Historic 2nd Term: Kerala Rewards Pinarayi for Managing COVID-19
Vijayan’s first-ever victory was against infant mortality. He was one among his parents’ children to survive.
After becoming Kerala Chief Minister for the first time in May 2016, one of the immediate decisions of CPI(M) strongman Pinarayi Vijayan was to wind up the regular weekly post-cabinet meeting press briefings, which had been a norm in the state for several decades.
The decision evoked strong resentment from the media and constituents of the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) as the weekly briefings facilitated direct engagement between the Chief Minister and media, even on critical and complex policy matters. But the CM stuck to his decision saying he did not want to cowed down by the fourth estate.
In those early days, Vijayan, often described as Stalinist and dictatorial by his political opponents, was routinely rude to journalists.
Vijayan Becomes an Administrator
But 2018 saw a sea change. Vijayan became an administrator when the state saw massive floods and landslides that year, rendering hundreds homeless. Often telecast live his daily press briefings helped calm the nerves of an insecure public across the state.
Each evening, Vijayan turned up at the media room of the state secretariat along with some senior ministers and the chief secretary to explain his government’s handling of the situation.
In 2019, he handled another bout of floods, the Nipah virus outbreak in Kozhikode and the Okhi cyclone which devastated the coastal regions of southern Kerala.
During the days of lockdown in 2020, necessitated by the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vijayan was the only Chief Minister in India to communicate with his people through the daily press briefings on challenges, solutions, initiatives, and responsibilities related to containing the pandemic.
CM Acquires Poise
By the end of lockdown, Vijayan's daily press briefings became Kerala's highest rated television program in Malayalam.
Even for those who knew Vijayan from close quarters, it was an intriguing metamorphosis. The rough and tough political leader from north Kerala’s Kannur district handled even provocative questions with poise and maturity.
His detractors called the change a stage-managed act guided by a public relation firms commissioned for an image makeover. However, people across Kerala, especially women voters, accepted his transformation wholeheartedly and waited eagerly to watch his daily briefings.
Affirmation of Vijayan’s Evolution
Vijayan's rewriting of Kerala's 40 year old election history, where no incumbent has won a second consecutive term, shows that his evolution from distant, feared leader to revered administrator is complete
Credit for LDF’s overwhelming victory, has gone to this 76-year-old politician who was born in abject poverty to an agricultural worker, Kalyani, and toddy tapper, Koran.
In a way, his first-ever victory in life was in 1944 against infant mortality. Among the 14 children born to his parents, only three survived an impoverished childhood, and he was among them.
Working Around Criticism
Over the last five years, Vijayan and his government have faced strong criticism over police excesses – from alleged custodial killings to Maoist ‘encounters’.
Dissenting voices were often stifled using draconian laws like UAPA, and even social media posts critical of the government faced criminal proceedings.
But Vijayan's efficient and sensitive response to crises ranging from floods to the pandemic seems to have deflected the bad press.
During lockdown in 2020, Vijayan even urged people to show compassion and feed stray dogs and other starving animals. He also sanctioned funds to feed captive elephants and temple monkeys. This was the same leader who in 1993 had justified CPI(M) workers’ vandalism at a snake park in Kannur. In the attack, several reptiles, birds, and animals were killed.
Reincarnation as Crisis Manager
According to Malayalam writer and political analyst C S Chandrika, the election result is by and large a recognition of Vijayan's reincarnation as a crisis manager. "He never used calamities as an excuse for not implementing welfare and developmental measures. So, there's nothing strange in Vijayan's victory, even though he presided over the LDF's worst-ever Lok Sabha performance in 2019."
“Apart from able crisis management, his tenure saw effective implementation of various welfare measures targeting the poor. In addition, the state also saw infrastructure growth, in terms of good roads, bridges, schools, public utility buildings, libraries, and parks. ”CS Chandrika
Vijayan has even won applause from Union Minister Nitin Gadkari for his role in improving the standards of national highways, coastal highways, and high range highways in the state. He also helped commission the Centre's long-delayed GAIL gas pipeline project. The first phase of the Kovalam-Kasaragod waterway was also commissioned this year.
The Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board, created by the Vijayan government, spent Rs 60,000 crore on infrastructure development in the last five years, as against the initial target of Rs 50,000 crore.
"In the election campaign, Congress-led UDF highlighted several trivial issues like unproven corruption charges against some ministers and the wrath of Lord Ayyappa for allowing entry of young women into Sabarimala. Vijayan had just implemented a Supreme Court order allowing women’s entry to Sabarimala. But both UDF and BJP used it as an instrument for communal polarisation and to target Vijayan," points out senior journalist and political commentator Pradeep Panangad.
“The election result proves Sabarimala was a non-issue. People preferred Vijayan mainly because of the material assistance his government provided to people during the crisis; over one lakh families received free rations and over a dozen essential commodities since the lockdown was announced. This turned many women voters in his favour.”Pradeep Panangad
Roads, Pension, Homes
One factor which contributed to the rise of Pinarayi Vijayan is the unquestioning support which he has enjoyed from his Cabinet and CPI(M)‘s senior leadership.
"In Kerala, social welfare schemes play a pivotal role in overall growth. Five years ago, the old age and widow pension were in the range of Rs 650 per month. It was enhanced to Rs 1,600 in recent years and the government ensured its regular disbursement. The election manifesto of LDF has promised to increase the amount to Rs 2,500. This too has paid huge electoral dividends," points out former parliament member and CPI(M) leader T N Seema. According to her, the number of beneficiaries of different welfare schemes in the state was only 34 lakhs during the former UDF government. Now it has gone up to 59.95 lakh.
As far as the education sector is concerned, the Vijayan government created 45,000 smart classrooms in the last five years. In the same period, over six lakh students left unaided schools in the state and joined government schools after being satisfied with the given facilities and teaching quality.
Education and health were two areas in which the Vijayan government performed well.
"In Kerala, housing is a matter of concern. The government was able to construct 2,80,000 houses in the five years targeting the poor and socially backward. The state has also achieved full electrification in this period. Vijayan was able to effectively blend welfare and infrastructure growth and bring both the poor and middle class to his fold. He was also able to convince voters that the gold smuggling-related allegations against some of his cabinet colleagues as part of a central government attempt to discredit the lone communist government in the country and help the Sangh Parivar forces," says social activist Purushan Eloor.
CPI(M) and Vijayan’s Growth
Born in Pinarayi village in Kannur, where Kerala's Communist party unit was formed five years before his birth, Vijayan made his mark during the state's famous cooperative movement before becoming minister of electricity in the then E K Nayanar government of 1996.
He was also the longest-serving state unit secretary of CPI(M). In 1970, he won the assembly election from the Kuthuparamba constituency to become Kerala's youngest MLA. Vijayan shot to prominence in 1971-72 during the infamous Thalassery riots.
He played a crucial role in restoring normalcy and communal harmony in the northern Kerala town, where Hindutva elements had targeted poor Muslims.
During the Emergency in 1975, despite being an MLA, Vijayan was beaten up badly by the police for leading a protest.
As far as BJP is concerned, Vijayan was always the critical opponent because of the uncompromising stand he has taken over the years against the Sangh Parivar's growth in Kannur and in other parts of Kerala.
The BJP has been accusing Vijayan of masterminding a series of political murders targeting the Kannur-based leaders of the party, including its former state leader KT Jayakrishnan, who was hacked to death in 1999 inside a classroom in front of primary school children.
On their part, the Congress and Indian Union Muslim League have also accused Vijayan of promoting murder politics in the entire north Kerala region.
He faced corruption charges related to a deal he struck with a Canada-based firm SNC Lavalin in his capacity as electricity minister for many years. However, courts dropped the charges for want of evidence.
"Vijayan has a phenomenal change in his approach over the years. India's Prime Minister never conducted a press meeting during this pandemic to answer the queries of the nation. No other chief minister took part in so many daily press conferences, which has now become the 'Kerala model'. In fact, the press briefings played a key role in his return to power," says senior journalist Renu Ramanath.
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