‘Pinarayi is not above party, and nobody knows it better than him’: Chief minister's son-in-law and Minister Mohamed Riyas

"I am a first-time minister. My experience of working in the organisation is helping me a lot. While a proper system was established in 2016, we are now strengthening it," Riyas said.
PA Mohamed Riyas (Photo | T P Sooraj, EPS)
PA Mohamed Riyas (Photo | T P Sooraj, EPS)

P A Mohamed Riyas is, perhaps, the most scrutinised leader in the second LDF government. Besides helming the heavyweight portfolios of PWD and tourism, the first-time minister also carries the tag of being the chief minister’s son-in-law.

He spoke to TNIE on a range of issues, including NH development, 2024 Lok Sabha elections and, of course, Pinarayi Vijayan. Edited excerpts

You come from a traditional Congress family. There was even a KPCC president from your family. How did you become a communist?
I developed an affinity toward the SFI while in Class 6, as some of my friends in the neighbourhood were part of it. In Class 8, I contested and became the class leader. Two years later, I was selected as SFI unit secretary.

Wasn’t there any opposition within the family? 
Initially, there was. They were mostly concerned whether it would affect my studies. But, as my studies were not affected, they did not oppose my decision (smiles).

You hold two heavyweight portfolios – PWD and tourism. PWD, especially, is a portfolio that is bound to draw criticism. Your predecessor, G Sudhakaran, had managed the department quite well. How has your tenure been so far?

I am a first-time minister. My experience of working in the organisation is helping me a lot. While a proper system was established in 2016, we are now strengthening it. Our priority is to keep the PWD officers on the worksite. We have established a constituency monitoring team (CMT) and entrusted one officer each to supervise the 140 constituencies in the state. This has started yielding results.

There are lots of complaints about the condition of our PWD roads…
We need a structural overhaul. We don’t have proper drainage in all places, especially along the old roads. Because there are no proper drains, the water does not flow out, damaging our roads. The second issue is that of drinking water pipe lines. Now, the Water Authority is going to dig up 1,200 properly laid PWD roads to lay the water pipelines. We cannot say that we will not allow the roads to be dug up, because drinking water is essential for our people. 

As an SFI and DYFI leader, you must have participated in a number of agitations. But now, these wings are rarely seen in agitation fronts as the party has been in power…
They are independent organisations, and there’s nothing that restricts them from organising a protest. There’s no rule that states that the DYFI should not organise a stir when the LDF is in power.

The DYFI did a lot of good work during the Covid crisis. Its ‘pothichoru’ distribution in government hospitals is much appreciated. But such efforts make the DYFI look more like an NGO than a youth wing of a political party…
Social realities have changed compared with 1980, when the DYFI was formed. The importance of social service has increased. As a youth organisation, the DYFI cannot stay away from social service. However, that does not mean that the DYFI has stopped organising agitations. That said, social service is also a fight.

That may be true, but the new bunch of leaders is coming up in the shades of power, unlike your generation which took on police force. Will this not affect the character of the DYFI?
The party is aware of the issue, and we are careful about it. As CPM members, all, from the minister to the grassroot worker, should be involved in the issues faced by the public. The new age needs a new style of intervention. We cannot say that the CPM should not return to power as it would make the party workers lazy. The party must come to power, and also be able to retain our connection with the common people.

The acceptance of the CPM among the Muslim community has increased manifold. What are the reasons?
The Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 was a turning point, as they realised the Congress could no longer be trusted. People started believing that the CPM was more reliable than the Congress in state politics. More than our role, the Congress stance has contributed to this change.

Why do you say so?
For instance, the LDF government recently registered a case against a Union minister for making communal comments, but the Congress, instead of appreciating the government stand, demanded that a case should be booked against CPM state secretary M V Govindan as well. They are helping the BJP. This attitude brings minority communities closer to the CPM. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the voters in Kerala supported the UDF hoping that a Congress government would come to power at Centre.

