With Flurry of Scandals, Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan on the Back Foot

Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan on the Back Foot
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TVM: The CPIM in Kerala can no more be a one-man show, the central leadership of the party has ruled. Regular consultations at all levels are a must between government and party on the one side, and between party leaders too on the other side, as per the new ruling. What this means, in real terms, is that the days of unquestionable supremacy of Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan in the state party are over. Rightly so, if the flurry of scandals surrounding his governance, unfolding one after another, and his steady loss of esteem, are to be given their due weight.

Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan Entangled in Scandals, One After the Other

The Chief Minister had absolute control over the party and the government in his first term even as it was an alliance. The massive forest tree felling in Wayanad along the Western Ghats and several other districts in the final lap of the last LDF government, the gold smuggling racket at multiple levels, mainly centred around gangs operating from the state capital and Kannur, the massive corruption in the rank and file of the CPIM as reflected in the series of cooperative bank frauds, and several other matters including the Sprinkler deal have all tarnished the image of the LDF as a whole in recent times. The corruption/commission of over four crores in a Rs20crore housing scheme for the poor, a part of the statewide Life Mission, came as another embarrassment to the LDF. All these happened directly under the watch of Pinarayi Vijayan as chief minister. And, all these have embarrassed the central leadership of the party too.  

Today, having been exposed to his bones, Pinarayi Vijayan himself is on the defensive on matters relating to the forest loot. Those who were known to him were majorly involved in the cutting and removal of highly valued Veetti and Teak trees from forests and revenue lands across districts in a highly organised manner between October 2020 and February 2021 – in the final months of the first Pinarayi-led government. The CPI leadership and its ministers were prominently blamed for this. Efforts at the highest level of government to scuttle the probe and protect forest officials who colluded with gangs in the loot strengthened public perceptions about the involvement of top political figures of the two Communist parties.  

Pinarayi Vijayan has more or less disbanded the daily media meets in recent weeks. Obviously, facing the public even via the TV screens has become difficult for the CM in the present contexts. BJP state chief K Surendran pointedly asked a day ago as to why the CM was running away from the daily media meets. At a time when the Covid situation in the state was well under control, the CM was a regular fixture on the evening screens, he won acclaim and took all the credit. Now, with the worst pandemic spread staring point-blank at the state, the CM is not to be seen. His social media page has little to offer by way of other governmental activities too.  

The central leadership was hesitant to intervene in state party affairs so far, even as the first term of the government had got clouded with the gold smuggling case and other scandals like the Sprinkler deal. Yet, the top leadership was mindful of the fact that the CM held a high aura from the way the flood situation in the state was managed – or even mismanaged – by the government. So was the handling of the Covid situation in the first wave when health minister KK Shailaja was around to lead the health department. The present health minister Veena George too is affable and agile but might take time to get into the groove in full force as she has just started as a minister. Overall, it remains a mystery as to why the second wave of the Covid spread could not be controlled in the second term of the Pinarayi government when the rest of the nation has brought things under full control; while even Maharashtra, which bore the brunt of the first wave, is breathing easy. 

All the perceived failings of Pinarayi Vijayan as a chief minister are, quite understandably, music to the central party leadership. Central leaders had not been involved much in the assembly poll campaign and the CM managed to get a second term for the LDF – thanks to the rudderless state of the Congress party in the state and appropriation of the party and the UDF leadership by one individual in the form of Ramesh Chennithala. The exit of the ‘Kerala Congress(Mani)’ and the resultant erosion of support for the UDF from the central Travancore Christian belts as also the reservation-linked backing the LDF got from the numerically strong Nadar community in the TVM district all helped the CM craft a win for the LDF yet again.  

It was from the height of this glory that Pinarayi Vijayan fell flat on many counts since the start of his second term. As it turned out, his every step now appeared to be a misstep. The ministry-making itself was highly controversial and his own personal interests are believed to have led to exclusions and inclusions of names for the new team. The ham-handed manner in which it was all done, from before the start of the candidate selections for the assembly polls itself, raised a stink. 

