Is Pinarayi Vijayan Losing the Plot in Kerala?

From a Dalit student's suicide to allowing police excesses, the Kerala chief minister seems unable to correctly handle much that goes on in the state.

A fortnight from now, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan will celebrate the first anniversary of his Left Democratic Front (LDF) government. After Oommen Chandy barely managed to complete his term with a wafer-thin majority, voters had given the CPM-led LDF a clear mandate. It was then interpreted as a sign of people favouring a strong leadership, fed up with the scams and the bargaining power of smaller allies in the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government. But after a fairly promising start, Vijayan seems to have completely lost his way.

Events in the last four months have ensured that the Vijayan government will be rated very poorly on its anniversary. It all started with the tragic suicide of Jishnu Prannoy. (An engineering student at Nehru College, Prannoy committed suicide after he was accused of cheating in an exam but investigations have revealed he was allegedly tortured and wronged by the college authorities.) Having messed up the initial enquiry and proceedings, the government seemed to be in no hurry to bring the influential culprits to the book.

Soon, the Kerala Law Academy row broke out. Due to the private management’s closeness to the Marxist party, the Vijayan government dithered and resisted taking a stand till it almost brought things to a standstill. The All India Students Federation (AISF), the student wing of the CPI, chose to protest along with the student unions of the opposition parties – while the CPI(M)-affiliated Students Federation of India (SFI) joined the protest only at a later stage and thereafter even tried to disrupt the joint agitation, presumably on instructions from their party.

Though it was the CPI that took the lead in finding a solution for this deadlock, the CPI(M) and the CPI have been at each others throat since. What made things even worse was the treatment meted out to Prannoy’s family, including his mother Mahija, who was dragged through the streets and removed from the DGP office premises along with the rest of her family when they sought a meeting with DGP Loknath Behra. This caused an instant furore; but once again, the chief minister insensitively defended the police.

Turbulent days were to follow. Humiliated and mocked, the grieving mother began a hunger strike in the hospital where she was admitted and her daughter Avishna too joined her fast, seeking justice for her brother. There was huge public outcry demanding justice and as things the situation worsened, the police successfully nabbed the vice principal of Prannoy’s college and one of the main accused, N. Shaktivel.

Timely intervention by the CPI and certain others on the Left ensured that things did not go out of hand. In a desperate attempt to elucidate their position, the Vijayan government published half-page advertisements in all the dailies in the state on April 8. Strikingly, rather than address a press conference to clarify things, the government went for these newspaper advertisements, spending Rs 18 lakh (the government’s own figure) on it.

One of Vijayan’s first decisions after coming to power was to discontinue the weekly press conferences after the cabinet meeting each Wednesday. Instead, the government has chosen to go on a public relations overdrive and has spent Rs 16 crore till date on advertisements (this figure quoted was given by the chief minister in response to a question in the state assemble).

Post the Mahija incident, the CPI(M) organised explanation meetings to convince the cadre of its stance, as public opinion seemed to go against the government even in the party strongholds in Malabar. The last time the CPI(M) felt compelled to do this was after the gruesome murder of T.P. Chandrasekharan in 2012. In the run-up to the Malappuram by-poll recently, a slew of crimes against women and children were reported in various parts of the state. This also included the kidnapping and molestation of a popular actress in a car on a busy highway. A government that came to power on the back of tall promises on women’s security, in the backdrop of the rape and murder of a Dalit law student, has been severely wanting.

The CPI(M)-CPI tussle is getting more acute by the day. A press conference addressed by CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran in the CPI(M) bastion of Kannur set tongues wagging about the severity of the discord between the two major alliance partners. Apart from clinically demolishing the CPI(M)’s official line, Rajendran heaped the ultimate insult on Vijayan by likening him to a capitalist for mocking the agitation of Prannoy’s family. Rajendran touched a raw nerve when he raised instances of the CPI(M) deviating from traditional Left positions – on the fake encounters of ‘Maoists’, using the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act with abandon and attempting to crush agitations with force and unlawful detentions.

Though CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan managed to diffuse the situation, the Munnar eviction drive against encroachments created further friction between the parties. According to many political pundits, Vijayan’s judgement is being hampered by the number of advisors he has appointed for himself. At last count there were seven, though he himself gave contradictory replies in the Kerala assembly on April 25 to questions on the exact number of his advisors.

The latest instance of his advisors coming in the way of clear decision making was witnessed after T.P. Senkumar was reinstated as the state police chief by the Supreme Court and the subsequent delay in complying with the order (Senkumar was unceremoniously removed as the Kerala DGP within a week of Vijayan assuming charge). After approaching the Supreme Court seeking clarification and a review of their order 12 days after the judgement on April 24, the government lost face as the court didn’t even entertain the plea and imposed a penalty of Rs 25,000 instead. Still, Vijayan tried his best to project that the court reprimand wasn’t a setback when asked probing questions by the opposition benches in the legislative assembly.

It seems Vijayan’s advisors got the law secretary to give an opinion to suit the chief minister’s thought process; in fact everyone, including the advocate general, seems to be heavily influenced by these advisors in their functioning. That portends worse things to come. It also seems that Vijayan’s ego is coming in the way of governance; he has yet to make the transformation from a strident party secretary to a compassionate chief minister. Another worrying trend has been his tendency to defend police excesses on different occasions. Despite justifications that this is necessitated on account of maintaining the morale of the police force as home minister, this has led to Vijayan’s image taking a severe beating in the eyes of the public.

Vijayan has also betrayed his anti-democratic impulses by crushing dissent in different ways. Even hapless student protesters affiliated to rival parties are rounded up before the chief minister’s cavalcade passes through junctions to prevent them from raising black flags. Fellow Kannur comrade and former CPI state secretary Panniyan Raveendran made an observation recently that ministers in the ruling establishment are losing their connect with the masses. Vijayan might do well to introspect on that and all that has gone wrong in his government.

Anand Kochukudy is a freelance journalist who writes about Kerala politics.