Isn’t there a possibility of the circumstances of 2019 repeating in 2024, too?
Not at all. In 2019, the popular belief was that only the Congress could fight the BJP. But now, the Congress itself has accepted that the party cannot defeat the BJP on its own and it needs the support of other parties. So the situation has changed, and the secular voters will support parties that are capable of putting up a strong fight against the BJP. There is a general feeling that the representation of the Left in Parliament should go up. So it will not be a repeat of 2019 this time. You can expect a situation similar to 2004, when the LDF won 18 seats. 

One can see that Samastha, like never before, has been drifting closer to the CPM these days. Is your optimism based on this shift?
Every organisation and individual counts. There is an increased acceptance for the CPM among the Muslim community like never before. Union Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar is the most hated person in Kerala today because of his comments on Kalamassery blast. Kerala gives utmost importance to religious harmony. And people have realised that the CPM is the party that stands for religious harmony in the state.

You said a situation similar to 2004 will evolve in 2024. But an LDF wave can reduce the number of seats of the Congress, and that might make things easy for the BJP…
In 2019, the circumstances were favourable to the Congress, as there was a belief that the UPA would come to power. Besides, the presence of Rahul Gandhi had helped them. The people felt that if the LDF won more seats it would only help the BJP. But now, the people of Kerala believe CPM members will oppose the BJP more aggressively in the Lok Sabha than the Congress. There is no chance of the Congress achieving a simple majority.

During the Achuthanandan government, there was a proposal regarding the construction of ducts alongside the roads to facilitate the laying of water pipelines and telecommunication cables. What happened to that proposal?
Kerala has 3 lakh kilometres of road network, of which 30,000km is maintained by the PWD. All the new roads that are being constructed have this facility. Digging up of roads for laying pipelines will not happen with new roads. Talking of new roads, our problem is the lack of land availability for expansion. People say look at Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh… they all have plenty of land available for road expansion. But ours is the most densely populated state. We don’t have enough land for development.

National Highway development is one of the prestigious projects of the Kerala government. The work that was going on at a fast pace is now dragging, and the reason being cited is the shortage of raw materials coming from Tamil Nadu…
The issue is not just with the shortage of raw materials from Tamil Nadu. We have issues here, too, like excavation of soil. But we will resolve that.

So, what is the current status of the NH 66 project?
The National Highways Authority of India had dropped the NH 66 project due to land acquisition issues. In 2016, our CM had held meetings with the PM and [Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways] Nitin Gadkari. However, things didn’t materialise. It was then that the state government, in a first in the country, decided to acquire 25% of the land spending Rs 5,600 crore, and get the project going. If that decision had not been taken, the NH project would never have happened. Highway development is something every Malayali wants to become a reality. And I can tell you confidently that, in 2025, this project will be ready for traffic.

Our beaches are beautiful, but they lack even basic infrastructure facilities such as cloakrooms and toilets. Without addressing these basic issues, how can we dream of high-end projects?
Yes, correct. Our tourist destinations lack basic infrastructure facilities. By January 2025, several destinations will undergo significant changes. Kovalam will receive a major facelift.

Santhosh George Kulangara, who earlier took part in ‘Express Dialogues’, opined that you were positive in accepting new ideas. Does the government plan to utilise his expertise in any way?
We have discussed many innovative ideas. I listen to all new ideas. Not just celebrities, but ordinary people and labourers also have valuable perspectives. Being a good listener can make a big difference.

Mohamed Riyas is one of the ministers in this cabinet facing severe personal attacks. How do you view these attacks?
I know why I am being attacked personally. But I do not take them seriously. More attacks will come, I am sure. What else can one do other than facing all that (smiles). 

Is being the chief minister’s son-in-law the primary reason for the attacks?
Yes, that is for sure. These attacks are like corner-kicks in football. Though it is I who is being attacked, their target is someone else. The people can understand all this (smiles).

There have been rumours that controversial businessman Pharis Aboobacker is your uncle. Is there any truth in it?
Until this moment, I have not met this so-called uncle of mine. I have only seen him on TV (chuckles).

