The author is a Editor, Chithi magazine published in Malayalam since November, 2014. He is senior journalist who was with The New Indian Express for more than 30 years and was Senior Editor, The Sunday Indian, published in 14 languages, for six years.
Velikkakathu Sankaran Achuthanandan, i.e., VS Achuthanandan, or simply ‘VS’, is the only surviving veteran leader among the 32 national council members who had walked out of the Communist Party of India (CPI) to form the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1964. That itself gives him a unique position in the party. Many of his stands stood apart from the mainstream line of the party, much to its embarrassment. Whenever VS took a stand, he created an impression that VS is right and the party wrong.
Life was never smooth sailing for this 94 year old veteran of many a battle. With a humble beginning as a tailor, VS came up the ladder in a big way, working hard among agricultural workers and organising trade unions in his home district, Alappuzha. He was arrested in 1946, beaten up severely in the lock-up, spent five and half years in jail, besides spending four years in the underground. Metamorphosed from a party hardliner to a mass leader, VS was elected to the Kerala Assembly in 1967, 1970, 1991, 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016. He headed the LDF government from 2006 to 2011. He rose to hold positions as politburo member, Opposition Leader and the Chief Minister through hard work.
No doubt, he commands great support from the people. During his tenure as the Leader of Opposition during 2001-2006, the nonagenarian surprised even youngsters in his enthusiasm and cleverly built up an image as an anti-corruption crusader. He exposed the scandalous Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government in Kerala.
Even during his chief ministership (May 18, 2006 to May 16, 2011), VS had managed to keep intact his image as a fighter against corruption, scams and scandals in the public and within the party.
His eviction move against the encroachments of the land mafia at the high ranges and tourist destination Munnar was seen as a bold initiative against corruption. His confrontation against the global monopolies had gained him popular support among public as well as the rank and file of the party. His intense activities left the ‘Pinarayi group’ who built up a thumping majority in the party as the other side of the spectrum, the protector of nefarious vested interests.
In fact, the ‘Communist Party of India (M) Inc’, owning an empire worth around Rs. 4,000 crore, is in no way different from any other capitalist enterprise. What else can one infer from a party that presides over firms like amusement parks, TV channels, rubber cooperatives, super-specialty hospitals, supermarkets and IT parks!
Scamsters Vs VS
Transition of the party from working among the toiling masses and organising trade unions and farm labourers into a corporate house raised an eyebrow among the rank and file. VS and his supporters were widely perceived as the old guard who fight corruption and ‘revisionism’. VS was seen as the victim of the ‘Pinarayi’ faction in the party, which spearheaded the democratic deviation diluting the party’s class character. Intolerance to internal democracy grew and freedom of expression no longer prevailed in the party. Political opponents were treated as enemies. Present Electricity Minister in the LDF ministry and the then Idukki party district secretary MM Mani declared publicly that the party had prepared a list of 13 persons to be killed during the early 1980s, and acknowledged that among them, three were killed. His infamous video footage of “1, 2, 3 killings” went viral and this landed him in legal knots. VS was the party state secretary in the 1980-92 period and Mani’s utterance was termed as a move of the Pinarayi faction to discredit VS’ image. However, it only buttressed the fact that the party is intolerant to dissent. Violence and political murders for political gains were no way alien to the party. Those who questioned leaders became the party’s enemy. TP Chandrasekharan, a veteran CPI(M) activist and a follower of VS, who did not toe the official line, left the party in 2008 and formed Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP). He led his party to victory at his home panchayat in Onchiam. He was brutally murdered with 51 wounds on his body on May 4, 2012. Many CPI(M) functionaries are still in jail in connection with his murder. Pinarayi called Chandrashekharan a `renegade’. But VS did not hesitate to call him a “brave communist”. He visited Rema, the widow of the slain leader, much to the chagrin of Pinarayi. No one knows how many times VS was warned by the party for `violating’ organisational norms and discipline! Slowly, but steadily, Pinarayi’s stranglehold on the party and the administration in toto made VS’ life miserable. Pinarayi jettisoned VS and his men mercilessly from every party forum. VS on the other hand checkmated every move with the public image he built over the years as a crusader against corruption. Pinarayi’s 16 years at the helm of the party had been a relentless war with VS, affecting the party organisation and demoralising the cadre. In spite of party central leadership under the then party general secretary Prakash Karat backing the state party under Pinarayi, what helped VS to stand firm was his capacity to win votes and the strong backing of the media. Pinarayi always had strained relations with the media. He often dumped the hostile media with VS leanings as “media syndicate”. His recent infamous “get out” to media persons showed he had not changed.
