Pinarayi Vijayan: A Marxist in the Marketplace

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Pinarayi Vijayan chants a new development mantra—and brooks no distraction. The Kerala Chief Minister in conversation with Open

MANY YEARS AGO, when his intra-party rival VS Achuthanandan was Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, who was then the chief of the ruling CPM’s state unit, attended an all-party meeting to discuss the width of state highways. It was a departure of sorts for a party strongman to turn up at such a gathering, especially since the Chief Minister was of his own party. Typically, such tasks would be assigned to party leaders junior to him. Even the opposition Congress leaders were surprised to see Vijayan there. After all, no consensus was in sight on the issue at hand, with activists and many politicians opposing a proposal to set the width of state roads at 45 metres and asking instead for roads to be built 30 metres wide. Land was too scarce, they argued. The pleas of industry representatives and several experts that wider roads—most other states had opted for 60 metre wide roads—were crucial to attract investment to the state sounded feeble.

Undeterred by the prospect of a wave of protests, as soon as the discussions began, Vijayan set the tone by stating that his party favoured the plan to construct 45 metre wide roads. It wasn’t long before the then state Congress chief Ramesh Chennithala and opposition leader Oommen Chandy came around to the same view and a consensus emerged. The law minister at the time, the CPM’s M Vijayakumar, interjected by reading out a statement he had received from Congress leader VM Sudheeran opposing tooth-and-nail any decision to make wider roads. Vijayan stood up and snapped at Vijayakumar for bringing up what he thought was a mere personal opinion of a Congress leader. “The state Congress chief and the opposition leader have agreed to the plan. Who is Sudheeran? Why are you reading out this letter here?” Vijayan’s fury left the minister shaken. The media was shortly to report that an all-party meeting had agreed to set the width of state roads at 45 metres.

Pinarayi Vijayan, now Chief Minister himself, is a man known to fight aggressively for his plans, be it within the party or without. Hard-nosed and dogged, this longest-serving state secretary of the CPM is a leader shaped in the crucible of a turbulent time, one in which he steered the Left bloc’s biggest constituent in one of its last outposts.

In a state where image-building, characterised by politicians zealously displaying faux humility and indulging the media, is almost an industry, Vijayan until recently was perhaps the most hated politician of Kerala for refusing to play ball. Even so, he showed no inclination to either amend his abrasive ways and warm up to the media or resort to dishonest posturing. He is even today the antithesis of the typical Kerala politician who gets good press by humouring purveyors of hype. Vijayan’s combative demeanour has often attracted ridicule and drawn criticism that, as party chief, he used fear as a weapon to put down any revolt against his leadership.

LATELY, THOUGH, DESPITE allegations of nepotism against his industry minister EP Jayarajan spiralling into a political crisis for his less-than-five-month-old government, Vijayan has come across as a chief minister who means business. Notes TP Sreenivasan, Thiruvananthapuram-based former diplomat and educationist: “The move to ensure greater levels of discipline for state government employees is a step in the right direction. He is trying to transform himself from being a state secretary of a cadre party to a chief minister with an appeal to all. There are some encouraging signs,” he says. A senior government official, however, says that the Chief Minister still needs to be more conciliatory in his approach. “Vijayan has had great exposure to the world outside his party, thanks to the assignments he has handled: briefly while he was electricity minister of Kerala from 1996 to 1998, and later when he remained CPM state secretary from 1998 to 2015. Therefore, I believe, he could be conciliatory when he needs to be,” says another official who has watched him closely for decades.

I don’t want to mix politics with governance. Ideologies are not a hurdle in this case. The Union Government is very enthusiastic about our plans and goals

According to him, “The Chief Minister is inflexible when it comes to certain viewpoints… He doesn’t try to secure a few brownie points before the media. In fact, he doesn’t care much about what the media thinks about him. Also, he doesn’t go back on his promises. He cannot be taken for granted, and he can’t stand sweet nothings. Now that he is Chief Minister, the media is coming around to the idea of trying to cosy up to him, and not the other way round.”

Vijayan has indeed had strained relations with the media. He had often snubbed reporters in the face of attacks on him. He once suggested that a ‘media syndicate’ with alleged links to Achuthanandan was out to malign him, especially by “making a mountain out of a molehill” in the SNC-Lavalin case—a financial scandal involving the state government and Canadian company SNC-Lavalin which was mandated to upgrade three hydel power plants in the state. Vijayan was later exonerated by a CBI court.

Vijayan’s stint as minister and later a top leader of the CPM in the state offered him many opportunities to travel widely and interact with Malayalee entrepreneurs based overseas, especially in the US and Middle East. “He learnt about the importance of encouraging enterprise and about business opportunities and [related] challenges, besides the need to create jobs at a fast clip,” says a close adviser to the Chief Minister.

“The government is flexible about any initiative that will bring prosperity to the state except the ones that destroy the fragile ecosystem of Kerala,” says Vijayan, seated in the large living room of Cliff House, his official Thiruvananthapuram residence. He outlines the projects that he has in place to enhance skilling, encourage organic farming, promote public transport and so on. He wants to refurbish the primary education system in the state by offering options for English medium instruction in government-run schools, he says. He is also consulting experts to draw up plans to rehabilitate and re-employ Malayalees who are likely to return from the Gulf region, where a slowdown is resulting in job losses. He says that he is working on an innovative health scheme to connect all families in the state to doctors, so that each family will have access to the “concept of personal physicians”. A housing scheme, he adds, is on the anvil to provide apartments to Kerala’s homeless.

