There’s a fine line between courage and foolishness. Pinarayi Vijayan would know. The communist chief minister of Kerala, who didn’t think twice before taking the Modi government head-on and using the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to turn himself into a prime figure in the resistance against the Centre, recently put out an ad, proudly proclaiming how the state is “leading the efforts to protect constitutional values”. To release an ad using taxpayers’ money to rubbish a law passed by Parliament requires courage. And, it was just a year back that he doggedly tried to enforce the Supreme Court’s Sabarimala verdict amid protests. That also required courage — only that the outcome wasn’t what he expected. The Left paid an electoral price for his belligerence.
But, that’s Comrade Pinarayi for you — bold, decisive, adamant and blunt to the point of being rude. He has often been called arrogant, but that’s just his manner of doing what he thinks is the best and saying what he thinks is appropriate. The 75-year-old, who started his political career while still being a student, worked his way up through sheer dedication to party cause and determination to make a mark. In the process, he created a powerful group loyal to him within the party and shrewdly dealt with challenges to his authority.
His clashes, ideological and otherwise, with V S Achuthanandan, 21 years his senior, are part of the Left folklore. Pinarayi headed CPM’s Kerala unit for nearly 17 years from 1998. But, it was his becoming CM in 2016 that marked the completion of his takeover of the party. Since then, it has been a Pinarayi show. And, with Kerala being the only state where communists have a say, he could now make his voice carry over that of the party’s national leadership, emerging as the most important of communist leaders of the time.
It is this hard-earned stature that gives Pinarayi the confidence to position himself as a national figure —standing up to the likes of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, and emerging as first among equals in the nation’s disorderly political opposition. He was the first CM to say he won’t implement CAA though Mamata Banerjee would like to dispute that. He was certainly the first to halt the newly-controversial National Population Register process. He was instrumental in the Assembly passing a resolution against CAA, making Kerala the only state to do so. He wrote to 11 non-BJP CMs, asking them to pass similar resolutions and inviting them to join hands against the Centre.
While he pits himself openly against the Centre, he let his party deal with Governor Arif Mohammed Khan’s criticism of his government’s actions, not engaging in a direct spat with the executive head of the state. On Saturday, he met JNU Students Union president Aishe Ghosh, who was injured in a campus attack, and praised the student body for putting up an “uncompromising” fight.
Now, the question is why would Pinarayi, who has the difficult task of ensuring his party’s survival in Kerala, want to assume a national role – as a sort of rallying figure for anti-BJP forces – and that too when communists have little to do in national politics? The reasons could be many. One could be his conviction that the Centre’s actions are truly divisive and go against the principles of equality and fairness, and the fiery communist in him wants to do everything he can to oppose those. Another could be his ambition to grow beyond the state, rise above his peers and illustrious predecessors and create a legacy for himself as a torch-bearer of progressive liberalism. And, who knows, his gamble and new-found eminence could actually help the Left arrest erosion of support base in Kerala.
The truth is, the one-time CM has little chance of becoming CM again unless the Left returns to power in the 2021 Assembly election, which looks unlikely at the moment. So, he practically has about a year left to do whatever he wants – for the state, party and himself. Again, this show of courage could end up being another foolish attempt, but at least no one can say he didn’t try.
Resident Editor, Kerala