Shashi Tharoor and Rajeev Chandrasekhar are Modi’s men: Pannyan Raveendran

The CPI leader was the MP of Thiruvananthapuram between 2005 and 2009, before Shashi Tharoor began winning the seat term after term for the Congress.
Pannyan Raveendran
Pannyan Raveendran
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Pannyan Raveendran on the road addressing a gathering around him somewhere in Kerala is not necessarily a scene plucked out of the election-ready streets of the state. He has been doing that for more than six decades of his life, ever since he joined the Communist Party of India (CPI) as a 15-year-old from Kannur’s Kakkad. But now at a grand 78, he has been hopping in and out of a campaign vehicle in the summer of 2024, as a contestant in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Pannyan is once again contesting from Thiruvananthapuram, a constituency he won from 19 years ago, as a candidate of the Left Democratic Front (LDF).

Nothing – the unbearable summer heat, the belittling by many as a candidate with little prospects – seems to deter Pannyan, as he relentlessly goes on with his campaign every day. He is fighting two heavyweights – the sitting Member of Parliament and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor and a Union Minister of State of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Rajeev Chandrasekhar. Pannyan’s credentials include leading the CPI as its state secretary between 2012 and 2015, and 30 years before that, heading the youth wing of the party, the All India Youth Federation. He was also the MP of Thiruvananthapuram for 40 months between 2005 and 2009, before Shashi Tharoor began winning the seat term after term.

Pannyan had contested the election in 2005 upon the death of the incumbent MP – CPI veteran and former Chief Minister PK Vasudevan Nair. It was smooth sailing for him, garnering a margin of over 74,000 votes to beat the Congress's VS Sivakumar.

Pannyan Raveendran campaigning in Thiruvananthapuram
Pannyan Raveendran campaigning in Thiruvananthapuram

But he did not recontest in 2009. Neither was he keen to contest this year, but changed his mind later because “this was a critical situation”, he tells TNM. It is an April day, a little over a week before the election in Kerala, and Pannyan barely had an hour of rest in the afternoon. But he sits upright and says, “I wanted new people to get opportunities so I did not want to contest. My political work has never been for positions of power. I do social work and I am part of cultural organisations. But in the last election, the Left came third [in Thiruvananthapuram]. That should not happen again, we should win.”

He has never featured in the ministries formed by the Left front in Kerala, but has still managed to be popular with his presence with regard to every issue concerning Thiruvananthapuram, protests or cultural events. He gained prominence in his early days as a CPI leader, leading the ‘job or jail’ protest from Kasargod to Thiruvananthapuram in the early 80s. “I went to jail when I was 16, after I was arrested for a protest in ‘65, soon after the split of the Communist Party [into CPI and CPI(M)]. I was taken along with big leaders of the party and my age was noted down as 18, so I went to the jail for grown-ups. During the Emergency, I got an arrest warrant when I led a protest against the five-point programme of Sanjay Gandhi (late Congress leader and son of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi),” Pannyan recalls.

‘India’s biggest strength is the bond between religions, BJP is ruining that’

He continues his ways as a septuagenarian, the voice soft but still menacing as he sticks out his fingers to count the problems of the BJP rule. The BJP has had a 10-year rule and not only did they not deliver on their promises but they also tried to destroy the secular fabric of the country, wrecked its finances, and turned out to be the most corrupt government, Pannyan says.

“They have taken a new line [of campaigning] now – [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s guarantee. This is the government that fully handed over the public sector to private sector companies. A government that promised employment for two crore youth every year and could not fulfil that in 10 years. Whatever the country had gained before the BJP came to power, all the progress has been going downhill since,” Pannyan rues.

He is particularly vocal about the Citizenship Amendment Act, a controversial law brought by the BJP government that critics find discriminatory towards Muslims, when clubbed with another Act, the National Register of Citizens. “India is a secular state as per our Constitution. But with the BJP rule, that will be only in name. They will make it a religious state; that cannot be allowed. India’s biggest strength is the bond between religions, the unity of people.”

Pannyan Raveendran at the CPI office near Press Club
Pannyan Raveendran at the CPI office near Press Club

Pannyan also throws up the Electoral Bond figures that came out recently, in which the BJP was found to have received the most funds, and follows it up with the many news stories about how scores of companies bought Electoral Bonds after facing action by Union government agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate.

Read: Articles about Electoral Bonds on The News Minute

“In Kerala, they created a financial crisis by reducing the state’s GST compensation share, awarding plenty more to its favourites (BJP-governed states),” Pannyan says, and in the same breath shifts his focus to the Congress, the Left’s main rival in Kerala, blaming the party for not opposing the BJP’s ‘attack of the state’.

