ONE MORNING DURING the Emergency, Pinarayi Vijayan, half-conscious after a night-long, brutal thrashing by cops, looked in the face of a senior police officer who had ordered the torture, and said, “Once I get better, I will take revenge on you.” The newly elected Kerala Chief Minister was then 30 and an MLA, and before he was sent to jail, his tormentors had crushed his toes with batons, besides inflicting other serious injuries. The police officer was stunned to see Vijayan’s defiance. Nearly two years later, re- elected in the 1977 polls after the Emergency was lifted, the leader made a fiery speech in the state Assembly, brandishing the blood- soaked shirt he wore that dark night and offering a damning portrayal of the Congress-led government’s actions from 1975 to 1977 that included killings, sexual abuse and forced disappearances.
Puritanical, cold and obstinate, Vijayan is a steely Marxist. Just as he is unshakeable, he is also a stickler for utmost loyalty from his comrades. His rise to the higher echelons of the CPM in Kerala and at the national level is proof of how abrasive internal politics has become within India’s biggest Left party. He has fought steep odds and numerous rivals within the Stalinist confines of his party in the state to enhance his stature and wield the power he does. He has come under attack for using fear as a tool to silence his intra-party detractors. At last year’s Visakhapatnam Party Congress of the CPM, an amendment suggested to the political resolution presented by outgoing CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat was to incorporate ‘the right to work without fear of party honchos’. Under the title ‘Tasks’ in the ‘Draft Political Resolution’, a delegate from Kerala had proposed the insertion of a paragraph to fight authoritarianism within the party, putting the spotlight on the tyrannical tactics employed by Marxist bosses such as Vijayan to quell dissent. The proposal was rejected, of course. Partymen close to Vijayan say the leadership had to adopt a fear- inducing style of work to keep the CPM in Kerala a cohesive entity in the face of fierce attacks by rivals looking to decimate it.
Vijayan, 71, is a leader who fits the mould of typical Marxists of north Malabar, his illustrious predecessors who had assiduously built the party into a well-knit organisational apparatus as well as formidable electoral force: aggressive, ruthless and—to a large extent—unforgiving. Unlike most of them, though, he isn’t charismatic yet as a politician. But there are those who hope his stint as chief minister will help alter that perception.