How Congress, BJP underestimated Pinarayi Vijayan

Health Minister KK Shailaja and Pinarayi Vijayan with school students

Keralites overwhelmingly voted to retain the government of Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala, breaking from a nearly half-a-century-old tradition of swapping the party in power every five years.

Several factors have helped ensure a second term for Vijayan, but perhaps the most crucial has been the decisive and efficacious leadership shown by the politician during the various natural calamities that befell the state during his eventful five-year term.


For long, Vijayan has been known as an excellent organizer and an uncompromising party man, someone with a don’t-mess-with-me reputation.

At the same time, he was widely considered to be too abrasive, blunt and direct to be suitable for the position of chief minister.

Indeed, Vijayan — from the town of Pinarayi in North Kerala — displays a certain degree of directness and bluntness that is often found in people from non-elite sections of the Indian society.

He was born in 1945 as the youngest of the 14 children to Kalyani and Koran, who belonged to the OBC Ezhava (Thiyya or Kshthriya) community. He was one of the only four children born to Koran — who worked as a toddy tapper — to survive into adulthood.

Vijayan, however, was luckier than many of his castemen in southern parts of Kerala, because unlike them, the Thiyyas of North Kerala had better access to educational facilities. This was because Northern Kerala had been, for almost a century, under the direct rule of the British, while South Kerala was under kings who ruled according to religious scriptures.

As a young man, Vijayan got admission to Brennen College in Thalassery, run by the government of Kerala, where he became a member of Kerala Students Federation, which later became Students Federation of India or SFI, the student arm of the CPIM. [ Pinarayi often recounts how, as a KSF activist during his college days, he had walked amidst RSS activists armed with blades and lathis.]

Despite coming from the a community that accounts for nearly half of the total Hindu population of Kerala, Vijayan was only the third chief minister with an Ezhava background (besides VS Achuthanandan and R Sankar).

Vijayan’s blunt and direct nature, and his tendency not to suffer fools gladly, perhaps owes much to this social background. This trait was also his biggest weakpoint.

Due to his quick-tempered nature, he was not expected to do well as chief minister, a role that requires a high degree of sophistication, tact and self-control.

In fact, he almost seemed to prove his critics right when, as chief minister, he abruptly snapped at a female journalist who thrust a mic in his face inside a government building to just “get out”.

The incident was used extensively by his opponents and critics to reinforce his image of being an impulsive, if not downright uncultured, person who did not deserve to be chief minister.

However, what his rivals failed to take into account was that this kind of personality, while brusque and unpleasant in many contexts, could be remarkably effective in getting things done quickly and efficiently when needed.

Indeed, as the party chief for the CPIM in Kerala, Vijayan not only had a reputation for being a no-nonsense man who was strict and uncompromising in maintaining party discipline, and but also as someone who got things done quickly.

This aspect of Vijayan’s personality was again put to the test when, two years after taking office in 2016, he was faced with the biggest natural calamity to hit Kerala since independence — the floods of 2018. It was followed by a mini flood in 2019 and by the COVID-19 crisis in 2020.

In fact, today’s LDF victory owes much to each of these crises — especially the last one. It was during these crises that Vijayan came across as a reassuringly strong, unwavering and capable leader who seemed to know exactly what he was doing, even as uncertainties and chaos closed in all around.

During the COVID-19 lock-down, when the central government was irregular in its press conferences, Vijayan’s daily press briefings detailing every step being taken to overcome the crisis offered a sense of security, certainty, succor and confidence to a worried population.

During these televised interactions, the chief minister came across as confident and unflappable, and fully in control of the situation. This endeared Vijayan to even those Malayalis whose image of him was that of an autocratic and arrogant party chief.

While the opposition and the media did manage to get under his skin now and then during these briefings — exposing the old, impatient Vijayan who snapped at ‘stupid’ questions — he managed to keep his temper under control most of the time in what can only be described as an extraordinary display of self-restraint.


In contrast to this no-nonsense approach by the chief minister — flanked by the even more no-nonsense health minister KK Shailaja — the opposition’s attempts to find faults with the government’s handling of the crises often came across as frivolous, obstructive and often much of a nuisance.

The net result was that leader of opposition Ramesh Chennithala and State Congress Chief Mullappally Ramachandran, the duo tasked with the thankless job of poking holes in government’s strategy, faced the elections even lower popularity ratings than Congress’ previous chief minister, Oommen Chandy.

Indeed, going by today’s election results, the strategy of trying to paint the government in an unfavorable light at any cost seemed to have backfired badly on the Congress-led United Democratic Front and the BJP. This was especially so due to the fact that, as the months rolled by, it became clear that things were far better in Kerala than in the states ruled by these parties.

On top of all this, the use of central investigating agencies to try to generate controversies and questions around state government functionaries, while effective among some segments, only served to generate disgust and disapproval among the more politically savvy segments.

In short, it was an almost impossible task for opposition leaders to try to bring down a government that seemed to have got its act together after messing up badly with a hasty implementation of a Supreme Court order allowing young women into the Sabarimala shrine.

This already complicated task was made even more impossible by the opposition’s decision to adopt a ‘hook or crook’ approach to achieve its aims.

In the end, the voters of Kerala — notorious for being extremely demanding and almost impossible to satisfy — seemed to have decided to give the ‘son of a toddy tapper’ another chance instead of going with an opposition that sorely lacked credibility.