When elections were held to the Kerala Assembly in the summer of 2016, the opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) did not have a designated Chief Ministerial face. Pinarayi Vijayan was in complete control of the CPI(M) organisation – even after stepping down as the State Secretary in 2015 – but wasn't projected as the Chief Minister-in-waiting. In fact, 92-year-old VS Achuthanandan was the face of the LDF campaign and primary vote-catcher for his party and the LDF alliance.
Pinarayi Vijayan, contesting his first election in 20 years after a record five terms as the State Secretary, was definitely the front-runner. But the CPI(M) leadership – including General Secretary Sitaram Yechuri – wouldn't address that question as it was imperative to keep the aging VS Achuthanandan in good humour, as well as keep the supporters of both leaders happy. Achuthananthan toured the length and breadth of the state to campaign for LDF candidates, with party nominees jostling to get him to their constituency.
After the declaration of results, however, Pinarayi Vijayan emerged as the Chief Minister. And with age finally catching up with VS Achuthanandan, the nonagenarian gradually bowed out of public sphere.
However, Pinarayi Vijayan seemed to struggle to come to terms with his role as Chief Minister in the initial days.
In public perception, it wasn't until August last year, when the state was deluged by floods, that Pinarayi Vijayan actually made the transition from a stern party secretary to a Chief Minister. Despite his well-documented run-ins with the media on many occasions, he held regular press conferences to allay fears and gave an impression of being in charge. His ratings suddenly went up and his leadership and calm demeanour during the tough times were hailed by even his worst critics.
The historic Sabarimala verdict, allowing the entry of women of all ages entry into the hill shrine, coming within a month of that, proved to be the next big challenge for the Chief Minister. Pinarayi Vijayan stood his ground on welcoming the verdict even in the face of many fellow party leaders – including Ministers – wavering on their positions. Although critics argue that he didn't have much of a choice, Vijayan didn't choose the less risky option of being disingenuous or ambivalent. He kept harping on Kerala renaissance and the need to implement the Supreme Court order in letter and spirit.
True, Vijayan went about it tactlessly as he tried to remote-control the Travancore Devaswom Board which didn't help his cause. That was probably the Party Secretary in him occasionally rearing his head. But more importantly, he didn't waver on his stand despite the public fury and street protests. The CPI(M) held meetings in every district to clarify their stand, and Pinarayi Vijayan's speeches got praise from various quarters. These explanatory meetings also saw large public participation. Vijayan was at the vanguard of defending the secular values, even as many of his fellow Comrades seemed to waver. It was all the more significant because none of the prominent Congress leaders in the state spoke out in support of the Sabarimala verdict – instead choosing to play safe by reflecting public opinion.
With the election season underway, Pinarayi Vijayan will be the star campaigner for the CPI(M) and the LDF. Despite the Election Commission diktat to not ask for votes in the name of Sabarimala, it is definitely going to be a big issue dictating the poll outcome in Kerala. None of the other prominent leaders of the CPI(M) have articulated the party's stand as well as the Chief Minister, and he will once again have to do the heavy lifting.
Although the CPI(M) has lost the support of the powerful Nair Service Society (NSS) and a section of the caste Hindu vote on account of its stand on Sabarimala, the party expects a section of the secular vote to switch from the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) to make up for that.
The twin political murders of two Youth Congress workers in Periya in Kasargod on the eve of this election allegedly at the hands of CPI(M) cadre is what might upset these calculations of the Marxist party. But it was curious that many of the prominent public figures and cultural icons in Kerala maintained a studied silence on the matter despite widespread public anger. Although unconscionable, this silence might have been a direct result of Pinarayi Vijayan's outreach to many of the community organisations in the wake of the Sabarimala judgement and his commitment to implement the apex court order in letter and spirit.
Outspoken Marxist critics like Sunny M Kapikad and others took a soft line on the matter, or made motherhood and apple pie statements in its wake. To quote a prominent literary figure who did not want to be named, "The political murders are unfortunate but it would be unfair to blame the Chief Minister for it."
Pinarayi Vijayan's stocks have rapidly gone up even as his party faces an uphill task in this election. If the LDF was hesitant to ask for votes in Pinarayi Vijayan's name beyond the Malabar region in 2016, things are vastly different this time around as the Chief Minister will be the star campaigner and primary vote-catcher for his alliance. That is quite a turnaround for the organisation man once renowned for his perpetual frown and authoritarian ways.
Anand Kochukudy is a Delhi-based political commentator and academic. Views expressed are the writer’s own.