Standoff between VS and Pinarayi had reflections on the stand on SNC Lavalin case. The case relates to the award of contracts for renovation of three hydroelectric projects in the state between 1995 and 1997, when Pinarayi was the Electricity Minister in the then Left Democratic Front Government. In an audit by Principal Accountant General of Audit (Kerala) detected a Rs 300 crore loss to the exchequer. Pinarayi, once seen as a protégé of VS, turned against him on many counts. VS’ remarks hinted at Pinarayi’s involvement in the corruption scam in SNC Lavalin case. The then Kerala Governor RS Gavai gave the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) his nod to prosecute Pinarayi. Pinarayi termed the move unconstitutional, but VS seemed to approve of the decision. VS, the CM candidate was defeated in the 1996 Assembly Elections in Mararikkulam, a red stronghold. VS’ camp followers see Pinarayi’s hand behind sabotaging VS prospects. At the 18th State Conference of the party, 12 members fielded by VS in the state committee election were defeated and Pinarayi was re-elected as the state secretary. In 2006 and 2011, under pressure from the Pinarayi group, the politburo denied ticket to VS for contesting Assembly elections. However, knuckled under public pressure, the politburo was forced to reverse the decision VS expressed his displeasure over the stand taken by the LDF Government in the ice cream parlour case in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court had turned down his plea for a CBI probe into this two-decade old sex scandal. Advocate KK Venugopal who represented the government, had alleged VS plea as “politically motivated”. Legally Sound VS had launched legal battles against lottery king Santiago Martin. VS used legal remedies in a big way. Following this, the court convicted Kerala Congress (B) leader and former minister R Balakrishna Pillai for corruption he had committed 20 years ago as electricity minister. Public perceived that he belonged to the old guard who can protect the party from the right deviation. One of the most spectacular actions the VS government boldly took was the famous Munnar demolition drive in 2007. The government reclaimed many acres of land illegally occupied by resorts and real estate mafia. VS could give an ideological twist to his crusade against the rightist deviations in the party led by Pinarayi to the media and the public. VS as Chief Minister showed guts to evict land grabbers, including multinationals like Tatas in the upper ranges of Munnar, bulldozing prize properties. A three-member special task force chosen by him undertook the demolitions, facing stiff resistance even from his own party. Later, they came to the heart of Kochi city and demolished the sunshades and structures jutting out to public roads.
Pinarayi and VS were both suspended from the party’s politburo due to infighting over the Munnar issue in 2007. Both were reinstated later. But VS, who was suspended once again in 2009, never made it to the politburo. The party satraps feared to take stringent action against him because of his immense potential to connect with the masses, though alienated from every party forum by the clever moves of his bête noire Pinarayi. In 2015, VS, the then Opposition leader accused Pinarayi Vijayan of being responsible for the crossover of Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and Janata Dal (U) to the United Democratic Front (UDF) from the Left Democratic Front (LDF). The party state secretariat in a resolution against VS stated that his statements went against the interest of the party and the allegations raised against the leadership were wrong and baseless. State secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said the root of his statement is factionalism. The one and only mass leader in the CPI(M), VS was removed from the CPI(M) politburo on grounds of indiscipline committed by him, but allowed to continue in the central committee and hold the post of the Chief Minister. All the leaders from Kerala were vociferous on the anti-party activities of the Chief Minister and called for stringent action against VS. Prakash Karat vehemently held the view that Achuthanandan had deviated from the party line and that he should be punished. The party refused to toe VS’ line that secretary Pinarayi Vijayan had committed corruption in the SNC Lavalin issue and held that it was a politically motivated charge. Party general secretary Sitaram Yechury said that the party had accepted the politburo commission’s report on Kerala, which stated that Achuthanandan had breached CPI(M) party norms. He had been asked to abide by the party’s discipline: “He can articulate his views in the state committee and not outside,” Yechury said. Reports came in the media that VS had walked out of the CPI(M) state conference held at Alappuzha in February, 2015, violating party norms. VS was the party’s primary campaigner in the Kerala polls in which the CPI(M)-led-LDF returned to power. Yet, factionalfeud in the party and Pinarayi’s massive organisational clout forced the CPI(M) to accept Pinarayi as the nominee for the chief ministership. Though the party cited declining health of VS as the reason, the writing on the wall was clear. It was virtually the end of the road for VS.
