on vested interests. That can’t hide the fact little has changed in Kerala by way of development since he came to power. It’s still a state that has been steadily denuded of industry, leaving it dependent on overseas remittances from Malayalees working in the Gulf and elsewhere.
“Unfortunately, the people of Kerala have been falling for such things,” according to Zachariah. “They (the people) have never understood what governance and nation building are all about.”
The media, meanwhile, reduces political debate to the level of gimmickry, he says.
Some of the shine has, however, been tarnished recently by the allegations of graft against his son Arun Kumar. The chief minister has announced his readiness to order a probe into the accusations.
Popularly known as VS, the chief minister says a strict yoga regime and a frugal diet help keep him going. Being a scrapper who loves nothing better than a bare-knuckle fight probably helps.
When the Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi made a jibe about his age, the chief minister’s response was to call him an “Amul baby” who had come to Kerala to campaign for more such “Amul babies”.
Achuthanandan thrives in the limelight, delighting fans by spoofing his own speech patterns complete with ridiculously dragged-out vowels, supposedly acquired during his rabble-rousing days as a union leader. His oratory is peppered with language that can be described as colourful, stopping just this side of invective and targeted at opponents outside the party and enemies within. That’s in sharp contrast to the traditional CPM campaign style, which focuses largely on the party’s policies.
He also cultivates an air of rusticity, regularly appearing on TV in his lungi and vest.
A recent survey conducted by leading Malayalam channel Asianet
gave him an approval rating of more than 30%, the highest among the state’s chief ministerial hopefuls.
If the octogenarian pulls off the unprecedented feat of retaining power in a state that has switched between the LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) every five years, he will be going against the grain in more ways than one. More than 40% of the state’s population is below 40. Another irony—in a state reputed for its high literary levels, Achuthanandan dropped out of school at the age of 11 after being orphaned. He first worked at his brother’s tailoring shop and then at a coir factory, where he joined a trade union. He joined the Congress in 1938 and two years later the Communist movement. He was one of the 32 leaders who left the Communist Party of India National Council on 11 April 1964 to form the CPM. That status hasn’t stopped him from being in regular conflict with the powers that be in the party.
The chief minister has defied the CPM line several times and this has cost him. His constant battles with Vijayan led to his expulsion from the politburo in July 2009, ending his 24-year membership of the apex decision-making body of the CPM, over “violations of organizational principle and discipline”. It was the first time a leader was thrown out of the politburo.
His infractions include attempts to approve the prosecution of Vijayan in a case involving alleged corruption and dating to back to the 1990s. He also sought a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into an alleged lottery scam without discussing the step in cabinet beforehand.
When the party was considering his candidacy, Achuthanandan said he would abide by its decision. “This was the only time Achuthanandan said he would follow the party line during the last five years when the party was in power. He never even claimed to obey the party in any other matter,” said the CPM leader cited above.
The faction led by Vijayan has made many efforts to get him expelled from the party but the chief minister’s undeniable connect with the people persuaded his rival to argue for Achuthanandan’s candidacy, fearing that a ticket denial would cause a backlash and cost the party dearly.
Elizabeth Roche contributed to this story