Left victory in Kerala last year was seen by all those who oppose the deadly mix of neo-liberalism and majoritarianism as perhaps the last opportunity to chart a people’s alternative path of development and governance. For Pinarayi Vijayan, the powerful CPI(M) leader who led the party for 17 years, it was like a dream coming true. His attempt to lead the left government earlier was thwarted by the SNC-Lavalin corruption case against him on one hand, and more by the popular Marxist leader and his bête noire V S Achuthanandan. But when the victory come calling in 2016, everything was well in Vijayan’s favour. Though V S Achuthanadan’s blitzkrieg campaign helped LDF win, Pinarayi Vijayan moment and he became the Chief Minister. Right from the word go, the party projected the new dispensation as Pinarayi Vijayan government, not as an LDF government as the front usually do, perhaps taking a leaf out of other ‘bourgeoise’ parties.
One year down the line, what is the takeaway of Pinarayi government? Has it shown signs of pursuing the professed policies of the left government? Is the captain leading from the front?
The answer may vary from the ideological position one take at least for the first two questions. But the inference that one could make after sensing the feeling of left sympathisers is that the carefully constructed image of Pinaryi Vijayan as a pragmatist and strong leader has already taken a severe beating within an year. Some even say the obstinate attitude and the allegedly arrogant style of functioning of the largest serving state secretary of the CPI(M), that Pinaryi Vijayan was, has a debilitating effect on the image of the left front government. Leave alone leading from the front, Pinarayi Vijayan’s arbitrary and obscure way of functioning on many issues has taken sheen out of some of the pro-people measures taken by his ministerial colleagues.
Coming straight from secretary of an organisation which functions on the basis of ‘democratic centralisation’, a jargon used by many leaders often as an euphemism to run their writ over the party, Pinaryi Vijayan at least for the first year is seen as a man who is clueless in his new role as Chief Minister
A leader, under whose regime the CPI(M) was in disarray, witnessing factional feuds between different camps dressed up as ideological differences. The organisation style associated with Communist parties went for a toss during this period. Despite this, Pinarayi Vijayan was projected as the strong leader who braved the challenges and put CPI(M) in commanding heights of Kerala politics.
In fact, this megalomaniac image attributed by his supporters seems to have contributed to his lame duck performance in the last one year as Chief Minister. One thing Pinarayi did soon after assuming office was to appoint advisors in different fields. This has created an impression that Chief Minister is attempting to control other departments through advisors. The appointment of Gita Gopinath, the Chicago School economist who used to denounce all that left stood for, created doubts in the minds of the people what the government’s real intentions are. After one year the people actually do not know in what all areas the government sought the advice of Gita. But the impression that the government will not hesitate to tread the neo-liberal path of development got entrenched by her appointment.
Vijayan considered to be a 'pragmatic' leader, who is not bogged down by ideological head baggage had made it clear soon after he took charge as the chief minister, that the government will do all it can to attract big ticket investments to the state.
The stand taken by Pinaryi Vijayan against disclosing cabinet decisions through RTI, or his decision not to have press conferences usually conducted by the Chief Minister after cabinet meeting were perceived as going against the principle of transparency in governance.
The way the police department, under the direct control of the Chief Minister, messed up issues ranging from slapping Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against political dissidents, extra-judicial killings of Maoist leaders, the lackadaisical approach of the police vis-à-vis investigation into the mysterious death of the engineering college student Jishnu Pronoy, among many others points towards the fact the Chief Minister, who is also the politburo member of CPI(M), miserably failed into making the police force act according to the policies of the Left Democratic Front. Pinarayi Vijayan’s intemperate utterances against Mahija, mother of Jishnu Pranoy after she tried to stage a protest in front of police headquarters against the police apathy in the investigation has annoyed people across the political spectrum.
The fact that the police policy of the government came under severe attack not just from the opposition but also from within the CPI(M) and from another constituent of the ruling front is a pointer to what is happening in the home department. Chief Minister Pinaryi Vijayan himself has to admit that the police erred in handling some important cases on the floor of the state Assembly.
Vijayan has himself to blame for all the hullabaloo created in the first year of his governance. Unlike the last time when LDF was in power, the party is in total control of the Chief Minister. When V S Achuthandan was the chief minister, the party organisation under Vijayan created a whole lot of problem for the daily functioning of government. But the party under Kodiyeri Balakrishnan is totally controlled by Vijayan. But nothing helped Vijayan, as many say his style of functioning continues to be like that of party secretary rather than that of an administrator.
When the revenue department under CPI initiated the eviction of illegal encroachers from the tourist town Munnar, Chief Minister’s reaction to it smacked of supporting the offenders. Though hundreds of tea estate labourers for generations are languishing in small sheds (layams), the Chief Minister and his man Friday in the cabinet M M Mani, have been waxing eloquent about the rights of ‘settlers’. CPI and Chief Minister has been at each other’s throat in this issue, thus imperilling the collective responsibility of the government.
Chief Minister floundering in different areas of governance has naturally elicited more media interest thus ignoring focus on some of the alternative path charted out by other members of the cabinet. The increased public spending in the social service sectors has marked a departure from the earlier governments. ‘Ardram’, an initiative taken up the health department to restructure and revamp public health system, is one of the very few initiatives that Vijayan government took up in the first year which is consonance with the professed policies of the left parties. The plan is to make the government hospitals more patient friendly by improving the infrastructure.
Though the initiative mooted by the finance minister Dr Thomas Issac to fund infrastructural projects through KIFBI (Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board) is being criticised by some leftists, it is seen by many others as a novel method to tide over the financial constraints that stand in the way of developmental projects. How much KIFBI can contribute to tide over Kerala’s developmental blocks remains to be seen. Like the rest of the country, Kerala’s economy was hard hit after demonetisation. But the government constituted a committee to study the multifarious effects on the economy and come out with a detailed report. The committee was headed by renowned economist C P Chandrasekhar. How the government is going to act upon the report is not known.
The decision to form Kerala Bank by merging co-operative banks in the state is another method devised by the government to take on big banks. The proposed bank will become the largest scheduled co-operative banks in the state. According to estimate, it will hold 30 percent share of the banking transactions in the state, thus is expected to contribute immensely to the development of the state.
When a government, which came to power on the high expectation of not just of Keralites but also all those who believes in democracy and equality, completes the first year, the impression a discerning observer gets is that of captain failing an average winnable team. Pinaryi Viayan whose image of a’ strong no-nonsense’ leader now lies shattered. All the praise showered upon him by his followers within the party and admirers outside now seems as just a delusion.