None other than the party secretary Sitaram Yechuri, who is close to VS, called him the “Fidel Castro of Kerala” immediately after this edition of the Assembly polls in which the LDF romped home comfortably. What prevented Pinarayi from the top post hitherto was his alleged corruption charge in the SNC Lavalin case which hung on his head as a Damocles sword. But this time even Yechury couldn’t catapult VS to Chief Minister’s post but had to knuckle under pressure from state satraps and announce Pinarayi’s name to the chief minister’s post. “Like Castro in Cuba today, VS will continue guiding and inspiring the party,” Yechury said at the press conference in Thiruvananthapuram on May 20, 2016. People had voted for the LDF, not because of its slogan “LDF will come, everything will be alright”, but by the tireless campaign unleashed by VS who led more than 60 rallies across 13 districts in 13 days, travelling about 200 km a day and snatched power from the UDF with 91 seats in the state’s 140 constituencies. Yet, he was sidelined on `health grounds’ much against the wishes of the people. The party machinery under Pinarayi’s iron grip, chose his own men to contest the Assembly elections in a big way. When the D-day came, there were only a few in the party to back VS. The strong backing Pinarayi received from Prakash Karat who always stood by the former sealed VS’s fated. Yechuri did not carry the fight for VS till the last and antagonise the Pinarayi group. A disappointed VS commented, “I will stand as the sentinel of the people of Kerala.” His comment was a potential threat to Pinarayi. VS too found it wise to toe the party line, averting a showdown, possibly his exit, given the political equations in the official party set up. That helped him to wear the mantle of a person not in pursuit of power. But what followed after that had dented his image of a selfless votary of the people. Later, VS was made the Chairman of Kerala State Administrative Reforms Commission. Petty bickering on the venue of the Commission’s office, staff and the like also did not go well with the public. Considering the track record of the Commission, the government were not keen to implement its recommendations. Yet, VS seeking perks and comforts, demolished his self-made image. For Pinarayi, showing generosity to a fallen bête noire didn’t matter since the battle in the party for the one-upmanship is over and VS seems no longer his potential opponent.
But for VS, life after this was a shameless pleading for posts and perks. Photo of VS passing a note to Yechury at Pinarayi’s swearing-in ceremony in media aroused speculation of VS demanding a plum post in the government with a cabinet rank. Pinarayi hails from Kannur where political killings have become a routine affair. He was an accused in the first political murder of RSS activist Vadickal Ramakrishnan. Even as Pinarayi completes two years in office, nearly two dozen political murders were reported from the state, more than half a dozen from his own constituency Pinarayi. Neither Pinarayi, nor VS showed political statesmanship to contain cadres to stop killings. Once VS accepted the chairmanship of the Kerala State Administrative Reforms Commission, he ceased to stand as the `sentinel’ of the people of Kerala. Within a span of two years of the Pinarayi Government, Kerala witnessed the ignominious exit of three ministers, EP Jayarajan, AK Saseendran and Thomas Chandy in the light of media exposés on them. The near silence of VS on the issue speaks volumes on his new mindset. So is his silence on some other issues that rocked the state. A pregnant woman lost her child in the womb in Marxist violence. Liga, a foreign woman was raped and brutally murdered. Sreejith was beaten to death by police, besides political killings of more than two dozen people. Yet, the much tom-tommed relentless crusader in VS is nowhere seen to raise the people’s silent voices. Doubts are aroused whether the god has fallen!