So, you are no way related to Pharis Aboobacker? 
I have no relationship with him. However, if I see him tomorrow, I will certainly go and shake hands with him. I have no such fears. 

There was also a talk that Pharis was behind your marriage with Veena…
Oh! Is it so? I am hearing this for the first time (chuckles).

Has the ‘son-in-law’ label affected your political life in any way?
I become conscious of that fact when people like you ask me such questions. My relationship with him hasn’t changed after the marriage. People who know him closely will know that he is not someone who can be influenced by anyone. The chemistry between us works out well because he is not someone who interferes in matters unnecessarily, and neither 
am I.

Some people opine that Pinarayi Vijayan is arrogant and strict. What is your take?
He is a role model for anyone in public service. He reacts to the issue, not based on who raised it or who said what. Similarly, as a family man, too, he is someone who can be emulated. He is very caring. He is very disciplined in personal life. Most importantly, he is someone who takes on adversities face to face.

How do you gauge his contributions to the party?
Pinarayi Vijayan is not above the party, and nobody knows it better than him. Kodiyeri [Balakrishnan], too, had said this earlier. For him, there is nothing above his party. His personal qualities have played an important role in bringing the party back to power. After he became the state secretary, the party became stronger. If the party is attacked, Pinarayi will be at the forefront to counter it. He does not care about his personal image; but he will not allow even a scratch on the party. There are many leaders like him in the party, and that is our strength.

Recently, your wife, Veena, was involved in a controversy related to CMRL. If the allegations are baseless, why didn’t she file a defamation suit? 
If one starts filing defamation for all the allegations, how many cases Pinarayi Vijayan should have filed by now? How many baseless allegations have been raised against him so far? But time has proved that they were mere allegations, and people can see through all them.

But don’t you think this silence affects the morale of the party?
Never. Party’s collective morale is too strong to be affected by all these. However, in some cases, the party insists on filing a defamation case, and it’s taken forward. All such matters are decided collectively in our party.

So, in this case, the party decided not to file a defamation suit?
When you are a political activist, especially someone like Pinarayi Vijayan, who is also the chief minister and politburo member of the CPM, you will be constantly targeted. Right now, Pinarayi Vijayan is the major stumbling block for the opponents, but, for us, he is the biggest strength. If somebody else comes in the same position tomorrow, he, too, will be targeted like this.

You are a state secretariat member and hold two portfolios. With 25 years of organisational experience, nobody will say you don’t deserve that. Yet, if you had stayed away from being a minister, the party would not have been put on the defensive. There are some who think like that…
(Chuckles) There is a section that thinks the LDF should not have come to power. What can one say about such perceptions?

Can you point out the three important projects that will be completed during your tenure?
The work of NH 66, coastal highway, and hill highway will be completed soon. The construction of major roads in the state will also be completed on a war-footing level.

We have heard that V S Achuthanandan doted on you often. Any memorable occasions?
That is correct (smiles). During an Assembly election debate on a TV channel, the BJP spokesperson shouted at me and said: ‘Go to Pakistan’. VS came out against this in an election rally in Kozhikode and said that “those who think that Mohamed Riyas can be intimidated and sent to Pakistan can keep their fantasies to themselves….” It was a powerful speech (smiles).

There is criticism that, when compared with the first LDF cabinet, Pinarayi 2.0 has an inexperienced team. What’s your take? 
Of the 21-member cabinet, 13 are new faces. They are learning and are performing well in their portfolios. One of the reasons for the political destruction of the Congress in Kerala is that once a person becomes an MLA, he does not give up that seat to anyone else. Things are different in our party.

But isn’t lack of expertise a critical factor? 
Nobody is born with experience. We acquire it in the process. What is important is the willingness to learn. In our party, there is a collective leadership to guide us.

TNIE team: Rajesh Abraham, Manoj Viswanathan, Anu Kuruvilla, Harikrishna B, Cithara Paul, 
T P Sooraj (photos), Pranav V P(video)

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