In November 2020, a few months before the Assembly elections, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan asked for a leave and the party quickly granted the 'wish'. The reason given out was that the CPM state secretary had to travel outside for advanced treatment. It was true that Kodiyeri was troubled by serious health issues but by October that year Kodiyeri had given the impression that he had conquered cancer.
The 'sick leave', therefore, gave a clear hint that the party wanted Kodiyeri out of the way, at least during the run up to the Assembly elections in 2021.
His second son Bineesh Kodiyeri was implicated in a major narcotics scandal, and the CPM just could not sustain the political line that the father could not be held responsible for the son's misdeeds. The party had the commonsense to swiftly realise that positioning Kodiyeri as this political ascetic with a Gandhi-like detachment from his family could be a feast for trolls.
It was not long ago that Kodiyeri imperiously pulled his son Bineesh out of a police jeep near University College, an image still referred to as the most telling visual metaphor for political patronage.
It was clear that the CPM could not go to polls with a party secretary whose son was in jail for something as unpardonable as drug trade. Like smoke and screens are used to vanish an elephant from the stage during a magic show, the CPM employed the 'sick leave' to make Kodieri disappear from the political stage.
That should have been the end of Kodiyeri's political career. Any leader considered an election liability is doomed. But, like the elephant in the magic show, Kodiyeri made a whistle-worthy reappearance. He returned as the CPM state secretary for the third consecutive term in March this year, just like Pinarayi Vijayan before him. He had in fact eased back into the chair of the state secretary in December 2021 after Bineesh got bail in the narcotics case.
Trouble at home
Kodiyeri had never really faced a challenge greater than the alleged wayward lives of his sons. The intrigue surrounding their business deals, including the elder son Binoy's out-of-court settlement of a Gulf deal gone wrong, and personal lives had caused Kodiyeri and the party serious embarrassment. The celebrity-like life of his sons looked outrageously out of place in a working class party. Kodiyeri had never been apologetic either.
In 2007, his wife had performed a 'poomoodal' ritual at Malappuram's Kadampuzha temple for his well-being. A wife seeking divine intervention on behalf of her atheist husband, a top Marxist leader, was widely sneered at.
Yet, the man is not just powerful but highly accepted within the party. "He is perhaps more liked than even Pinarayi Vijayan," a top CPM source said. "This is because no other party leader stands by the cadre as steadfastly as Kodiyeri. They know he will take care of them and protect them as he would his sons. The rights or wrongs do not matter to him as long as the perpetrators are from his party or his family," the source said.
If factionalism has been virtually rooted out of the CPM, it is in no small measure to Kodiyeri's man-management skills. "He is not inaccessible like other top CPM leaders. He is the kind of leader who loves to crack jokes with red volunteers," the CPM source said.
It is not by projecting an aura of might that Kodiyeri has built a huge following within the party, but by playing to the gallery. He has a penchant for reckless utterances that could wildly excite the party's foot soldiers.
Take for instance the way he responded when he felt that the CPM workers were being hunted down by the RSS. "Work in the fields, wages at the fence (padathu pany, varambathu kooli)," he said. In other words, kill at sight.
Once, to the jubilant screams and shouts of party workers, he declared that if need be the party would manufacture bombs even inside police stations. Restraint be damned.
But as home minister in the V S Achuthanandan ministry, he was restraint personified. He had effectively kept the party's hit squad in check. He had even ordered raids in places where the party had stocked bombs.
And right after he came back from his one-year sick leave and resumed functions as the state secretary, he said: "An eye for an eye is not our policy".
This duality is the essence of Kodiyeri. His slight paunch and chin-up look give him a cocky bearing, like a man dismissive of everything around him. But he also possesses an easy smile, a disarming one. During media interactions, he at times even gives the impression that he can never be provoked.
Once when Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan shouted 'Get Out' at reporters, Kodiyeri who was beside the Chief Minister looked genuinely remorseful.
He can terrorise and woo, with equal felicity. He was K M Mani's nemesis in the Assembly but he very nearly lured the Kerala Congress supremo to the LDF.
His light uncomplicated manner can also produce impulsive remarks and actions that unwittingly mocks the party ideology.
Take his media interaction on February 3 this year, for instance. He was speaking with great pride about the increased female presence in CPM decision-making bodies. At one point he was asked whether the CPM would give 50 per cent reservation for women. "Are you trying to destroy the party," Kodiyeri asked, smiling like he was regaling a group of school kids. The irony was completely lost on him.
In 2017, during the Jana Jagrutha Yatra led by him, Kodiyeri had mounted a Mini Cooper that belonged to a gold smuggling accused, and also was illegally registered. This triggered discussions about a Marxist leader's love for the good life and his links with shady characters. Kodiyeri couldn't care less. "The local unit arranged the car and does anyone check who the owner is before getting in," he asked.
Though he is as politically combative as Pinarayi Vijayan, Kodiyeri's offensive can at times look completely out of place. This January, sans any provocation, Kodiyeri declared that there were not enough minority leaders in the Congress. This was widely seen as brazenly communal and triggered questions about minority representation in the CPM. The party had to ask Kodiyeri to back off from the topic.
Kodiyeri was a party member right from the time he started to think. He joined the party when he was only 16. He functioned as branch secretary and local secretary while in college. For six years he was Kannur district secretary, and later was coopted into the state committee. Then he got elevated to the central committee and then to the top decision-making body of the party, the politburo.
In between, he won four elections and was home minister in the Achuthanandan ministry. It was after this, in 2015, that he replaced Pinarayi Vijayan as state secretary.