A firebrand leader of the CPM until he was sacked for indiscipline in 1986 at the age of 53, he used his sturdy, film-star looks, alpha male image, rugged nature and ruthless ambition to rustle his way through the ranks of the militant entity that the CPM was in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Whenever he walked into public meetings, CPM cadres would give a standing ovation, often chanting “Up, Up MVR” with gusto.
He was the cadres’ cadre, a crowd-puller Communist who mesmerised grass-roots party workers with his carefully modulated speeches, sometimes laced with sexual innuendos, earthy humour, slangs, mild expletives and open challenges to the police and political rivals. At a time when Left leaders in the state were more obsessed with explaining their ideological standpoint, he had tailored for himself a more interactive style of oratory that immediately endeared himself to the masses. He was blunt and crude when he launched into tirades against opponents, especially at the late Congress veteran and long-time chief minister K Karunakaran, whom he invariably referred to as “Kallan (thief) Karunakaran”. But contrary to the plastic styles and angry tones of many of his peers, he was a Communist who trained himself to make people laugh. His sense of humour was infectious.
MVR, who joined the Communist party when he was 16, was also credited with popularising, along with the late Kerala chief minister EK Nayanar, the Kannur dialect (north Malabar style) in his speeches. A school drop-out, he used adversity -- in his case, a lack of knowledge of high-sounding words and literary allusions -- as opportunity: in his speeches, he employed the commonest of words, and often posed questions to the public. Sometimes this would be in low timbre, followed by a pause as if he was expecting the people to answer him, and then MVR himself would answer them quite dramatically, eloquently, inspiring loud laughter. Throwing down the gauntlet at political rivals from the stump was his trump card to generate wild applause from Marxist volunteers and others alike.
He grew rapidly in the once formidable political entity called the CPM in Kerala. His ascendancy was so quick that it had the potential to detach him from reality, and it did. He was born to an impoverished family in Kannur in the early 1930s, and had to slog away as a textile labourer and do numerous odd jobs to take care of his family even while he was an active member of the undivided CPI. In a district that produced some of the tallest Communist leaders of the state, including the late CPM patriarch and leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, AK Gopalan, MVR soon made a name for himself as a shrewd and dynamic young leader, first of the CPI and then of the CPM after the party split in 1964. He was jailed in 1965 along with several of his CPM comrades. A quick learner, he used 14 months of detention in the Kannur Central Jail to re-learn to read and write in Malayalam as well as in English.
The next few years saw MVR's popularity soar within the CPM. Perhaps for the first time in the history of the CPM, young CPM leaders led by MVR voted out an entire district panel of leaders suggested by the state leadership – that was in 1968. He was elected the district secretary of the CPM in Kannur, a powerful position, in a very unlikely manner. Back then, such an act of toppling an existing leadership through internal voting was considered unthinkable in a party known for its ideological rigidity and discipline. Of course, MVR had the backing of his political mentor, AK Gopalan.
After sidelining the old guard and expelling leaders who had Naxalite sympathies, he and a band of young leaders captured key positions in the party in Kannur, which is still a CPM stronghold. Over the next decade and more, which saw the deaths of various powerful colleagues, he began to consolidate power. Unfortunately, the near-divine status accorded to him by a section of party workers began to drive him crazy.
Soon, for him, one-upmanship became the name of the game. Once a stringent critic of parliamentary politics, he never shied away from contesting assembly elections after tasting the power of being an MLA in 1970. By the 1980s, he nominated his men and women to key posts within the party, pitting himself against the then CPM general secretary EMS Namboodiripad, a fatal mistake for which MVR would pay a heavy price.
There is a joke from the mid-1980s that when MVR walked into a public function in Kozhikode district of Kerala when EMS was giving his speech, crowds stood up and shouted, “MVR Zindabad.” EMS wasn't impressed and his composure revealed that displeasure. When MVR finally settled down in a chair after waving to the crowds, MK Kelu, the late CPM leader, is said to have told MVR, “This Namboodiri (EMS) has targeted you. Be on your guard.” MVR laughed it off, perhaps much to his anguish later.
Soon, MVR felt he was passed over when new members of the CPM central committee were elected. He already had a grudge against the leadership of EMS and VS Achuthanandan (the then state secretary of the CPM) earlier in 1980 when he was not named to the CPM-led ministry of EK Nayanar. Besides MVR, others who felt slighted included veterans like Puthalathu Narayanan and PV Kunhikkannan. The new central committee representatives from Kerala, were, in fact, juniors: current politburo member S Ramachandran Pillai, MM Lawrence and KN Raveendranath. EMS whispered a justification among his men: members of the central committee should be conversant in English. MVR and others took it as an insult. After all, leaders to top panels were never vetted for their language-fluency skills. To be sure, EMS, who was never interesting in promoting a strong second-rung leadership in the party, wanted pliable, malleable leaders by his side, and that explained his motive.
