Whether you like him or not, Pinarayi Vijayan is by far the most popular CM in the history of Kerala going into an election. From a strict and often ill-tempered secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), Vijayan has transformed himself into a chief minister who means business, cares about people and does things he chooses to say. Whether that percept is the product of a deft but stealthy PR strategy or something based on genuine intent and compassionate reactions of a leader is still debatable, but the fact is that for the first time in Kerala, a reelection of a government is deemed highly probable. That itself is something in a state which always votes the Opposition into power every time it goes to polls.
The road to chief ministership
In 2016 when Pinarayi Vijayan was instated as the 12th Chief Minister of Kerala, he was never the popular choice. The perception of the general public was that VS Achuthanandan, Vijayan’s arch rival in the party and then opposition leader, would once again be chosen as the CM and most of them wanted it, even though he was well into his nineties at that time.
The CPI(M) leadership, of course, sensed it and used it to their advantage. The whole Left Democratic Front (LDF) poll campaign of 2016 was designed with Achuthanandan at its centre and Vijayan had only a nominal presence in both publicity materials and campaigns, though the party never explicitly said Achuthanandan is their CM candidate. The strategy worked well and LDF won in a landslide, securing 91 seats. CPI(M) promptly sidelined Achuthanandan and installed Vijayan as the chief minister. Because, in the party, Pinarayi Vijayan, as the kingpin of the so-called 'Kannur Lobby', is all powerful while Achuthanandan is only a mass leader who could attract the non-Communist votes that the party needed badly.
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The new face of Pinarayi Vijayan
Immediately after the victory celebrations, Achuthanandan was dispatched to the confines of the Constitutional Reforms Committee with an enviable package and nothing much is heard of him, apart from medical reports or photo ops. More like a Mughal king spending his last years in benign captivity, albeit with a handsome compensation package at the expense of the public in this case.
Having sent the main obstacle away, Vijayan began his task in earnest. The reins of the party was firmly in his hand through the secretary, his trusted lieutenant Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. There were fumbles and missed cues in reading the public’s expectations, in the beginning. However, what Kerala saw in the next five years was Pinarayi Vijayan's rise as the leader of the state and perhaps as one of the most able administrator in recent times.
Meeting the challenges
It was during his tenure that Kerala faced unsurpassed miseries, right from Okhi cyclone disaster to Nipah outbreak to consecutive floods to COVID-19. How the administration has managed to rise to meet the challenge, keeping in mind people’s health, security and welfare was an eye opener to many, both inside and outside the state.
The daily press briefings, originally started by Health Minister KK Shailaja during COVID-19 outbreak was soon taken over by the Chief Minister, in a clever strategic move that would later help create the firm-but-compassionate-and-efficient image of Pinarayi Vijayan that we all know now.
These media briefings assured the citizens of a functioning administration with a central command and control room keen to mitigate the situation. This was an unprecedented feat in any of the Indian states or even by the central government and no wonder it helped converge the attention of international media on the tiny state.
Another initiative that cemented his popularity was the food kits delivered through the public distributions system throughout the lockdown period and timely delivery of welfare pensions. Both these measures have ensured food on the tables of the poorest of the poor and the aged.
In a way, it is the tragedies that people of Kerala went through presented with a unique opportunity for Vijayan to prove his worth. One cannot say it is a situation one would like to see repeated in the state, but as far as political opportunism and administrative ability go, this is one of the finest examples a government rising up to meet the challenges, seen recently in the Indian context.
Allegations that failed to stick
The Opposition, led by Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala and BJP, has raised allegations of corruption against the government, including aiding gold smuggling and providing back-door employment, but none of them appeared capable of toppling the LDF campaign.
There were also sustained probes by various central government agencies in gold smuggling case, but they have only helped in creating an image of persecution and ensured sympathy for the Vijayan government.
Vijayan is contesting from his sitting seat of Dharmadam, not far from Pinarayai, the village he was born in Kannur, a northern district of Kerala. In the last election he defeated Mambaram Divakaran of INC by harnessing 56 per cent of the total votes polled. He has a new opposition this time in the form of District Committee secretary C Raghunath.