Blunt And Effective: Pinarayi Vijayan Embodies The Best And Worst Of Kerala Politics

Pinarayi Vijayan, like few else, represents progress to a whole segment of the society. He also embodies the bluntness of north Kerala politics.

Blunt And Effective: Pinarayi Vijayan Embodies The Best And Worst Of Kerala Politics

Pinarayi Vijayan himself doesn't consider "toddy tapper" an insult.

New Delhi:

Kerala's Vaikkom Satyagraha took place in the early 1920s. It demanded equal access of roads around a Siva temple (in today's Kottayam district) to all castes and communities. To work out a compromise, Mahatma Gandhi visited Indanthurathil Mana, residence of one of the orthodox leaders refusing to give in. The Namboodiri family made Bapu sit in the porch since he was only a Vaisya, not a Brahmin.

The movement, which also saw participation from the likes of Periyar EV Ramaswami Naicker and Sri Narayana Guru, was mostly led by Kerala's perennially ill-treated Ezhava community of toddy tappers.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was born around two decades after the movement into a Thiyya family - in northern Kerala, the Thiyyas are traditional toddy tappers. He himself may have had little experience in the trade, but the tag, often a slur in Malayalam, stuck and came handy to rivals seeking a verbal stab at him.

As recently as in February, Congress parliamentarian K Sudhakaran said the Chief Minister, "who hails from a toddy tappers' family now prefers hiring a helicopter for travel". Note that Mr Sudhakaran himself is a Thiyya.

Not that Mr Vijayan himself considers "toddy tapper" an insult. But the caste of the 76-year-old, who joined the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM) in 1964, is important because it is also reflective of the rise of the socially backward in Kerala's political echelons through the party system.

Rarely has leadership of the state itself fallen to those from the so-called lower castes. Kerala has till now had only three Ezhava/Thiyya Chief Ministers. Mr Vijayan is only the second Communist from that community to hold the position, though it forms the biggest chunk (21-23%) of all castes.

One must note here that, at least in theory, Communists focus on the party structure more than parliamentary politics and positions. It has had folks such as CH Kanaran, Azhikodan Raghavan, and Chadayan Govindan heading the state party unit, a highly powerful chair.

In any case, one can't miss the fact that Mr Vijayan, in 1970, became one of the youngest Kerala MLAs in history, winning the Kuthuparamba constituency first time for the party at the age of 26. Only a year before, his name had begun to resonate across the state, or at least in Malabar.

By his early 20s, Mr Vijayan, who studied economics at Thalassery's Government Brennen College, was already a key district-level leader. A fellow traveler, though much younger, was Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, a student activist then.

One day in April 1969, on his way back from school in Thalassery, Mr Balakrishnan, all of 16 then, was reportedly attacked by alleged RSS activists. In an alleged retaliatory strike, RSS-Jan Sangh leader Vadikkal Ramakrishnan was killed. Mr Vijayan was named an accused, though the courts later dismissed the case against him. Neither the Congress nor the RSS-BJP pursued the case but folklore swirled, especially decades later with the rise of social media. Mr Balakrishnan himself went on to become the CPM's Kerala unit chief till he went on leave last year on health grounds.

"Over the decades…Pinarayi Vijayan would become the symbol of the CPM's muscular politics much more than any of his predecessors, some of whom were his mentors; this made him the darling of party members and the favourite whipping boy of his rivals and a section of the media," writes Ullekh NP in his book "Kannur: Inside India's Bloodiest Revenge Politics".

"Interestingly, the chorus on Vijayan's alleged role in the Ramakrishnan murder case has created confusion among the party ranks, some who believe that their leader had a ferocious past. Contemporaries remember Vijayan as an agile, impulsive young man with a propensity for intemperance," the book says.

Urban legends often wrongly mark Vadikkal Ramakrishnan's killing as the first of the hundreds of lives lost in the state's never-ending political gang-wars.

During the Emergency years, Mr Vijayan himself endured severe police torture. He created a sensation in 1977, showing up in the Assembly with blood-soaked clothes to call out the brutality allegedly perpetuated by the Congress's K Karunakaran regime. Earlier, following the Thalassery religious riots of 1971, he was noted for personally monitoring a tentative peace, driving around in a vehicle strapped with a party flag - a judicial commission would later appreciate the party's efforts on this front.

His brusque demeanour, along with his outright refusal to be cowed down by physical or political attacks has, over the years, turned him into a cult figure among admirers and one of revulsion for detractors. A reputation of sullenness endured.

Only a few years ago, a bunch of Kerala media persons got virtually thrown out of a room with a stern "get out" after reporters and cameramen inadvertently blocked his way.

Yet, nobody questions his grassroots credentials, which keeps him going.

"The political opposition would not let go of even a straw if it could help pin Pinarayi Vijayan down in any way. The murder case, the Lavalin case, and other allegations are, thus, merely myths," said a senior college teacher in Mattannur, Kannur, who couldn't speak on the record since he is now on election duty.

"Lavalin" here is a reference to the alleged SNC-Lavalin Kerala Hydroelectric scandal in which Mr Vijayan was an accused but later acquitted by the Kerala High Court in 2017. The CBI's appeal is now pending in the Supreme Court. The issue pertains to his tenure as state power minister in the 1990s. That period, with him as power minister, is also considered transformative for the sector.

The hits and misses of his term as Chief Minister (2016-2021) are now set for approval or disapproval by the state's electorate. These include the handling of a string of natural disasters like Cyclone Okchi and the cloudburst of 2018, besides the alleged gold-smuggling racket.

That last one, involving the alleged smuggling of gold through diplomatic consignments, got his former principal secretary arrested last year. The case had the potential to drain much political capital, even though nothing prosecutable has been pinned on him yet despite the involvement of the ED, the Customs, and the NIA. The Chief Minister has, characteristically, shrugged it all off.

A second consecutive term for him could mark a milestone in Kerala's political history as much as its social one.

Son of toddy tapper Koran and Kalyani; father of international banker Vivek Kiran and IT firm founder T Veena - Pinarayi Vijayan, like few else, represents progress to a whole segment of Kerala society. Yet, he also embodies the bluntness of north Kerala politics.

And in case you were wondering what happened to the Vaikkom Satyagraha orthodoxy: The Indanthurathil Mana, that old Namboodiri residence, is today the office of a toddy tappers' association in Kottayam.