The swift and dramatic arrest of a high profile opposition leader like Youth Congress president Rahul Mamkoottathil from his house in Pathanamthitta looks like an opportune moment to explore a question that has often been asked recently. Is Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan turning increasingly authoritarian?
Rahul's arrest is not enough to call the Chief Minister authoritarian. The violent street fight between the Youth Congress and the police in front of the secretariat on December 20 last year, and the dramatic incidents that followed, including the forcible extraction of Youth Congress workers from police custody, can be held up as justification.
But are there other indisputable signs that Pinarayi is prone to authoritarianism? Before pointing them out, it is important to understand what authoritarian behaviour is.
Litmus test for authoritarianism
The first person to study how politicians sabotaged democracy to usurp near absolute power was German-born Yale professor Juan Linz. In his 1978 book 'The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes', Linz had suggested a 'litmus test' for identifying autocratic politicians but did not develop it.
Such a litmus test was later drawn up by two Harvard professors and political scientists Steven Levistky and Daniel Ziblatt. They worked on Linz's idea and came up with four telltale signs of authoritarianism which they published in their 2019 book 'How Democracies Die', a book the Economist called "the most important book of the Trump era".
Levitsky and Ziblatt said that citizens should worry when a politician "1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game; 2) denies legitimacy of opponents; 3) tolerates or encourages violence; or 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.
"A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern," Levitsky and Ziblatt say in the book. Pinarayi Vijayan exhibits at least two of these criteria, the third and fourth.
Warning sign one: Encouraging violence
Levitsky and Ziblatt list out the ways in which the third sign of authoritarian behaviour -- toleration or encouragement of violence -- is manifested. Here are two that would throw up a 'yes' for Pinarayi Vijayan.
One, have they or their partisan allies sponsored or encouraged mob attacks on opponents? Two, have they tacitly endorsed violence by their supporters by refusing to unambiguously condemn it and punish it?
On November 21, a day after six Youth Congress activists were brutally assaulted by DYFI workers for waving black flags at the Nava Kerala bus in Kannur, Pinarayi Vijayan described it as a "life-saving" measure. He said the DYFI workers were only trying to save Youth Congress workers from their "suicidal fervour".
"It is not an attack. It is to save lives. Imagine a train coming and a person is caught between the rails. In trying to save him, won't we hurl him away from the line of te train?" he said. Pinarayi then exhorted DYFI members to persist with their exemplary methods.
He kept up the encouragement. On December 11, at Cheruthoni in Idukki, he said: "The people who come to the Nava Kerala Sadas exhibit enormous restraint. But the protesters come with an intention to provoke. Then there will be a natural reaction."
To top it all, the Pinarayi government decided to award good service entry for policemen who were on duty during Nava Kerala Sadas. The announcement came right after the Chief Minister lauded the police for their "exemplary restraint" right through the Nava Kerala yatra.
Fact was, the Youth Congress and KSU workers were beaten up by the police. But more than the police, by DYFI and SFI workers. There were many instances when the police just stood by, or played the role of sidekicks, when Left youth organisations went around brutalising Youth Congress workers waving black flags at the Nava Kerala bus.
Warning sign two: Curtailing civil rights
According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, here is one way to assess whether a leader has a tendency to curb civil liberties. "Have they supported laws or policies that restrict civil liberties, such as expanded libel or defamation laws, or laws restricting protest, criticism of the government, or certain civic or political organizations?"
On November 20, 2020, the Pinarayi Vijayan government promulgated the Kerala Police (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020. The amendment was sold as Pinarayi’s crusade for women. It was said the ordinance would empower the police to decisively act against criminal minds who use the cover of social media to hurl abuse at women.
A closer reading revealed that this was also a weapon to harass and punish even the mainstream media that produced material that was, in the words of the ordinance, "humiliating" or "abusive" or 'defamatory". What "humiliating" or "abusive" or "defamatory" is, the ordinance had left to the wisdom of the police or their political masters. Astoundingly, the new amendment criminalises even unpublished content.
Section 118(A) of the ordinance says "Whoever creates, expresses, publishes or disseminates through any kind of mode of communication, any matter or subject for threatening, abusing, humiliating or defaming a person or class of persons, knowing it to be false and that causes injury to the mind, reputation or property of such person or class of persons or any other person in whom they have interest shall on conviction, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with a fine which may extend to Rs 10,000 or with both."
Meaning, a media house did not even have to publish any content, it only had to create or scribble something rudimentary (a pre-production script or even a preliminary brief) that is deemed humiliating or abusive or defamatory by the police for it to be punished under the Kerala Police Act.
The CPM central leadership, however, persuaded Pinarayi Vijayan to withdraw the ordinance.
However, none had stopped the CM from tampering with civil liberties early last year. Then, Kerala was gripped by ‘black fever’. The Chief Minister's intolerance of anything black reached such ridiculous heights that even black clothes and masks were banned at a college function in Kozhikode that the Chief Minister attended.
Levitsky and Ziblatt speak of yet another behaviour test that indicates this despotic tendency to curb civil rights. "Have they threatened to take legal or other punitive action against critics in rival parties, civil society, or the media?"
Pinarayi has. Not just threatened, he had acted. Let us leave aside the action against Rahul Mamkoottathil.
Listen to what the Chief Minister told the press on December 23 when asked why his police had slapped a criminal conspiracy charge on a woman journalist who was just doing her duty. "My problem is I have no lack of faith in what the police had done. There are people among you who are capable of hatching a conspiracy," the Chief Minister said.
The journalist, Vinitha V G of 24 News, had reported the hurling of shoes at the Nava Kerala bus by KSU workers in Kochi on December 10. The police charge: Vinitha had prior knowledge of the KSU plan and therefore was obliged to inform the police.
Pinarayi was told that journalists had prior knowledge of the SFI's move to disrupt the Governor's car in the capital, too. Information gathering is standard journalistic practice.
How can the act of doing one's job be judged a conspiracy, the Chief Minister was asked. His response was a version of the abrasive phrase the powerful employ to snub the vulnerable: 'Nna thaan case kodu' (then go ahead and sue). "The police register a case based on evidence that comes before them. You (the media) speak on guesswork. You don't have any evidence. But if based on your guesswork, you feel the police have not done the right thing, feel free to take the necessary action," he said.
Earlier in June, Asianet News chief reporter Akhila Nandakumar was charged with conspiracy. Her crime: She interviewed a KSU leader who, in the course of the conversation, alleged that SFI leader P M Arsho had passed his degree without appearing for exams.
In short, at least on two counts of the ‘Levitsky-Ziblatt authoritarian matrix’, Pinarayi scores big.