For a man who has given the best part of his life to a particular ideology, Pinarayi Vijayan, the indefatigable politburo veteran of the CPM, is an odd man out among the legendary leaders of the Communist movement in Kerala. At a time when the Left is facing a huge credibility crisis, will the real Pinarayi please stand up?
Having led the party for 17 years in its 50-year existence, Pinarayi is viewed differently by people depending on where they stand. For party card-holders, he is the most respected and admired leader — but from a distance. Those who belong to the right-wing see him as a pragmatic leftist, who wants to concentrate on governance rather than on commitment. Among significant sections of the middle class who have a radical orientation, he is despised as a villain who compromised communist values by aligning with corporates and ‘class enemies’. But despite being branded as ‘rightist’ and ‘corrupt’ by his adversaries within the party and outside, Pinarayi continues to function the way he is used to and tells mathew samuel in an exclusive interview that communism is in his dna. He could not have his way in the party thanks to his bête noire — the popular leader VS Achuthanandan. His fight with VS at one time cost him his politburo membership. Now that VS’s opposition is receding, the septuagenarian leader is all set to re-enter electoral politics, perhaps as the chief ministerial candidate. If history repeats itself in Kerala, Pinarayi will lead God’s Own Country — if that happens, it will definitely signify a metamorphosis.
Edited Excerpts from an interview •
You have led the CPM in Kerala for 17 years, and you are the longest serving secretary in the party’s history. Before coming to the tumultuous period through which you lead the party, we would like to know how you got attracted towards the communist movement.
I cannot name either an individual or subjective influence dictating my political concerns. I was born in Pinarayi, a small village near Parapram, Kerala where the communist party held its first ever meeting. So even at that time of brutal police action, there were many people who were communists in our area. I have grown up hearing several stories of police brutalities against the communist activists in and around my village. The period was 1948, and the Communist Party was banned at that time. Communist leaders were working underground during this period. The repressive police methodically went after the CPI activists.
My mother used to tell the tales of police brutalities during my childhood days. I still remember a childhood incident vividly; one day, my mother was standing beside the well of our home, holding me in her hand, and narrating an incident of police hunting down communists in a nearby area. It was at that very time that the police and hooligans charged into my home. They picked up household items and threw them out of the house. The police took my elder brother, who was a communist sympathiser, into custody after brutally beating him. This incident along with other stories of police brutalities and the story of brave communist resistance are still etched in my mind. These stories and real-life experience have influenced me to become a communist from my school days.
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Would it be correct to say that since childhood you had Leftist leanings — that means you might have had a different kind of upbringing. Were you an atheist even in your school time?
Absolutely not! I had the usual kind of childhood, like any other lower class child. But as I have mentioned, I had a communist mind evolving right from my childhood days. Having heard many mythological stories growing up, I was afraid of demons and devils. I still remember that during my school days, I used to study by sitting near the kitchen where my mother used to work, fearing demons may come for me if I am found sitting alone. During that time, and when I grew up, I used to visit Kavukal where Theyyams are performed (Kavukal are places of worship of the lower caste people and Theyyams are rituals held by these people as part of annual festivities). But I turned into a non-believer from my high school onwards if I remember correctly.
Who were the iconic leaders who influenced you in your own formative phase? What were the main issues that your party confronted?
Founder member of the Kerala party P Krishnapillai was the leader about whom I had heard from my childhood. When I turned active in the party, several leaders such as the legendary EMS Namboodiripad,
AK Gopalan and EK Nayanar were iconic in their own right. Pattiyam Gopalan was another prominent leader when I was a student. It was the time when the communists were facing twin attacks from the Congress and RSS. RSS was especially targeting the northern part of Kerala and the communal
riots they instigated against the Muslims in Thalassery were a classical example of their modus
operandi. We lost two comrades when we tried to defend Muslims from being attacked. I was one of the party members who tried to protect the minorities against the RSS onslaught. It was a difficult task and we could succeed only because we had the people backing us.
