At 92, The Aura And Appeal Of VS Achutanandan Is Still Strong

Kerala is a hot state. And this year it is even hotter. We reached Palakkad at noon and when I got off the taxi I thought I would melt.

We wandered through the outskirts of the city to a rented house where 92-year-old VS Achutanandan was expected to take a break from campaigning for lunch and some downtime.

I had heard a lot about the veteran, his popularity and his ability to connect with the masses. He had in fact been requested by other CPM candidates in the state to campaign on his behalf.

He did so - and was only spending the last few days of campaigning in Palakkad to meet his voters in the Malamphuza constituency.

And then he arrived. I waited with curiosity as he got out of his car, dressed all in white. Elderly, for sure, but he certainly did not look 92. In deference to his age, and the heat, we stepped back as he went in for a simple lunch and a long nap.

I asked his son, Dr Arun, the secret of his father's stamina. He said it was daily walks and yoga that kept him going.

Three hours later, VS Achutanandan was ready for an interview. I was asked not to ask him controversial questions. I told his team that while I needed to ask about topical issues, VS was surely astute and experienced enough to know how to reply.

VS started his union work early. He was still in his teens, working in a coir factory, when he began organising workers. With very little formal education, it was his ability to connect with the people that saw him rise through the party ranks. He is outspoken and has offended and been chastised by his party over the years. And his reported bad blood with Pinarayi Vijayan -- another potential CPM chief minister -- is often discussed.

I asked him who would be the CM if the LDF got a chance in power. He trotted out the safe answer: "The party will decide".

I asked about his relationship with Vijayan -- as his team stood listening and shaking their heads at the question. "He is my good friend," he said with a smile.

He disagreed with the UDF on its liquor policy -- making liquor available only in 5 star hotels, with an eventual eye on total prohibition. He said it should be more about personal abstinence. And he was also at odds with the UDF government on the inquiry into the vicious rape and murder of a woman in Perambavoor. He said there should be a CBI inquiry.

After we wrapped up, he set off on the campaign trail. We followed.

We waited for him at one stop where some supporters even wore red lungis in their communist zeal.

When he arrived, the reception was electrifying. The pattern of campaigning we saw was small gatherings at street corners, but the small crowd made up for their numbers in noise. Shouts of 'Inquilab Zindabad' were heard and fists were pumped in the air. It was fascinating to see the way his appeal remained intact. One man told us, "He is the best politician in the world. He has the heart of a 32 year old".

We stopped on the highway at a place where people were beating drums, waiting for VS to arrive.

We pulled up to wait for him too. And we waited. And waited. There was a sudden downpour, a blessed relief from Palakkad's scorching heat.

Day turned into night and still we waited. VS finally arrived at 9.30 pm. It turned out we had been waiting at the last campaign stop of the day. The reception, despite the hours of waiting, was loud and enthusiastic. At 92, the aura and appeal of VS Achutanandan is still going strong.

(Maya Sharma is NDTV's Resident Editor in Bengaluru)

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