Making of Kerala’s Fidel: How VS reinvented and endeared himself to people
After the tremendous victory of the Left Democratic Front, Friday should have been a lean day for media persons and political observers in Kerala. But people in the politically alert state were riveted to their television expecting a drama to unfold from the CPI(M) state head quarters.
But belying all speculations, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury flanked by VS Achuthanandan faced the media at AKG centre, the state headquarters of the CPI(M) for a news conference. He announced that Pinarayi Vijayan will be the new chief minister.
When asked about what role the veteran VS will have, Yechury did not display any confusion and said that he will be the mentor of the new government and the party. He went on to add that VS would be like Fidel Castro, the iconic communist leader of Cuba. The party which rode to power on VS’s popularity has now accorded the title ‘Castro’ of Kerala to him.
But VS is many things to many people. A hard line communist to some, a strategician par excellence to some others, but all would agree that he is the most popular communist leader living in the country, who has the will and rigour to take on the high and mighty.
How this 92 year old has captured the imagination of the people cutting across age and political divides, needs to be studied in detail.
VS is a politician who could sense the expectation and the needs of the masses in the changing times and modify his working style accordingly. He did this without deviating from the ideology he has been pursuing for more than eight decades.
VS was initiated to communist movement by P Krishnapillai, the iconic leader who played a key role in building up communist movement in Kerala. During the initial period, he organised coir workers in his home district Alapuzha. He participated in the historic Punnapra-Vayalar uprising against the policies of C P Ramaswamy Iyer, the Diwan of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore.
Later he became the state secretariat member of the CPI. It was during the India- China war that VS started his rebellious acts within the party by defying the party line and aligning with nationalist sect within the party. He organised blood donation camp for the Indian soldiers fighting the Chinese on the border. He was demoted in the party for deviating from the official party line.
VS was part of the leaders who questioned what they call the revisionist tendencies of SA Dange, the then chairman of the CPI, and walked out of the national council meeting to form CPI(M) in 1964. Ever since its inception VS played a major role in the party and was a formidable power centre within the party, even during the time of veterans like E M S Namboodiripad. He became the state secretary of the CPI(M) and was elected to politburo of the party later.
VS was a hardliner who used the party structure to show his opponents their place in the party. He was accused of neutralising many leaders who did not toe his line. VS had complete control of the party till the beginning of 2000.
Things started changing when Pinaryi Vijayan was elected as the state secretary. Ironically Pinarayi was in VS camp at that time. But the two soon fell out. A protracted factional feud followed. But Pinarayi with his organisational skills was able to limit VS’s influence both in the party structure and outside.
VS, being a fighter he is, reinvented his politics after this. What Kerala saw was a gradual reinvention of the hardliner.
VS, who was the opposition leader between 2001 to 2006 took up issues like environmental conservation, gender issues and several other things which were hitherto not considered as class issues by the traditional communist parties.
VS created a new constituency for him beyond the party apparatus by espousing peoples’ issues. It was time of the Congress-led UDF government in Kerala. Land encroachments, sex rackets, attacks against women were common at that time.
VS single-handedly raised these issues. Corrupt leaders were targeted like never before. He single-minded pursuit of the corrupt for decades saw former Power Minister R Balakrishna Pillai, being convicted by the Supreme Court in the Idamalayar case. His learning curve was also in full play when he learned the nitty gritty of power tunnel and surge shaft to pursue the case till the apex court.
VS also lent his support to open and free software as well. All these intervention made him VS a hero sorts, the sole conscience keeper of the marginalised and the ignored. But the party was not with him and these battles were fought almost single-handedly. These interventions gave him the kind of acceptance that not many other chief ministers have got.
His relation with the party steadily deteriorated to the point that the Kerala unit denied him the party ticket in 2006 poll.
What Kerala witnessed during those days was hitherto unheard of in the communist movement.
Demonstrations were held throughout the state against the party decision. Party cadres openly questioned the state committee’s decision.
The world woke up to the deep influence this communist leader had among the people of Kerala.
The politburo stepped in after it snowballed in to a major crisis for the party. It directed the state unit of the CPI(M) to give a ticket to Achuthanadan. He had the knack of giving an ideological colour to his fight with in the party, placing himself as the ‘unadulterated’ communist leader. And that helped him win in many battles he fought with in the party at various stages.
He continued his popular interventions even after being sworn in as chief minister.
The eviction drive he initiated in Munnar, especially reclaiming vast swathes of land encroached by the TATA Tea endeared VS to the people of Kerala.
His fight with the party state leaders continued even after LDF lost election by a slim margin of four seats in 2011. VS took his fight against the party leaders when rebel leader T P Chandrasekharan was brutally murdered by henchmen alleged to have been hired by the CPI(M). He described T P Chandrasekharan as a courageous communist and visited his house to console his family.
VS walked out of the last party state conference held in his home town Alapuzha when the leadership accused him as a man who has an anti-party mentality.
But every thing changed in the run up to the poll. The party knowing the influence VS has on people leaned on him during the election time. Most candidates were angling to get him to address an election rally in his constituency. Those who could not used his pictures liberally in their campaign materials.
VS was the face of the LDF’s election campaign this summer. It once again underlined the influence this nonogenarian leader has among the people of Kerala.
Unmindful of the scorching heat, the 92 year old traversed an average of 200 kms a day. Large crowds flocked to hear him at the five or six election rallies he would address on a given day. Modest estimates say he has addressed some 125 election meetings.
Taking on the UDF and NDA, he is also credited to have set the agenda during the run up to the election. His bold attacks on SNDP leader Vellapally Natesan had resulted in shoring up CPI(M)’s traditional support base among the influential Ezhava community. The BJP led NDA were banking on Natesan’s newly floated BDJS. But it turned to be a cropper and did not make any significant dent in the vote bank of the LDF in most constituencies.
And when the party won his bête noire Pinarayi is elected by the party as the chief minister.
All those who were expecting fireworks from VS, saw, perhaps for the first time the picture of a disciplined party worker.
Addressing the media, a day after Pinarayi was chosen for the top job, he assured the people of Kerala, that he will continue to be around as the conscious keeper of the people.
Whether VS will transform himself into a Castro or not, one can say for sure, this communist leader influenced the lives of the people and shaped the politics of Kerala, like no other political actor did.
This he could do, his admirers say, is through his integrity and his unfailing faith in Marxism.