For more than a fortnight, Kerala has been religiously tuning into the press conferences of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan every evening, to stay updated on the latest COVID-19 figures. Vijayan, known for his unfriendliness to the media, began the practice of addressing daily press conferences during the 2018 floods and lately, has made a habit of turning crises into opportunities.
As the state encounters yet another major catastrophe with COVID-19, Vijayan is back in the limelight. While the initial few days saw Health Minister KK Shailaja cornering all the attention just as she won acclaim for her deft handling of the Nipah outbreak in the state in 2018, the Chief Minister has stolen her thunder with his press conferences.
With Vijayan in spotlight not only in Kerala but across the nation, the praises were initially limited to Kerala’s timely response to the pandemic and the right messaging. Soon, however, it was to turn into a personality cult of sorts. Ironically, people who make an issue with the personality cult surrounding Prime Minister Narendra Modi were suddenly seen hailing Vijayan as a sort of ‘alternative’.
On cue, primetime interviews would be slotted on national channels and Vijayan would come prepared with a script for his daily press conferences — sometimes going to the extent of counselling people on family values and sounding preachy, if not downright patronising. However, his legion of fans would lap up every sentence of his, in what has become an ugly spectacle at glorification.
For the CPI(M) though, its single-point agenda ever since forming government in the state in 2016 has been to ensure a second term — bucking the long-term trend in the state of alternate LDF-UDF governments. In a way, the current propaganda campaign too seems geared towards that end.
Back in 2016, within a couple of months of Vijayan assuming chief ministership, State Secretary of the party Kodiyeri Balakrishnan wrote a lead in the party organ Deshabhimani where he emphasised the need to up the LDF’s vote share from the 43 percent it polled in 2016 to 50 percent, thereby strengthening its chances to win a consecutive term. With the party machinery firmly under his grip, Vijayan has no competition within the CPI(M).
The government has since gone big on welfare schemes, even at the cost of some big projects and, consequently, there is less corruption. In fact, unlike the previous Congress-led UDF government, there hasn’t been any major corruption scandals dogging the Vijayan government.
The Chief Minister has also done his bit, appearing more amiable and pragmatic, in a bid to change his strongman image. Not very long ago, in 2017, he thundered at media persons to ‘get out’, in an extremely vulgar exhibition of power. Now, in a clear departure from his old style, the Chief Minister’s fiery temper is no more in display. He often bites his tongue and awkwardly laughs off unexpected questions in press conferences — although the sternness in his voice can hardly be missed at uncomfortable follow-up questions.
Now, the question would be, can Vijayan sustain it till the polls next year?
As such, the state is in the grip of a terrible financial crisis with the state treasury being placed under restrictions for extended periods, and, development projects moving at a snail’s pace. Will the general public deflect their anger at falling incomes to the incumbent government in the wake of COVID-19 and vote for a change as always?
Many Kerala chief ministers from K Karunakaran in 1987 to EK Nayanar in 1991 to VS Achuthananthan in 2011 to Oommen Chandy in 2016 thought they were coming back to power — only to stumble at the last hurdle.
A year is a long time in politics in any case. For the moment though, Pinarayi Vijayan is thoroughly basking in the limelight.
Anand Kochukudy is a political commentator and editor, The Kochi Post. Views are personal.