Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has never been a darling of the media, nor does he have a cordial relationship with reporters. His antipathy to the media goes a long way back, two decades at least, when he became the state secretary of the CPI(M). Even as recently as last month, he had a furious brush with video journalists when a gun microphone touched his body. He cancelled the interaction with the media at Alappuzha because of the incident.
Last year, he made headlines for all the wrong reasons when he fumed at journalists who had come to record the visuals prior to a peace meeting between the CPI(M) and BJP/RSS leaders in Thiruvananthapuram. His showing them the door and his words ‘get out of here’ resonated well beyond the hall and for long.
However, all of this became forgotten history when the chief minister started interacting with the media after the floods hit the state hard. The same leader who took the controversial decision of putting an end to the weekly cabinet briefing of the chief minister, met mediapersons 16 times in a span of ten days, with each session taking 40 minutes to an hour.
Three of the worst-hit days saw him meeting the media twice a day. These media briefings came when the state was reeling under the devastating waters and there was only panic looming in the air. But his voice was so clear, that it seemed like he had assessed the situation and had control over it. He never uttered an unnecessary word, let alone provocations and he never crossed a line. He did not try to win any brownie points by criticising the Centre or even the ‘Hindutva brigade’ who had already started a negative campaign against the state. He stuck to his points, gave instructions to officials and communicated it clearly to the media.
“As the flood started engulfing even those places that were away from rivers and thousands got trapped in their homes, most people, including MLAs, panicked. It was almost as if we lost grip. It is during such a time that the chief minister rose to the occasion in a very calm, composed and confident manner. He refused to get swept away by panic or a sense of desperation. Unlike his usual style, he was more engaged and communicative in a calm and responsible manner. As this happened to be a marked change from his [earlier] abrasive ways, people also sensed empathy in what he communicated. In the midst of an unprecedented crisis, he succeeded in conveying that he is everyone’s chief minister and assured that the government will act,” said John Samuel, president, Institute of Sustainable Development and Governance, Thiruvananthapuram.
According to R. Ramakumar, member of the Kerala State Planning Board, Pinarayi Vijayan’s leadership in Kerala’s response to the flood crisis was exemplary. “Never losing composure, adapting rapidly, his actions were quick, yet always well thought-out. He ensured order in an evolving situation of chaos. He never hid the scale or scope of the crisis from his people. Thus, situations of needless panic were avoided. Because he strictly stayed at the control room, he was always able to grasp the big picture and tune responses accordingly.”
On the other hand, academic and social commentator T.T. Sreekumar thinks that the chief minister has done what anyone in his position is expected to do. “If he has been avoiding the media in the past, it shows he is that cleverly selective in the using the media. While he should have been more open to media as an administrator in the age of transparency, he has at least been sensible to relate when it became an utmost necessity. It reflects not just on him, but more on the larger role the media was able to take up during the deluge. No one could fail to see that inevitability and the genuine response to it.”
For Kavin Malar, a senior journalist from Chennai, this is something unbelievable. “In our state [Tamil Nadu], during the Chennai floods, even senior officials could not even contact then CM Jayalalithaa and they could not take any decision. Chembarambakkam Lake was opened at midnight without giving people time to evacuate their houses, inflicting huge damage. On seeing the response of the Kerala CM’s office, I was wondering whether it could have been TN in the AIADMK period. But during the DMK regime, it was there. M. Karunanidhi was quick in action. Here, the chief minister is genuinely concerned about the people, which is apparent through his activities.”
Vijayan held all these media briefings amid allegations of the Centre torpedoing various aids coming to Kerala including that offered by the UAE government. But he did not lose his calm, nor did he accuse the union government of neglect.
“Pinarayi Vijayan is not that politician who does not know the divisive language. Many of his political adversaries and even fellow party men have had the bitter taste of it. But this time around, he was a different man altogether. He very well knows the necessity of standing together at this hour of crisis but I am not sure about his party men who are trained for authoritarian takeovers,” observes journalist Abdul Rasheed.
Another senior journalist, K. Sunil Kumar, opines that what Vijayan did was effective management of the bureaucracy, an area in which not many leaders would have succeeded at, in a moment of crisis. “There were flaws in dam management and related issues in the initial stage, but he marshalled his resources very well after that. The mood in the state was in his favour and this gave him confidence. This might have also given him strength to face the media, but neither do I think that he has transformed, nor that he is going to continue this engagement with the media.”
Only time will tell if Pinarayi Vijayan will go back to being the ‘iron man’ again or whether he can and will sustain his newfound ability to ‘handle’ the media. One thing is evident – that he is darn good at it. We do not have many leaders who articulate with the precision he does when it comes to a media briefing. The more he talks to people and the media, the leader and administrator in him will gain the mileage which his party and the government desperately needs.
Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.