MVR himself was no democrat. On the contrary, he had a long history of purges and nepotism. He is known to have denigrated senior leaders, plotted their downfall, used his acolytes to publicly humiliate them, and had explored the immense possibilities of the craft of politically slaying an opponent within in the Stalinist confines of his party, just as EMS himself often did. In the CPM mouthpiece in Kerala, Deshabhimani, which at that time had very few editions, multiple photographs of MVR's began to appear by the mid-1980s. Slowly he would become unpopular among a section of party leaders who hated not only his guts but also his puritanical, dictatorial tendencies.
MVR’s craving for power was insatiable, and he plotted to weaken the man who was the biggest threat to his vaulting ambitions: EMS. The first attempt by his camp, it was said, was to open channels of communication with the West Bengal unit of the CPM, which wasn’t mightily impressed with EMS’s leadership. The late CPM leader and EMS's contemporary, Jyoti Basu, was never a great admirer of EMS. By then MVR and eight other leaders of the CPM state panel had prepared what was later known as “an alternative document” to the CPM line that it would have no truck with religion-oriented parties like the Muslim League. MVR and others favoured an alliance with the Muslim League, arguing that the CPM can never do anything for the working classes unless it was in power, and that without the League’s backing it was impossible for the Marxists to be in power in the southern state. By the time such a document was “detected” by EMS and his then staunch ally, VS Achuthanandan, CPM had been out of power since 1969 except for a brief spell in 1980. And by 1984, it appeared that the CPM’s electoral prospects in Kerala were very weak despite the party gaining in organisational strength – MVR had staked claim for the expansion of the party's base in the state. Regretfully, he refused to take the blame for taking the party, especially in northern Kerala, down the violent course, engaging in eye-for-eye bloodbath with political rivals, both the Congress and the RSS. He also never apologised for political atrocities and excesses under his watch.
In hindsight, he was sort of a war-time leader who flourished in violence-scarred politics that rendered moderate leaders within his party a bit out of place. He would see some of his former henchmen use similar tactics against him after his expulsion from the CPM, when he was aligned with the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).
A victory for the “alternative document” would mean MVR and his men capturing the state unit of the CPM, a coup similar to the one he had pulled off in Kannur in 1968. The signs of the revolt were very clear to EMS, and the old man wasn’t ready to give up that easily, because he knew his success hinged on playing his cards well. He was also aware of the “understanding” forged against him by MVR and others and a section of the West Bengal unit. Such an “alliance” was out there for all to see when the party’s official nominee for the new president of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), MA Baby, was rejected by the central panel of this youth arm of the CPM, at its 1984 February all-India conference held in Kozhikode. The DYFI representatives from Kerala, dominated by MVR loyalists, joined hands with those from West Bengal and successfully got elected M Vijayakumar of Kerala as DYFI president in place of Baby. The conference was a landmark one, because it was where historian Irfan Habib, inaugurating the meet, kicked off a debate against Shariah’s interpretation of Muslim marriage and polygamy.
EMS correctly read the writing on the wall. The coming months saw the EMS-led leadership cracking the whip on the “rebels” led by MVR, accusing him and others of playing the "Malabar" regional card. That clicked, prompting southern leaders to rally behind EMS, who used a pejorative to address the erring CPM leaders, mostly from Kerala's north, referring to those who signed the alternative document as "Oppiyans" (the undersigned), a take-off on the Malayalam expression for the lone tusker, Ottayan.
MVR was suspended from the party along with several others for anti-party activities, and soon a campaign was unleashed calling him a power-hungry deviant bent upon filling up crucial party posts with his men. The allegations were not all false, but the fury of the propaganda was such that the suspended leaders were forced to be on the defence, a mistake that EMS used to the hilt to drive home the message that the “rebels” were unrepentant. EMS managed to get senior politburo members like BT Ranadive and M Basavapunnaiah to campaign in the state. MVR, known for his super ego, miscalculated his moves. Months of debate spurred by Irfan Habib, lapped up by others, had tilted political balance against the idea of an alignment with the Muslim League. Now, instead of trying a rapprochement that is par for the course in politics, including in the highly opaque CPM, MVR committed blunder after blunder. He even refused to accept tea served to him by the then CPM district leader Pinarayi Vijayan, now politburo member and state secretary, saying, “Who knows you guys haven’t poisoned it.” Distrust and mutual hatred became deeper.