Several corrupt deals within various government departments, pilfering of money by party activists in the garb of government officials and cooperative bank functionaries across the board exposed the rot within the state CPIM. The blame is principally on Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan who led the party from the front for the past many years — a period when several questionable characters have got into party positions with the sole agenda of promoting their personal interests. Those who worked sincerely for the party are put on the back burner. The communities that traditionally backed the Left in the state were treated like shit by the CM. 

When it comes to corruption, a similar scenario exists with the CPI as well. Every time the party returns to power, fund collections are the main pastime and obsession of its local-level leaders. Added to this was the big loots as in the tree felling case, overseen by the party’s two ministers — of revenue and forests. Together, the image of the LDF is taking a nosedive so soon after its impressive victory in the assembly polls.  

There is little chance that Pinarayi Vijayan will regain whatever image he had built in his first term. He has squandered the goodwill, became more strong-headed, more contemptuous of those who stood by him, and he could as well be walking up the garden path. He won the last poll by virtue also of the liberal food-kits distribution via ration shops, helped by Modi from Delhi, with a personal agenda behind it – namely to win the votes of the poor. The middle class and well-fed government officials too are getting food-kits for free via ration shops and other channels. The state exchequer is bearing the strain and there is little cash even to pay salaries. 

Also Read: The Pinarayi Vijayan Enterprise in Kerala

Good governance demands that welfare and development go hand in hand

Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan ran the first government by huge borrowings from near and far. The state’s debt burden has increased from Rs 1,42,000crore  in fiscal 2015 to Rs 2,41,615 crore in four years, and the scenario is steadily worsening, as per quotes from a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. It says the per capita debt has shot up during this term from Rs 42,499 Rs 66,561. Reasons are not far to seek. In order to pamper the public, taxes were not raised. To please government servants, forming a stranglehold over the party via the service organisations and unions led by the CPIM, the government went out of its way to offer them goodies at every turn. In the Corona term, the only ones who laughed their way to full salaries and perquisites (and pensions) were the government servants even as they were allowed to sit back at home for long terms and the administrative machinery paralysed to its boots. The CM was keen on paying them the salary even on days when they went on strike as per a call from national trade unions. He used government money to fight the case for strike-day salary up to the Supreme Court.

Governance in slow mode, and scandals one too many, there is little wonder if the chief minister has no courage to face up to the people he governs.  

As per the CPIM central leadership decision, the work of the party and the government in the state will be subjected to regular review every week from now on. Four politburo members of the party are stationed in Kerala, namely Pinarayi Vijayan himself, S Ramachandran Pillai, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and MA Baby. They would meet and take stock and guide the government and the party from behind.

Balakrishnan, from the Kannur stock, had stood by the CM all along as state secretary. Now, he is taking a backseat due to health problems. MA Baby is general secretary Sitaram Yechury’s eyes and ears in the state and entertains ambitions to be a future CM. SRP and Prakash Karat are blood brothers in the politburo and both had teamed up with the CM in the past as fair-weather friends. That need not necessarily be the case in the new context.  

The CPIM is set for organizational elections, a process that will start next month and end up at the Party Congress in Kannur in April next. A new general secretary is expected to take charge at the Kannur meet. Who that will be is a hotly discussed subject. Yechury, during his repeated terms, took the party to cleaners, except for Kerala where Pinarayi Vijayan kept the party spirits up. As in-charge of the West Bengal CPIM, he scripted its obituary by, among other things, cobbling an electoral alliance with the Congress – a party that the state CPIM fought tooth and nail for several decades. The CPIM is not able to explain why it allied with Congress now; nor is Congress able to explain its predicament. The electorate dismissed both the parties with the contempt they deserved and gave them Zero seats in the new assembly. 

With a discredited brass at the top, the CPIM is looking for salvation by way of new leadership at the central level, and for Kerala as well, party sources stress

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About Prem Chandran 30 Articles
The writer is a media consultant, former Editor, and an activist of the India Against Corruption. EOM