Strongman to mass leader: How Pinarayi’s image transformation helped the LDF to victory

When Pinarayi started his term as the Chief Minister in 2016, it was hard for the politician from Kannur to emerge from under VS’s shadow
Pinarayi Vijayan
Pinarayi Vijayan
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He is a man who has led the party for 17 years, but Pinarayi Vijayan has always had the image of a rough, unrelenting CPI(M) strongman, not a favourite of even Left sympathisers. In contrast, it was VS Achuthanandan, his party colleague and opponent, who was a people’s man and won hearts. VS cultivated the image of a common man’s leader, a crusader during his tenure as Chief Minister between 2006-2011.

When Pinarayi started his term as the Chief Minister in 2016, it was hard for the politician from Kannur to emerge from under VS’s shadow. But he did it ultimately. The CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front’s spectacular victory in the local body polls can also be seen as an endorsement of his leadership.

In the last five years, he has slowly garnered the image of a strong statesman who led from the front during natural calamities and the COVID-19 pandemic, however he has also faltered while giving free reign to the police and in using laws like the UAPA which the Left has eloquently opposed.

Handling crises

It started with Cyclone Ockhi in November 2017. Seventy-two fishermen from the coastal villages of Vizhinjam and Poonthura lost their lives in the cyclone. As the government grappled with the crisis, Pinarayi got a bulk of the criticism when it came to rescue and rehabilitation, his critics and rivals chose to term him the party secretary and not CM or a mass leader.

His statesmanship in handling the deluge in August 2018 finally enabled him to shed the ‘party secretary’ image and lay the foundation for his growth as a people’s leader, something that had eluded him till then. With this he could also shake off the perception that he was in VS’s shadow as the CM. The leadership skills, the strength of someone leading from the front was further established with the floods in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Nipah outbreak in 2018 and 2019. Pinarayi also became a constant headline in the national media as he took tough stands against the Union government.

Never a media favourite

No other Chief Minister in the history of Kerala must ever have fielded the brickbats that Pinarayi has. In this too, his brashness while dealing with the media has been compared to his predecessor and Congress leader Oommen Chandy, who always appeared in public with a wide smile despite being constantly under media scrutiny.

Pinarayi was attacked for not talking to the media and for being rude to media persons. His weekly press meets post the Cabinet meetings was the only media interaction he had. All that changed during the 2018 floods when the CM began meeting the press twice a day, which he repeated in 2019. The press meets were a regular feature during the 2020 landslide too.

His press meets became a daily routine since March, when the state first witnessed a surge in COVID-19 cases, and from March to September he completed 100 press meets. These press meets, that lakhs tuned into everyday, also helped Pinarayi to shed the image of a non-smiling, unapproachable CM.

Gold smuggling case

However, the gold smuggling case through the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport using UAE diplomatic baggage and the alleged link to the CM’s former principal secretary M Sivasankar was a blow to the Left government. Though there was no direct proof linking Pinarayi to the scam, he was at the centre of every question raised by the media. From July to December, hardly a day went by without the media going after the government on the case. Television anchors grilled Left leaders while leading dailies were even more aggressive. Pinarayi locked horns with media persons during the press meets. A majority of the media wrote off the Left and the underlying assumption was that if the LDF loses the local body polls, it would be because of Pinarayi.

The government, however, continued to distribute welfare pension while the grocery kits supplied through ration shops went uninterrupted too amidst the pandemic. Houses were built for the poor under the Life Mission Scheme, which was also in the spotlight as gold smuggling accused Swapna Suresh allegedly took bribes from a building firm that had taken a contract for the project.

Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala did regular press meets exposing government lapses while his party colleagues Mullappally Ramachandran and Ooomen Chandy too didn’t spare the government. BJP state Secretary K Surendran and his senior party colleague, Union Minister of State V Muraleedharan, were equally fervent in their attack.

However, what the Congress was unable to do was induce trust in the people as a united force that would fight for them. At the same time, Pinarayi earned the respect of the people by visiting the flood-prone area with Chennithala in 2018 and by conducting a joint protest with the opposition against the Citizenship Amendment Act. While he blamed the Congress for its ‘soft Hindutva’ stand, he attacked the BJP with more vigour for its communalist agenda. 

Pinarayi shouldered the responsibility of implementing the September 2018 Supreme Court order allowing women between 10 and 60 into the Sabarimala shrine. To make the environment conducive for this, he conceived and carried out the idea of the Women’s Wall. It was a show of strength of the secularly inclined people of the state. The CM spoke tirelessly at public meetings, to which party cadres thronged in large numbers, on secularism, and the need for reforms so as not to lose the secular fabric of the state.

That mattered, at least for the section who always stood with the Left, in a social environment that was in turmoil. Meeting the press on Wednesday after the poll results, Pinarayi attributed the victory to the people’s faith in the Left government.

A victory in local body polls is no guarantee that the LDF will sweep Assembly polls in 2021, since Kerala does have a history of alternating between fronts. However, for the LDF, and especially the CPI(M), this victory is a vindication and a realisation that people do differentiate between welfare measures and controversies, and are likely to choose a government that gives the former. With six months to go for elections, the situation can swing any way. However, this is a victory that Pinarayi can savour for now.

Views expressed are the author's own

Elections 2023

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