Sunset briefing is on but don't expect answers on Sprinklr from Pinarayi

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan pulled out a time-tested trick that has never failed him from his arsenal of survival techniques to obliterate the accumulating charges of data theft under the cover of fighting COVID-19. He put on a stone face and insinuated that this was nothing but a media conspiracy.

“This time perhaps you are not alone. There could be others giving you company,” the Chief Minister told reporters on Monday, during the daily sunset briefing he had temporarily wound up last week but had eventually decided to revive.

The Chief Minister's strategy was evident right from the start. He would behave like a war-time leader, furiously focussed on saving his people to be distracted by motivated lies. After giving out the day's COVID-19 status, Pinarayi Vijayan used up the next half hour and more to describe how he captained Kerala's COVID-19 success story.

“What we have achieved till now is no magic but the result of the unity we have forged and he combined effort we have put in,” the Chief Minister said. He was essentially telling his television audience not to take their mind away from the only thing that mattered at the moment: the fight against COVID-19, which Kerala is on the verge of winning.

When he was asked whether he could ignore the mounting charges, he said: “Of course. I don't have the time for that now. I need to concentrate on other things.” He also made it very clear that, however much journalists tried, he would not speak about the Sprinklr deal. “Right now this is how I would deal with the issue. Let history judge me,” he said.

Pinarayi did try to keep his calm all through, even when he was asked about his family's involvement in the deal. But when he was reminded of Congress leader P T Thomas's “grave” allegation that his daughter's company website had vanished the moment the controversy erupted, the Chief Minster sounded provoked. “Oh! Very grave. It's very grave,” he said, his raised voice stuffed with irony and anger. “Don't try to present it as if it is something big. Everyone will understand it.”

Stories around a bottle

It was another question, about the CPM politburo rejecting a clarification he had given on the deal, that allowed the Chief Minister to gleefully revisit an old but sill simmering rivalry. “I know that some among you are weaving various kinds of false news. You were good at that even before,” Pinarayi said.

He then went back in time, not to the time when he was engaged in a bitter turf war with V S Achuthanandan but to a time even before that. “What now comes to my mind is, in this very city, seated in a place here, a news was once cooked up. About something that was started in the name of 'save',” he said.

He was referring to the Save CPM Forum that cropped up after the anti-reclamation stir (vettinirathal samaram) launched under the leadership of V S Achuthanandan. Then, the forum was seen as the CITU faction's attempts, with the help of emerging leaders like Pinarayi, to cut Achuthanandan to size. Pinarayi's version is that the forum was born out of the imagination of four or five journalists huddled together around some drinks. “After some time, one of them, under the influence of certain habits that all of you know so very well, confessed to making it up,” Pinarayi said. “This is all part of history,” he added, hinting that the anarchist media fraternity had always attempted to divide and destroy the party.

Media vs Pinarayi

He then spoke of how the media kept churning lies. “Even after what happened then (the Save CPM Forum controversy), false stories were perpetually cooked up. There was a name I used to call some among you. Some among you will still be knowing it,” he said, referring to the underworld-like aura he had given to the media. “Media syndicate,” a bitter Pinarayi had said then.

Pinarayi had always believed that the media had wilfully demonised him, especially using the Lavalin case, during the dark days of CPM factionalism, and he still carries the bitterness with him.

Political observers have often noted that Pinarayi's anti-media stance, though it made him less popular during his party secretary days, had worked to tighten his grip in the party. Pinarayi was able to convince the party rank and file that there was a conspiracy to destroy the party, and that it was necessary for survival sake to rally around him.

It seems the Chief Minister hopes the same strategy, of playing the victim of popular media's evil designs, would once again work wonders for him.

Pinarayi's Ali strategy

It was also clear the Chief Minister came prepared to wear the journalists out. Like Muhammad Ali who took all the blows until his adversary George Foreman lost all his strength, he would remain unresponsive to all probing questions. Finally, fed up, the journalists would start asking him the questions he wanted.

It went like Pinarayi had planned, almost. After some relentless probing, all of which he ignored, journalists turned to policy issues. When the grilling stopped and a question about hotspots was asked, Pinarayi had a triumphant smile, as though satisfied his strategy had worked. “That's good. This is the way to go,” he said.

Soon enough, the Sprinklr issue popped up once again. Pinarayi's face darkened, he spoke over the question and ended the day's briefing.

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