Column | Pinarayi Vijayan, KK Shailaja and the Kerala dictionary

On Tuesday, in the list of 21 ministers announced for the second consecutive term of Pinarayi Vijayan, the former health minister K K Shailaja has not found a place. 

She won from Mattannur, her home constituency, with a lead of over 60,000 votes, an endorsement for the way she ran the anti-Covid campaign.

Some 7,000 people have died so far in Kerala, so it can be only a relative comfort, in comparison to other states, to say 7,000 is not a high figure; those who departed and those bereaved will not agree. Nevertheless, the general opinion has been that Shailaja is an incorruptible and very competent minister.

Unlike other states, in Kerala, besides the media and social media reach of the highly organized CPI-M, there exists an articulate, unpaid, and largely celebratory constituency of social media influencers and self-appointed volunteers who identify their painless ( no skin in the game) but well-meant bourgeois-revolutionary instincts and compulsive need to come across as progressives, who make it sound that just about everything that the Vijayan government does is nothing less epochal than what the Lenin dispensation did replacing the provisional Kerensky government in 1917.

This writer has pointed out before that Vijayan is a classic power icon. That Marxist party’s simplistic ideas — given India’s complex caste and communal map— of secularism and welfare politics are actually founded on the old model of power, which is gathered, consolidated, and sustained in the usual ways associated with power: by groundwork, organization, violence, institutional infiltration, image building, unceasing PR, purges, and cult.

This is what the BJP is doing in the form and shape of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too. It is no different what the Marxist party does with, and for, Vijayan. If there is a difference, it is that in Kerala the liberals and progressives have bought wholesale into the Vijayan myth. They constitute the propaganda machinery as much as the party warriors. The fall-out of such an identification is uncritical thinking.

Shailaja’s exclusion, and the inclusion of 21 other names in the new cabinet, was announced, not by Vijayan. It was broadcast by A Vijayaraghavan, a veteran leader, and a convener of the party in the state.

This delegation of duty could be seen as an act of humility on the part of Vijayan. The party, not its demigod, is made out in the public as asserting its control over the individual.

But only the left-wing and the progressives will buy that story. Make no mistake about it, this cabinet is custom-built for Vijayan. What he says will go.


Vijayaraghavan said the party is looking for all new faces in the cabinet, except Vijayan. The new faces include Vijayan’s son-in-law, a popular youth leader Mohammad Riyaz, and A Vijayaraghavan’s wife, R Bindu. These are no terrible choices. But the new cabinet constituents, in terms of connections with Vijayan, and links to the party command structure, will ensure total subservience to him.

But surely, this does not come as a surprise to a politically literate people? What did they think? That Vijayan would seek their consent each time he made a decision? This kind of false consciousness of self-empowerment is a function of social media.

And is Vijayan right in dropping Shailaja and including new faces and relatives? Yes. It is his discretion. He got the party back to power. Exactly as Modi did in 2014 and 2019. The winner takes all.

There is only one-way power can be maintained. The protocol it demands is the same anywhere. There have been the usual great shouts about power as a patriarchal concept. These are mostly shouts without thought. Power is gender-neutral. If the men and women crying patriarchy at the instance of Vijayan dropping Ms Shailaja, acquire the power to run a local body or a small office or even home, they will be the first to trade their untested ideals for power. Their own intolerance to criticism in social media is an indication of how skin-deep their understanding of power is.

There is no power without amassing it at any single node in the chain. Vijayan is the biggest node in Kerala, and he loves to be the node, if not the chain itself. The rest is sound bites and welfare politics. The last, as this writer has said before, is going to be Kerala’s downfall. The state faces over Rs 3 lakh crore in public debt, and the welfare politics it is so good at will not generate money to pay back even the interest. An effective distribution of ration kits is still charity. Creation of wealth is enterprise.

Shailaja has been made the chief whip of the party. It is obviously an interesting and ironic phrase: chief whip. A chief whip ensures the elected party representatives do the party’s bidding. That is to say Vijayan’s bidding. In this role, Shailaja has no initiative and drive— her characteristic traits as an administrator— to exercise. She just has to carry out the party instructions.

That speaks for the new cabinet of Vijayan. They are all going to be pretty much servants to the master. Kerala may have well forfeited its right to pass judgments on how politics is run in the rest of the country.

In 1923, at Lausanne, Hemingway wrote a recanting report for the Toronto Daily Star on Mussolini, whom he had praised a year before as a ‘patriot.’ At a crowded news conference, Mussolini was striking a pose as an intellectual, reading a book, seemingly unconcerned about the flashing bulbs and the noise. Hemingway says he ‘tiptoed’ his way around Mussolini’s desk and found that the ‘Dictator’ was reading a ‘French-English dictionary upside down.’

No, I am not saying Vijayan alone is reading things the wrong way; the whole state seems to be doing it, to cultivate a superior image for their own and other’s consumption. This is why they have returned Vijayan to power with 99 seats out of 140. They all appear to be holding up the same dictionary—upside down.

(CP Surendran is an author and senior journalist. Views expressed are personal)


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