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‘Congress not standing up against the BJP’

The Congress and the Left are part of a grand opposition alliance that was formed last year to fight the BJP and stop them from coming to power a third time. Called the INDIA bloc, the allies are fighting the elections together at most places, but the arrangement could not be replicated in Kerala where the Congress and the Left have traditionally been rivals. Interestingly, the CPI, the biggest ally of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leading the Left front in Kerala, had once associated with the Congress for an alliance to rule the state between 1970 and 1979. The CPI(M) was then in the state’s opposition. By 1980 though, the Communist parties got back together and formed the LDF.

When Pannyan says Left, or “we”, he means the joint Left, not only the CPI. He talks about the celebrated first term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that ruled India between 2004 and 2014. The Left had extended support to the Congress-led UPA in that first term, but split ways in  the second term in 2009. “The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the Right to Information Act, all of it came during that first term. Once again, the Congress and the Left are together at the national level, but not in Kerala. In Kerala, the majority is for the LDF and the Congress is in second place,” he says referring to the last Assembly election.

In his campaign speeches, when he recites the big claims made by the BJP during the last Assembly election and the losses they finally incurred, it sounds musical. “What did the BJP say, that they will rule Kerala. How, by bringing one person there. Who, Sreedharan, to make him CM. Where is the BJP president, in a helicopter for two mandalams (constituencies). What did they get, a big zero. What about Sreedharan, another zero. What about the president, double zero.” And on it goes for a full two minutes, a spontaneous string of words surprisingly coming from the 78-year-old, tired after hours of campaigning in the morning heat.

‘Both Tharoor and Rajeev Chandrasekhar are Modi’s men’

A short nap in a CPI office in the city, a cup of black tea by 3 pm, and Pannyan Raveendran is ready for more action. His routine is to take on the BJP rival first, calling Rajeev Chandrasekhar a Union Minister who has been ruling for five years but appears to have not heard of a place called Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala before this. “He is saying now things will happen. He has been a Union Minister of State for five years, why has he not done anything for Thiruvananthapuram so far? He is presented as Modi’s man. In my opinion, both are Modi’s men – Shashi Tharoor and Rajeev Chandrasekhar.”

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Pannyan refers to the previous occasions Shashi Tharoor has praised Narendra Modi. Tharoor also said that the contest this time was between the UDF and the BJP in Thiruvananthapuram. “He asked why is Pannyan contesting? He should never have asked such a question, it reeks of arrogance. It is the people who decide. Shashi Tharoor has been an MP for 15 years, what has he done besides publishing books?”

Shashi Tharoor, Pannyan Raveendran and Rajeev Chandrasekhar
Shashi Tharoor, Pannyan Raveendran and Rajeev Chandrasekhar

Incidentally, Pannyan too has authored books, a few of them on football. He was a player once, he says, and a commentator. In an earlier interview to TNM, he connected football to Communism, saying: “Football is a game of the poor. It’s one ball and 22 people. Communism is about the issues of the poor.” Quoting Karl Marx, he had said, “There is no rich or poor in football, no black or white, no caste, colour, religion or politics. It is the coming together of humans.”

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It is the same line he uses in his campaigns against the right-wing. The Left will win, he reiterates, quoting the winning seats of the LDF in the last Assembly election. Six out of the seven assemblies that come under the Thiruvananthapuram constituency were secured by the LDF.

But the LDF numbers in the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency have been plummeting in the last three terms. In 2009, Tharoor won the seat with a huge margin of nearly a lakh votes, with the CPI’s Ramachandran Nair coming in second. In 2014, O Rajagopal of the BJP came so close to Tharoor that the victory margin reduced to 15,000. CPI’s Bennet Abraham could secure only third place that year. Tharoor gained back his margin of nearly a lakh votes once again in 2019, with Kummanam Rajasekharan of the BJP coming a distant second and the CPI yet again in third place.

Tharoor’s background – including his stint as a diplomat with the United Nations, writing several fiction and nonfiction books – is said to have sway over the ‘upper class’ voters. The BJP’s introduction of Rajeev Chandrasekhar to the constituency is also believed to be an attempt to cater to a similar electorate. But Pannyan brushes off these theories that Thiruvananthapuram voters have such ‘upper class tendencies’ while picking their candidate. “When I contested in 2005, the UDF called me ‘annyan’ – meaning outsider – because I was from Kannur. They wouldn’t say that now because I have been here for years. It is not true, what they say about the constituency’s upper class tendencies. A huge chunk of the voters are commoners, people from the lower class, workers, and fishermen,” Pannyan says.

In his campaigns too he mentions the “kodikal (crores)” of his BJP rival. “We may not have such kodikal, but we have jana-kodikal with us (the masses are with us).”

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