Every evening, between 6 & 7, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan holds a TV darbar to brief the state on the Covid-19 scenario through a docile press. He reads from a sheaf of papers in a monotonous tone that would put many to sleep. The joke in Kerala is that between 6 & 7 pm, nobody gets infected by COVID because even the deadly virus goes to sleep!
The joke in Kerala is that between 6 & 7 pm, nobody gets infected by COVID because even the deadly virus goes to sleep!
Flanking him at the daily briefing are Health Minister K Shylaja Teacher, Revenue Minister Edayillam Chandrasekharan, and Chief Secretary Dr Vishwas Mehta. It may be a record that none of the three have so far spoken a single word. So why have them there sitting like dolls? It is the CM, CM and the CM alone who answers questions on COVID, politics and controversies – the latest being the gold smuggling through diplomatic channels.
Ideally, it should be the Health Minister who should speak on Covid, CM on politics, Revenue Minister on finances and CS on administrative matters. But they remain masked and lips sealed.
So, why have a ‘rock star’ Health Minister when there is a Superman at the helm who is all pervasive and omni-potent?
Earlier, there were rumblings in the CPM that Shylaja Teacher was hogging all the limelight, thanks to her appearance on BBC and other world fora. It appears that the CM does not want the limelight to be shared by anyone.
Over-exposure will lead to boredom and boredom will lead to aversion. Afterall familiarity leads to contempt. That is what seems to be happening now to Pinarayi, thanks to the gold smuggling case when he put up a weak but dogged defence. Often, he was caught on the wrong foot. But the old CPM warhorse, knows how to slip away, but people are noticing.
It is apparent there is discontent brewing in the ruling Left Democratic Front. And the epicentre is none other than the office of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Realising the damage to the party, the CPM has called for a review of all staff of ministers. But with Pinarayi’s close friend Kodeyeri Balakrishnan heading the party, the CM may get some protection from criticism.
Over the last few years, Pinarayi cultivated what is now known as Consultancy Mafia. For everything involving projects and money, the CMO knocks at a consultant’s door. So much so, a Transport Secretary had the audacity to write an official note that since the local secretariat staff were inefficient, controversial consultancy firm Price Water Coopers should be given office space in the Secretariat to plan and operate a special project. Then why have a secretariat in the first place?
It is no secret that grassroot party cadre found it hard to gain entry into the CMO, while white-collared executives go in and out of the third floor of the Secretariat’s North Block. Ever since the departure of CPM state committee member M V Jayarajan, who served as the CM’s private secretary for a brief period, the CMO’s doors remained shut to partymen. That’s why there is a sudden demand that he be brought back. When Jayarajan was there, the party had access to the CMO, The New Indian Express quoted sources.
“He might not come back, but there will be some important changes. There’s some discontent within the party. There’s no one who can stand up to him (Pinarayi) and challenge him,” the paper quoted a senior CPM leader.
That is the problem in the CPM. Pinarayi has grown taller than the party in the State and in the Politburo. The Kerala unit of the CPM has long been under the looming shadows of Pinarayi who is also one of its longest-serving secretary. His writ runs in the Politburo too which was once powerful.
Though there were factional feuds within the CPM earlier, it was Pinarayi who stamped it out firmly in the 2015 state conference when the V S Achuthanandan faction was decimated. Today, both the party and government are under his firm control and nobody dares question him.
That is how he got away with various controversies. But in one controversy, he had to give in. For days, he defended his private secretary M Sivsankar. Despite strong evidence that he brushed shoulders with the accused in the 30-kg gold smuggling through diplomatic channels, Pinarayi built a fort around him, defending him though he knew that the game was up. Finally, he had to lose face and give in – something that had not happened ever since he took over as CM.
“Once he takes someone into confidence, it’s very difficult to change that. He trusts them completely to the extent that he may not even correct them,” TNIE quoted a fellow CPM leader.
In the Sabarimala entry for women too, Pinarayi was adamant though the Left allies knew that it was a blunder. The major goof-ups brought out the discontent for the first time. Some leaders had obliquely indicated that the party line at the time was not correct. After the Lok Sabha poll debacle, the party had to admit that Sabarimala factor led to its defeat. But Pinarayi was adamant that his stance was correct, though he went soft after the party got some guts to show him the mirror.
Then came the Sprinklr row. Here too, the CM was adamant. But the open dissent from the CPI and the party central leadership forced the government to rethink.
The CPI also came out strongly against the Consultancy Mafia through a biting editorial piece. Nobody missed the point that the CPI was aiming its guns at Pinarayi.
There is a growing feeling among Left leaders that the party should exercise more control over Pinarayi after the smuggling controversy.
But Kerala has a Modi problem. Pinarayi has seen to it that there are no senior leaders who can challenge his authority. Like in the BJP, with no leader of Pinarayi’s stature in sight, there won’t be a clamour for leadership change in CPM for at least the time being. But with elections nearing, the CPM is caught between a rock and a hard place.