Such experiences may have made you a dogmatic man, or is dogma a must to lead a party like CPM? Will you change your style of functioning when you move to electoral politics?
(With a smile) These are all personal traits of individuals. By stubbornness, do you presume that I never smile? No, I do smile, but that is only when I have reason to do so. Then the other part of your question of shifting to parliamentary politics; well, I cannot answer that now. I can comment about the present situation as a party leader.
I was a minister in Nayanar’s cabinet for a short period. During that time, many of those who were opposing me are now lauding my efforts. When Left Democratic Front (LDF) came to power in 1996, the state was facing an acute electricity shortage. Our government’s main priority was to improve the power sector and the responsibility was bestowed upon me. I did the best that I could.
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After serving 17 years as state secretary, what do you think about the changes in the party under your leadership? What is your contribution in making the CPM strong?
The CPM in Kerala has a long tradition that carries the legacy of senior leaders such as EMS Namboodiripad, AK Gopalan, CH Kanaran and many others. The party strengthened because of the hardships endured by its founder P Krishnapillai and others. During all these years of existence, the CPM has had a special place in the dynamics of Kerala and its socio-political realm. The CPM has never distanced itself from the masses. The party has been at the forefront in raising issues that the people face, and the same has been true even when we have not been in power. There are some who criticise us for continuing the struggle even when in power.
But this is precisely because of the fact that we could retain the faith of the people when we faced many challenges in the state. Our collective political effort has been crucial, and no single individual can take credit — it goes to the party as a whole. Our party has a system of discussing each and everything collectively and taking decisions accordingly.
Infighting in the CPM is not new. Even before you took over, the central leadership had come down heavily against factionalism in the state unit. But it can be said for sure that infighting in the party became public during the years you were in charge. How could you manage to deal with this deviation? What do you think is the reason for this?
Nowhere in the country had the CPM faced such infighting as here in Kerala. Factional feud was one thing that shook the party to the core. The central leadership also has stood by us in finding a solution to this problem. With all these factors working together, we were able to control the factionalism gradually.
Those who wanted to destroy the party in the state gave maximum publicity to this through the media. Tendentious and baseless reports were published, and continue to be published even today. In my view, the party has successfully countered this negative projection. We have never been out of sync with our support base, and that is reflected in the manner in which we have faced the crises. The state unit has been truly overwhelmed by the support it received from the central leadership.
The recent walkout of senior leader VS Achuthanandan from the state unit meet has once again brought to the fore differences of opinion of senior leaders within the party. Is Achuthanandan’s personal clout preventing the party leadership from taking action against him?
The issue has been taken with utmost seriousness, but the ongoing party congress is our top priority
for now. The party’s Central Committee has been busy dealing with the Congress. So the topic had not come for discussion yet. The politburo of the party too has taken the issue more seriously. However, the party has not come to a decision regarding this yet.
Some who observed communist movement in Kerala closely say the style of functioning of the party leaders has changed now and party had become more market-oriented during the last decade or so. They say ‘paripuvada’ ‘kattan chaya’ culture of the party has given way to crony capitalism. The critics cite the example of the CPM starting a television channel with the support of big entrepreneurs
It is quite natural for a communist party to change according to times. In that sense our party has also changed. It, for sure, might have departed from its old style and methods. However, the point is that we are firm on our working class ideology as we were in earlier times. As a communist party, we are and will continue to be aligned with the downtrodden and the working class in this country.
As far the television channel you are talking about, Kairali TV is not a party channel. When a group of youngsters came up with the idea of launching a television channel, the party had given a thought about it and, ultimately, we decided to support it. Because not only us, many people who have independent views also felt the need to have a television channel with a difference, which gives ample time to air problems of the society.
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There is no point in keeping away from the communication revolution taking place. We supported raising funds for the channel. Though there are criticisms terming ‘Kairali’ as the CPM channel, we never intended to turn it into a party channel. When the party started Deshabhimani daily, we collected funds from the people. Stalwarts such as AK Gopalan went to countries such as Sri Lanka to collect funds. So there is no deviation.