Kerala’s angry commissar and endless political violence

For the communist rank and file, Pinarayi Vijayan is a toughie. But as chief minister, he may have to learn new tricks.

ByAnand Kochukudy
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Kerala’s angry commissar and endless political violence
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On July 31, a ‘peace meeting’ of the CPM and the state BJP leaders was scheduled to be held at the state-run KTDC Mascot hotel in Thiruvananthapuram to defuse the vitiated atmosphere in Kerala’s state capital. As Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and CPM State Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan reached the venue, he spotted the camera crew assembled there to capture the visuals. The Chief Minister immediately asked the media to get out and rebuked the hotel staff for letting them in.

As if that weren’t enough, in a manner befitting a feudal overlord, he shouted ‘get out’ as they didn’t move out as quickly as he expected them to. Among those journalists were journalists who had worked for more than two decades in the profession and many of them have since struggled to come to terms with the kind of humiliation they endured.

Apparently, the Chief Minister’s office hadn’t invited the media to take visuals of the meeting. But BJP state President Kummanam Rajasekharan had kept the media informed about the event. The meeting was held in the backdrop of the Governor’s initiative to take stock of the law and order situation in the capital. This happened on the back of days of political violence in the state capital that culminated in the brutal hacking of an RSS man last Saturday followed by a state-wide hartal called by the BJP on Sunday in response. The Raj Bhavan had issued a statement that the Chief Minister has been asked to convene a ‘peace meeting’ with representatives of BJP and RSS after Vijayan met the Governor on Sunday afternoon.

The Chief Minister came out after the meeting and gave a statement about the understanding reached between both parties but left in a huff when he was asked about ordering the media out. NDTV’s Kerala correspondent Sneha Mary Koshy, who was among the journalists, said, “It’s acceptable to ask the camerapersons to leave and that’s what the Chief Minister did at first. But nobody has the right to ask them to ‘get out’. That’s where Pinarayi Vijayan lost out as a CM and a human being. Especially, when there was no directive from his office that cameras won’t be allowed inside for the routine photo session that precedes the meeting on similar occasions. And the CM refusing to comment on it post the meeting only spoke volumes.”

Vijayan has never enjoyed a good equation with the media. He endured a tough time when they went after him on the SNC-Lavalin corruption case and juxtaposed him frequently with the then Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan  to portray him as a vile figure. He has lost his cool with journalists multiple times in the past and he has never been known to be media-friendly.

Pinarayi Vijayan has also courted many a controversy in the past over his derogatory remarks about prominent people in the state. At a function back in 2007, he called the Bishop of Thamarassery diocese Paul Chittilappilly a “wretched creature”. The same year, he issued veiled threats and warnings to K Gopalakrishnan, the then editor of Mathrubhumi daily, after it ran some exposes on the party and its mouthpiece.

In 2012, after the brutal hacking of renegade Marxist TP Chandrasekharan that sent shockwaves across the state, Pinarayi Vijayan persisted with his line that Chandrasekharan was a “Kulam kuthi”- literally meaning a traitor of one’s clan. Pinarayi had used the same word for him even when he was alive after he quit the party to float his own outfit Revolutionary Marxist Party that had considerably weakened the CPM clout in north Kozhikode. Just like Prime Minister Modi, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is never known to express contrition.

In 2014, just ahead of the general elections, Vijayan used the word “rotter” to qualify Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) candidate NK Premachandran, after RSP quit the CPM-led LDF to join the Congress-led UDF. Post his thumping victory defeating CPM’s MA Baby, Vijayan went on to expand his political lexicon to use the word “scoundrel” for the Kollam MP and quipped that winning an election on an anti-Communist agenda didn’t make Premachandran a paragon of virtue.

It was, however, expected that as Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan would turn a new leaf. He had also simultaneously assumed total control of the party following the sidelining of veteran VS Achuthanandan. In fact, Vijayan had an image makeover overnight when he suddenly appeared less averse to smile. He had long been known as the comrade who didn’t smile.

The initial few months offered some promise despite the scrapping of the routine press conference post Cabinet meetings on Wednesdays, a practice religiously followed by his predecessors including comrades EK Nayanar and Achuthanandan. He had also appointed the CPM-run Kairali channel’s MD John Brittas as his media advisor.

But Vijayan remains the tough cookie he has always been known to be. The CPM State Secretary and fellow Kannur Comrade Balakrishnan has been reduced to playing second fiddle in a break from tradition.

An instance of high-handedness against the media didn’t go unnoticed recently when the CEO of Mangalam channel and a fellow journalist were handcuffed when they were produced in the court, presumably on the orders from the top (It is not a standard practice). The case against them pertains to trapping a minister in the Pinarayi Vijayan Cabinet in a sting operation that led to his resignation in a matter where no public interest was seen to be involved.

Keralites were also taken aback when he attacked the Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala in the Assembly using unparliamentary language. This is once again a break from tradition in a state where the ministers and opposition leaders are known to share good personal equations despite political acrimony.

CPM loyalists call Vijayan an “Erattachangan”, loosely translated to Lionheart, for many such acts of bravado. (No reference to English King Richard I, or Richard the Lionheart who makes a fleeting appearance in the adventures of Robin Hood and classics like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe). They love his sharp tongue and the image of a toughie. It is another matter whether such acts of bluster sit well on a Chief Minister. It should also be recalled that his party General Secretary Sitaram Yechury never loses an opportunity to corner Modi government’s acts of intolerance and opaqueness in the Parliament and outside.

It is time Pinarayi Vijayan concentrated more on governance and made sure the Kannur brand of political violence were not replicated in other parts of Kerala. It is not about the moral high ground achieved tallying the number of murdered CPM cadre with the corresponding BJP/RSS figure. As the Chief Minister holding the Home portfolio, it reflects poorly on Vijayan’s governance if he cannot put an end to it.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @AnandKochukudy .

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