To beat the bourgeoisie, you have to be a bigger bourgeoisie,” goes Kaitheri Sahadevan’s dialogue from the 2013-film Left Right Left. The character was modelled on Pinarayi Vijayan. The film, made shortly after the brutal hacking of rebel Marxist TP Chandrasekharan, whom Vijayan famously dubbed “kulamkuthi” or traitor prior to and after the political murder carried out by cadres of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), touched upon the revisionism in the party among other themes. As Vijayan went on to make a smooth transition from the stern state secretary to Kerala chief minister, and further consolidated his position after winning a historic second term, the ideological shift undertaken by the party is near-complete.
Vijayan is now adopting a neo-liberal approach to governance. And there’s no better proof than his government’s Silverline project – a 532-kilometre-long Thiruvananthapuram–Kasaragod semi-high speed rail corridor, estimated to cost over Rs 1 lakh crore.
Protest to business
The ideological churning in the CPI(M) had begun in the mid-80s, when M.V. Raghavan, then rising star of the party from Kannur (and Pinarayi Vijayan’s mentor), took on EMS Namboodirippad with an ‘alternate document’ advocating alliances with parties representing minority communities such as the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and Kerala Congress factions. Back then, EMS and then-state secretary VS Achuthanandan ganged up and saw to it that Raghavan was ousted. His supporters had to leave or fall in line.
The protégés of Raghavan, led by Vijayan, who rose to leadership positions have, in the past two decades, adopted the revisionist ‘alternate document’ of Raghavan as the CPI(M)’s official line by stealth. It took more than a decade of intra-party wrangling for Vijayan to accomplish it, with Achuthanandan mounting a stiff challenge and staying the course till age finally caught up with him. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by Vijayan more or less adopted a neo-liberal approach to policy-making from 2016.
For a party that protested developmental projects to take up cudgels for displaced people and even opposed computers, the Vijayan government has been over-compensating on business friendliness as if atoning for the past. So much so that the leader of opposition, VD Satheesan, of the Congress regularly dubs the Vijayan government a “Right-wing government” on the floor of the house and outside. Vijayan actually took a leaf out of the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) playbook to turn the tables against them.
Yet, this change of approach has in some way contributed to the LDF retaining power as it found favour with the neo-middle class who appreciated Vijayan for the timely accomplishment of projects. If the 2016 election win was attributed to VS Achuthanandan, Vijayan single-handedly led his party to win in 2021 by recasting himself as someone who stood for development – without the baggage of corruption associated with the Congress-led UDF. During his first term, Vijayan cleverly went for some of the low-hanging fruits including projects that were held up due to bureaucratic red tape or land-acquisition bottlenecks. The marked change of approach in how the government treated protesters with a heavy hand stood out even as long-pending projects got fast-tracked.
At the end of the first term, however, the opposition UDF posed a question: Did the Vijayan government have a single big-ticket project to brag about in its first term? All the big development projects accomplished – including the Kannur airport, the Vizhinjam port and the Kochi Metro – were actually commissioned by the previous Oommen Chandy government. Pat came the Silverline project.
No silver lining
Now, there are various arguments for and against the Silverline project; for instance, Kerala’s road congestion and vehicle density (1.5 crore vehicles for a population of 3.5-odd crore) make for a compelling case. Yet, many question marks have been raised against the financial viability of the project, apart from its environmental and climate impact, as well as the hastiness and overall lack of transparency around it.
‘Metroman’ E. Sreedharan publicly denounced the project as “ill-conceived, badly planned and badly handled”, only for the LDF government to dismiss it as political criticism, on account of his association with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
- Sreedharan and the UDF aside, criticism has also been forthcoming from the pro-Left Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad, who haven’t yet received the memo on the “Right-wing deviancy” (as EMS Namboodiripad would say) of the Pinarayi Vijayan-led disposition, and Left fellow-travellers in the state as well as those outside, including notably, Medha Patkar. Pinarayi Vijayan’s vanity project has also come for criticismfrom noted ecologists and environmentalists such as Madhav Gadgil as Silverline is likely to hamper rainwater draining out to the Arabian Sea. For a state that witnessed a major flood in 2018 and its variations in the following years, the construction of more embankments on the coast is likely to be catastrophic.
The biggest criticism against the project is the hurried and disingenuous nature of it, with the government pressing ahead without a proper social impact study and riding roughshod over civil society. Pinarayi Vijayan is betting big on the project and calculates that any opposition to it can be countered with the backing of the neo-middle class, and a section of the pro-Left cultural icons of Kerala who double up as Marxist propagandists on social media and beyond.
Messiah of middle class?
There was a time when the CPI(M) shaped the politics of Kerala, which forced even the Congress under AK Antony to adopt a Left posture to adapt to it. Today, not only has the Pinarayi Vijayan-led CPI(M) abandoned any idea of shaping the politics of society but has, in fact, embraced the very neo-liberal politics it decried in the past with a vengeance, thereby reinventing itself as a messiah of the middle class.
And yet, Vijayan may find the going tough on the Silverline project, unless he can convince the Kerala society on why it is an indispensable undertaking.
The author is a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post. He tweets @AnandKochukudy. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)