Kerala: Why Pinarayi Vijayan Is Under Fire From His Own Partymen

S Rajesh

Jul 01, 2024, 07:46 PM | Updated 07:46 PM IST

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan
  • Generally, nobody in the government or party dares criticise Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. But now there's a visible outburst.
  • Since the declaration of the Lok Sabha election results, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has been criticised by members of his own party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), as well as other constituents of the Left Democratic Front (LDF).

    The LDF's unhappiness is understandable — they won just one seat, similar to 2019. But the outburst against Vijayan has been unexpected. It did not happen after the 2019 results, when the defeat was as bad.

    Vijayan is believed to have an iron grip on the government and the party, so much so that nobody dares criticise him. The remarks by the CPI(M)'s Pathanamthitta district committee, as reported by Onmanorama, are therefore a departure from the norm.

    "The CM exhibits impolite behaviour even towards a microphone and his conduct is not befitting of a communist," the committee observed.

    Even the smaller parties in the LDF, that is, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Kerala Congress (Mani), have been vocal about their demands, seeking a Rajya Sabha seat.

    While Kerala Congress leader Jose K Mani eventually got the seat, the RJD is now demanding a place in Vijayan's cabinet.

    Vijayan’s response to the criticism has been that the LDF performed poorly because people thought the Congress was a better option to take on the BJP. But this line of argument has not cut ice with his critics.

    > ‘Pinarayism’ Behind Poor Performance?

    "I would say that Pinarayism is the reason for this (defeat). Pinarayi Vijayan himself is responsible. The first five years of the government were good. But after that, in his second term, it has become more like a one-man show," said Shameer Babu T P, a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), who was involved in Annie Raja’s campaign in Wayanad. 

    As to what constituted "Pinarayism," he said, "The corruption allegations against his daughter, his attitude while interacting with the public, delay in pensions, sidelining of other leaders, etc, have made people, including CPI(M) members, go against the government.

    "Our party has also stated that policies must be changed because if we go on like this, we will not be able to come back in power. The Idukki and Thiruvananthapuram district committees were quite strong in their criticism," Babu added when asked about the criticism levelled by the CPI.

    > Problem At The Top

    Regarding the criticism from ground-level workers of the left, who are usually the most committed, he said, “One of the left parties’ lowest organisational units is the branch. When results are not in our favour, the branch is usually asked to work harder.

    But what the branch committees are saying is that even if we work well, if at the top we have someone with the kind of attitude Vijayan has, what can we do?"

    > Sidelining Other Leaders

    Asked to name leaders who he considers to have been sidelined by Vijayan, Babu said, “The best example is that of K K Shailaja, who was the health minister in the first Vijayan ministry. She was lauded for her efforts during the coronavirus pandemic and was liked by people across parties.

    "But she was not made a minister during his second term. It is alleged that Vijayan was afraid she could become the next chief minister.

    "And now it is said that she was made to contest as the MP (Member of Parliament) candidate from Vadakara (she lost to Shafi Parambil of the Congress) in order to undermine her stature even further," he said.

    Similarly, M M Mani was the minister for electricity during Vijayan's first term. Despite the department and state electricity board working well under Mani, he wasn’t made a minister again.

    "The first five years were good. So, Vijayan should ideally have continued with the good ministers and replaced those who were not performing well. But he replaced even the good ones. What he said was that he was giving opportunities to the younger leaders and new faces," Babu said.

    A political commentator whom Swarajya spoke to said that apart from Vijayan's attitude, it is the party's electoral performance and future prospects that are causing the outburst.

    "Earlier, during the era of former chief minister and CPI(M) stalwart V S Achuthadanandan, there was a regular interaction between the chief minister and the party. But when Vijayan came to power, that stopped," the commentator said.

    "He (Vijayan) had been the party secretary for a long time before becoming the chief minister and was thus quite powerful. He was seen as head and shoulders above the party, and criticism of him, especially from within the party, was minimal," he added.

    > 2026 Prospects In Doubt

    Asked about the impact of the election results on the left and how much of a role it has played in this criticism against Vijayan, the commentator said, "Anti-incumbency was there even before the elections, but what has upset the left is the dip in vote share compared to 2019, which in itself was a freak election due to the Sabarimala issue and the talk of Rahul Gandhi becoming the next prime minister.

    At the same time, the BJP vote share has gone up. "All of this is quite absurd for them. They are not nationally relevant anyway and they are not able to win seats in the state. They are losing seats like Kannur and Vadakara again and again. Plus, they lost the seat of Alappuzha, and that too by a good margin."

    "The only seat the party won was Alathur. It is traditionally a seat held by the left. K Radhakrishnan, the CPI(M) candidate, is himself a popular leader.

    "In Attingal and Alappuzha, there was a shift of CPI(M) votes to the BJP. In northern Kerala, there has been a small but perceptible shift. All of these (developments) are putting their 2026 prospects in doubt, and that has naturally made the rank and file worried," said the commentator.

    Asked if it would be right to conclude that the rise of the BJP's vote share has rattled the left more than the victory of the Congress, he said, "Both CPI(M) and Congress are worried by the BJP’s performance in Kerala, as the general narrative in Kerala has gone pro-BJP ever since the elections concluded."

    > Not Getting Minority Vote While Losing Hindu Vote

    The CPI(M)’s issue is primarily their inability to attract the minority vote in the state, according to the commentator.

    "Their pitch was that the Congress isn’t going hard enough on Hindutva, BJP, etc. That has consistently been their strategy. But that has not paid them dividends at the national-level election, at least. For the local body elections due in 2025, it might change."

    "The left does, however, have the ability to get the minority vote, at least in state and local body elections.

    "There has been a perceptible shift of Muslim youth to CPI(M). But with the Congress having leaders like Shafi Parambil and generally adopting a more pro-Muslim line in Kerala as well as elsewhere, it is difficult for the CPI(M) to get traction on the ground. Plus, they are losing out on the Hindu vote. CPI(M) thus has fundamental issues that they will have to reckon with."

    > People Going With The Congress

    Asked about Vijayan's claim that people who opposed the BJP had chosen to side with the Congress instead of the left, the commentator said he agreed with that assessment.

    Still, "the vote share dip is concerning for the left. That cannot be brushed aside. So, I see the 2025 local body polls as the real determiner of how relevant CPI(M) continues to stay. Winning that election would be the basic thing for CPI(M) to hopefully get another term."

    However, that election is still quite far away. "Things can change in a matter of two weeks. One and a half years is a long time."

    > Palakkad, Chelakkara Bypoll Tests

    The immediate test for the CPI(M) would be how many votes they retain in the Palakkad byelection. They secured nearly 35,000 votes in this segment during the 2024 Lok Sabha election. But the BJP’s strategy would be to wean away Hindu votes from the CPI(M).

    "At the same time, the CPI(M) would be more concerned about the results of the Chelakkara bypoll. Especially if the Congress candidate is Ramya Haridas and they lose that seat, that will be a very negative thing for them. It’s a sitting seat for them and they haven’t lost it in a long time. If they lose, it could be a harbinger of what could happen in 2026."

    > Leadership Change Unlikely, Course Correction On The Cards

    As for whether Vijayan could be replaced as the chief minister, both Babu and the political commentator said it was unlikely. However, they both agreed that some corrective measures would be taken.

    The party's central committee recently called for serious introspection by its state units. Whether any measures taken as a result will be able to stem the party's decline and, by extension, the criticism of Vijayan by his own partymen will only be known after the next election.

    Also Read: Kerala: Why BJP Could Win The Palakkad Bypoll

    S Rajesh is Staff Writer at Swarajya.

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