However, within months, MVR, under pressure from a colleague, tried to do some damage-control, but by then it was too late. He went to meet EMS at the government guest house in Kannur in 1986, but before he could engage in a chat, EMS said curtly, “I don’t want to meet anyone.” Humiliated, demoralised, cut to size, MVR finally decided to float his own party, the Communist Marxist Party (CMP), and joined the Congress bloc.
At 53, he was prepared to unlearn and rediscover himself as a leader of the front he had fought tooth and nail so far. The 1987 state elections saw the CPM come to power after a long spell outside on the promise of a Muslim League-free government, pulling in the Hindu vote. EMS campaigned tirelessly across the state, even attacking the shariah, sensing a pro-Hindu wave in the state and elsewhere. But MVR won a shock victory from a CPM stronghold, Azhikode in Kannur.
MVR’s remarkable skills as an administrator (and his second innings in politics as a pro-Congress leader) came to the fore only four years later when, in 1991, the LDF (Left Democratic Front) went for an early election and was routed. Karunakaran, MVR's former bête noire, was by then his new mentor. The “leader”, as Karunakaran was widely known, named MVR, by now a mere Raghavan for his former comrades, minister for cooperation.
MVR, who had set up a snake park and was instrumental in setting up numerous other institutions across Kerala in the cooperative sector, was now ready to tap further possibilities of the cooperative sector to create new jobs. From being a hardcore leader of Stalinist vintage, he was to start a different trip, one that championed the development agenda, befriending industrialists and enlisting the private sector’s support. He went on to set up the first medical college in the cooperative sector in the country at Pariyaram in Kannur where he passed away after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for more than three years.
While he was in power, he was deeply focused on governance, but he also used the opportunity to settle scores with his former loyalists, by now his enemies, who had thrown him out of cooperative institutions he had helped build.
What followed were bloody political fracases with CPM cadres heckling at him, blocking him on the road and pelting stones wherever he went, and especially in his home town Kannur. Against police warning, he attended a function in Koothuparamba, a constituency he had represented in the 1980 election, winning the largest margin for any candidate in the state assembly poll that year. Defiant like a street fighter, he goaded the police to shoot at his former comrades, now his sworn detractors. Five DYFI workers were killed in the police firing on November 25, 1994, earning MVR a bad name. That was only one of the many incidents when he used government machinery to his advantage to stop violent CPM workers. When they provoked, he provoked them back. Sometimes he provoked first as though he enjoyed the wild political game. Such incidents also brought to light, once again, MVR’s own role in promoting violence-laden politics and leading violent CPM mobs from the front in his previous avatar as CPM rabble-rouser.
MVR’s political clout began to decline with the fall of K Karunakaran in the Congress. For someone who had won elections from various parts of the state, MVR lost the 1996 elections for the first time since 1970, and he would never really recover from that electoral defeat though he became minister for cooperation again in 2001, after winning from the Thiruvananthapuram (West) seat until the UDF lost the polls in 2006. But in his second term as minister, he had mellowed down, preferring to stay off any political street fight and letting himself be co-opted by a system the bedrock of which is corruption.
After losing the polls in 2011, when the Congress came to power, he began to slowly veer towards the Left. Towards the end of his life, his party, CMP, split wide open, with one side staying with the Congress and the other aligning with the Left. The fissures were also seen within his family over the question. In death MVR was appropriated by his former comrades in the CPM. Pinarayi Vijayan, the Kerala CPM chief, had paid a visit to MVR while he was still alive several months ago, ending a long personal rivalry that started with a heated exchange inside the Kannur Central Jail during Emergency.
Clearly, towards the end, both physically and in popular appeal, MVR was the palest shadow of the leader that he once was, a leader who helped transform the CPM in northern Kerala into a militant force, and then dared to take on its wily might after he snapped ties with it. But certainly, his legacy is that of a former Stalinist who became a votary of reforms and development, a dyed-in-the-wool apparatchik who survived myriad political odds to refashion himself as a democrat and a friend of business tycoons. His life was nothing short of tumultuous, seeing endless ups and downs in personal and public life. At the peak of his career as a charismatic CPM leader, he had no equals in his generation -- he was a leader the likes of CPM general secretary Prakash Karat can only aspire to in their wildest dreams -- but what he has left behind are two small breakaway parties with several big problems (he remained the general secretary of both parties until death). For a Communist cadre taught to keep secrets a secret, his autobiography reveals nothing much that wasn't known about him already. But its title perhaps sums up his life, “Oru Janmam (loosely translated as ‘What a Birth’)”.