Here's Why Pinarayi Vijayan Can't Be Called a 'Modi in a Mundu'

Going by classical definitions, the chief minister is far from being an autocrat. What saves him is the Left's deeply embedded corrective mechanism.

The CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front is set to retain power in Kerala, with the trends projecting it as leading or having won at least 94 of the 140 assembly seats.

The LDF victory will curb a four decade-old trend of the state electing communist and Congress-headed governments alternatively.

Two years ago, soon after the Left Front suffered a stunning defeat in the 2019 parliamentary elections, prominent Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi carried a series of edit page articles.

The commentators were in a celebratory mood. One of them gleefully concluded that religion and spiritualism – Sabarimala – had finally triumphed over materialism and Marxism. The commentators concluded that Marxism is archaic, and communists neither change nor learn from past mistakes. Thus, they said, the Left rout in its last sanctuary – they got just one out of 20 Lok Sabha seats – heralded the extinction of communism in Indian peninsula.     

I was born and brought up in a communist village in old Malabar. I am familiar with the lifestyles and practices of early communists. To say they have not changed is sheer moonshine. Most early communist workers were scions of landlord families. They left their comforts and moved from village to village, spreading Marxian ideals. They lived on cheap tea without milk and dal vada, like a romanticised proletariat. 

Abnegation and monkish life were part of the communist culture. Perhaps it was derived from the Gandhian ethos. Members took the party’s permission even on personal matters like marriage. In early 1960s, I remember Indrajit Gupta, then a young trade unionist, arriving at Calcutta’s 33, Alimuddin Street in a Fiat car with a red flag on it. It was a cultural shock – a trade union worker travelling in a car. It was explained that Gupta found it difficult to reach half dozen trade union functions by travelling in trams. So some richer trade unionists pooled funds and bought an old, creaking Fiat.

Also read: ‘Epitome of Communalism’: What Pinarayi Vijayan’s Fierce Attack on Amit Shah Achieves

Six decades later, I found half a dozen private cars parked at a CPI(M) area committee office in remote Kerala. Even middle level CPI(M) leaders move in their own cars. They have none of the qualms that their 20th century comrades felt.

How can you say the communists never change? Before 1952, the parliamentary route was ‘revisionism’ for communists. The ‘national bourgeoisie’ debate continued for another two decades. For decades, editorial writers attributed the communist success to foreign money. Today’s communists are shorn of all such baggage. 

So how has the Left managed to romp back with such a huge majority?

The most simplistic explanation is that the communists have also become another regional party under a charismatic autocrat. Thus, Pinarayi is called a ‘mundututta Modi’ or ‘Modi in a mundu’.

This strongman cult, like Modi’s, has clicked with the people.

Pinarayi Vijayan, who was the general secretary of the Kerala CPI(M) for 17 years, is the party’s senior most leader – barring, of course, the 97-year-old retired veteran V.S. Achuthanandan. Vijayan has a domineering say in the party organisation and the government he heads. But is this enough to call him a ‘Modi in a mundu?’ 

Also read: How Cult Worship Drove Us Into Crisis

Is it true that Kerala communists, in their desperate bid to remain, have relevant opted for an authoritarian model? 

The first parameter to gauge the degree of authoritarianism in a political party is the level of its internal democracy. In India, CPI(M) and CPI are the only political parties that hold regular elections as per their constitution. For over a decade, all members of the Kerala state committee (as also other elective posts) were chosen by secret ballots at the state party conference. The results with details such as the number of votes each contestant got were released soon after the counting. All this under sharp media glare and endless interpretations. 

As per the BJP constitution, its national executive must meet once in every quarter and national council every year. Under the pre-Modi BJP, the two bodies did meet at regular intervals. How many times did the NE and NC met during the seven years under Modi? Elected autocrats – a term used by the Sweden-based V-Dem to describe the Modi regimenever tolerate a lively, functional party organisation. 

The other parameter to measure authoritarianism is free internal debates.

For an authoritarian populist, the party must function as his or her appendage. What about the ‘Modi in a mundu?’ In the past two years, AKG Bhawan (the Kerala CPI(M) headquarters) made at least half a dozen interventions. It formally asked the government to reverse many of its decisions. Sections of the media interpreted such interventions as grassroots rumblings. Will any BJP committee – NE, NC or parliamentary party – dare to make such critical remarks about Modi or his actions?

Sample these:  

  • The CPI(M) secretariat on February 20, 2021, attended by Pinarayi Vijayan, directed the latter to initiate minister-level discussions with agitating job-seekers. It said the opposition should not be allowed to take political advantage of the agitation. And Vijayan promptly did.
  • The CPI(M) state secretariat, after its meeting, observed that the continuing controversy over the gold smuggling has affected the party’s image and that it is a major setback to the party. It asked the chief minister to take corrective measures.  
  • The CPI(M) secretariat on May 25, 2019, asserted that the government’s Sabarimala policy had badly affected the party’s performance in the Lok Sabha elections. It asked the government for a relook. Vijayan obliged.
  • Following pressure from within the CPI(M), Vijayan (on November 4, 2019) said that the government did not support the police’s move to invoke the UAPA against workers for Maoist links

A closer look will reveal that AKG Bhawan acted as an alert watchdog and monitor rather than the CMO’s appendage. Will hard-headed ‘elected autocrats’ like Narendra Modi tolerate such interventions?

Also read: Is the Anti-CAA Rhetoric Enough for Pinarayi Vijayan to Garner Traditional Muslims’ Support?

Pinarayi came closest to the personality cult trap when his image makers began projecting him as ‘Captain Pinarayi’ – for his leadership in tackling the floods and the Nipah outbreak. This came in for sharp criticism within the party and soon the CPI(M) leadership cried a halt to it – first, senior leader Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and then Prakash Karat.

“Pinarayi is our ‘comrade’, not ‘captain’,” Balakrishnan said. Soon Vijayan himself washed his hands off the ‘captain’ epithet, in what was yet another example of the the CPI(M)’s embedded corrective mechanism working.

P. Raman is a senior journalist and author of Tryst With Strong Leader Populism: How Modi’s Hybrid Regime Model Is Reshaping Political Discourse, Ecosystems and Symbols.