Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has graduated from being a stalwart of the CPM to a 'strong’ mass leader and arguably the ‘most able administrator' that the state has seen in over three decades, reports Shine Jacob.
Owing to his style of functioning, many used to call him 'Trump in a dhoti' or 'Modi without a moustache' in the Communist Party of India-Marxist or CPM.
But in a span of over two years, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has graduated from being a stalwart of the CPM to a 'strong’ mass leader and arguably the ‘most able administrator' that the state has seen in over three decades.
His loyalists line up the way he managed natural and political crises as proof of this.
The feathers to his cap were the managerial skills that he displayed while handling Cyclone Ockhi, the Nipah outbreak, the massive floods and the recent Sabarimala issue.
"He is not an image-conscious leader and is not playing to the gallery. He has not just managed these issues effectively, but also focused on growth by focusing on areas like tourism, information technology and biotechnology," said John Brittas, the media adviser to the chief minister and managing director of Kairali TV (a CPM-backed channel).
Brittas recalls the meeting of Vijayan with Prime Minister Narendra Modi way back in May 2016 when he took charge as chief minister.
One of the major issues that Modi raised with Vijayan was the slow pace of infrastructure works in the state -- highlighting the Rs 3,200-crore GAIL India pipeline project from Kochi to Mangaluru.
Then Vijayan promised Modi that next time the two meet, the Kerala stretch of the project will be over.
"After two years, the project is 95 per cent complete and had the floods been not there, it would have been 100 per cent," he said.
During the floods last year, Vijayan emerged as a communicator, too.
"He used to conduct at least two press conferences a day. That helped ease the panic," said Sunnykutty Abraham, a political analyst, who still believes that the floods were a man-made disaster due to bad dam management by the state government.
But one thing that stood out during the floods or Cyclone Ockhi was unlike several other politicians, Vijayan did not go for photo opportunities by visiting victims and instead, he worked behind the scenes.
Even his critics accept that had it been any other chief minister, Kerala would have opted for complete command of central forces in rescue operations. Instead, Vijayan’s government sought help from local fishermen and other organisations.
He helped Kerala tide over the crisis while going through health issues. Hence, his colleagues term him a no-nonsense person, while some call him iron-fisted.
But, critics also highlight that the post-flood management has loopholes.
"Non-inclusive attitude and arrogance are the key highlights of Vijayan as a leader," O Rajagopal, the only member of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the assembly, said.
Analysts like Sunnykutty Abraham indicate that except for CPM loyalists, a majority of victims are yet to get even immediate flood relief compensation of Rs 10,000.
"His efforts like ‘Rebuild Kerala’ and ‘salary challenge’, asking people to contribute one month salary, appears to be a flop," Abraham said.
His handling of the ongoing Sabarimala issue helped establish him as a 'firm leader' and political strategist.
From the day the Supreme Court came out with its judgment allowing entry of women of all age groups into Sabarimala temple, Vijayan was clear about his stand that the state would follow the order.
"Recently, the prime minister came to Kerala and took a stand contrary to the Supreme Court order. On the other hand, Vijayan is trying is to maintain law and order in the state,” Brittas said.
Despite violent protests by Hindu groups, Vijayan ensured that women of menstrual age entered the temple.
But, Rajagopal said: "The CPM managed the Sabarimala issue miserably. It failed to understand the feelings of believers. Vijayan needed a more diplomatic approach."
Many within the party, too, believed that the state should move a review petition or go slow on implementing the order.
This, because of the fear of a possible divide between ‘believers’ and the rest, which the Congress and the BJP are trying to capitalise on.
Moreover, many fear the loss of upper caste votes to the party, especially of those belonging to the Nair community.
BJP state president P S Sreedharan Pillai has called the Sabarimala issue a 'golden opportunity' for the party in Kerala.
Despite all this, Vijayan stood firm. When the BJP came out with protests by women against allowing entry of women in a menstrual age into the temple, the strategist in Vijayan managed yet another show.
On January 1, he lined up over 5 million women in Kerala forming a 620-km 'wall (Vanitha Mathil)' to protect renaissance value. Many believe this silenced his critics on the issue.
"Vijayan was always the same. Just that the media and the people changed the way they used to see his style of functioning. It is all about perspectives," Brittas added.