For a dyed-in-the-wool apparatchik, as he has been, Vijayan’s enthusiasm for matters of governance tends to catch you unawares. “Some of the schemes are a continuation from the past and some others are new and we will implement them fully well,” he offers, sounding different from his usual self—the stern party secretary known for occasional outbursts.

Vijayan, who is one of the staunchest opponents of the BJP and RSS in Kerala, says that he has found ministers of the Central Government to be highly cooperative, and that he has had invigorating chats with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and others. “I don’t want to mix politics with governance. Ideologies are not a hurdle in this case. The Union Government is very enthusiastic about our plans and goals. PM Modi has extended all his support for development projects in Kerala,” he says matter-of-factly.

Vijayan is trying to transform himself from a state secretary of a cadre party to a chief minister with an appeal to all

A section of the media and officials have even suggested that Vijayan is trying to copy Modi’s style of functioning in the state. “People have their unique styles of functioning. The Prime Minister has his, and I have mine. I have been like this even when I was power minister in the 1996 [Kerala] government,” avers the Chief Minister. In an earlier meeting with Jaitley, in a departure from the Marxist rigidity he was once known for, Vijayan was even open to the idea of throwing open the ‘building and maintenance’ of proposed railway corridors to private players.

GITA GOPINATH, JOHN Zwaanstra Professor of International Studies and of Economics at Harvard University, who has recently been appointed the economic adviser to the Chief Minister, points out that Vijayan’s priorities holistically combine social welfare and economic growth. “I had a very productive meeting with the Kerala Chief Minister (on 3 October). He is open to new ideas regardless of their origin once he is convinced of their benefits for the people of Kerala,” says Gopinath in a carefully crafted response, perhaps not to invite further controversy over her appointment in the CPM-ruled state.

Vijayan’s decision to sign her on as a consultant on economic matters had drawn extreme reactions and protests from a section of left-wingers who called her a ‘neo-liberal economist’. In an interview to a TV channel, she retorted that the expression is used for people “you don’t like”. While in Kerala, she insisted on the requisites of skilling and the use of remittances to Kerala from abroad —which touched Rs 1 lakh crore last year—to finance projects in the state that could create new jobs. “Skilling and more generally quality human capital accumulation is essential for growth. The national skilling initiatives have not delivered satisfactorily and some measures of learning have deteriorated nationally over the last few years. The good news is that there is a body of knowledge on why things have been going wrong and what interventions are needed. I have looped in experts in these areas and we hope to get things right in Kerala. I will not outline specific proposals. It will come to light as and when they are implemented by the government,” she tells Open in an interview.

The CM is open to new ideas regardless of their origin once he is convinced of their benefits for the people of Kerala

She is apparently on the same page as the Chief Minister on the need to hardsell Kerala as an investment-friendly destination. Vijayan is of the view that contrary to perceptions, MNCs that have offices in the state rave about better productivity and disruption-free work days. We need to do more, says Vijayan. Quips Gopinath: “The first step [for the government] to address the problem is to acknowledge its existence. This government has clearly recognised the need to address the infrastructure deficit and improve the ease of doing business. There is a push to use IT-based interventions to improve governance.”

A SENIOR EXECUTIVE OF an MNC says that he is excited that the Vijayan government is clued in on the challenges that the state faces. “The first thing we note about the Chief Minister is that he doesn’t waffle. He is ‘to the point’. He told me that his government will work towards reducing the delays of projects which result in multiple jeopardies: from cost escalation to loss of image. He seems to be on the right track, though he continues to face political crises thanks to some of his colleagues.” This executive didn’t wish to be named. In an earlier interview, G Vijayaraghavan, founder-CEO of Thiruvananthapuram-based Technopark, India’s largest IT park, had said that Vijayan would want to play “the role of a statesman, and not that of a mere politician”. The likes of Dr Babu Paul, a senior bureaucrat who has known Vijayan at close quarters, are of the view that Vijayan the Chief Minister should not be mixed up with Vijayan the CPM chief.

Another bureaucrat from the Kerala cadre based in Delhi states that Vijayan has often been portrayed as a villain in the media, making him an unpopular politician in the past one decade or so. “But when his choice as Chief Minister became inevitable, that image seemed to fade away. He is being looked up to as someone who could deliver by virtue of him being the most powerful leader of his party in the state,” he says, requesting anonymity. Senior journalist John Brittas, managing director of Kairali TV and media adviser to the Chief Minister, says that “as CM, Pinarayi means business”.

Political tornadoes associated with erring colleagues may be a headache for the 72-year-old Marxist heavyweight. “But only in the short term. He is a great survivor as a politician. No other Kerala politician would have endured the kind of onslaught and media scrutiny he was subjected to,” says MM Lawrence, a senior CPM leader.

Challenges abound, but Vijayan says, “There is always a way out.” A tough politician who has consistently outgrown and outmanoeuvred hard-boiled rivals within the Stalinist confines of his party, he should know.