Kerala's Left turn and the road ahead

Scenes at the Central Stadium in Thiruvananthapuram, venue for last week’s swearing-in of the new CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) ministry in Kerala, were not very different from proceedings at any event which sees a Left government take charge in the state after the now-familiar five-year break. The supporters sported blazing red, there were the slogans and the Che Guevara T-shirts, there were cheers for party stalwarts as they appeared on the giant LED screens installed at the venue.

The air of expectation was palpable and familiar; what was also hard to miss was a buzz around what the CPM cadre called the rise of a new leadership which is ready to look past factional interests and is bolder in intent. The LDF’s united campaign ahead of the May 16 Assembly election was one of the key reasons which ensured that the Front won 91 of the state’s 140 constituencies.

Though adversaries of the Left expected factionalism to re-emerge when it decided on the chief minister, the CPM leadership, in one deft move, had the debate sealed in favour of Pinarayi Vijayan; the announcement was made in the presence of his long-time rival in the party V S Achuthanandan himself. Despite signs that the 92-year-old Achuthanandan could still try to emerge as a power centre outside of the new dispensation, the official takeover of reins by Vijayan is likely to define the new party-government dynamics. That the new chief minister himself holds portfolios of home and vigilance is a pointer.

For his supporters, Pinarayi Vijayan is a default choice as chief minister. He had an impressive two-year stint as minister for power in the E K Nayanar-led Cabinet of 1996 and a 17-year-tenure as CPM’s all-powerful state secretary, during which the party faced intense factionalism and an alleged crisis of identity. As chief minister, he heads a Cabinet of 19 ministers, 13 of them newcomers.

Political analysts call the composition bold and see potential in the likes of C Raveendranath (Education) and V S Sunilkumar (Agriculture). The 72-year-old Vijayan was always perceived as a leader for the cadre, not the kind in the charismatic crowd-puller mould. How this image of a doer not quite given to the drama of discourse or the politics of appeasement impacts functioning of the government he leads is something which would be watched with interest.

Three days after taking charge, Excise Minister T P Ramakrishnan clarified that the government has no plans to re-open bars closed by the previous government. The CPM and CPI have repeatedly stated that the LDF favoured abstinence over prohibition of liquor. “The claims of bar closure are misleading because the bars continue to serve beer and wine,” the minister told reporters in Kozhikode.

Guarded in approach
The government will be guarded in its approach to the controversial liquor policy which envisages phased prohibition. It will pursue the possibilities of its proposed awareness campaign on alcoholism and related issues; CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran also backs a new liquor policy but the government is unlikely to totally discard the existing liquor policy, considering the angle of welfare involved.

The new Finance Minister T M Thomas Isaac points to a grim picture with Kerala’s finances – immediate liabilities of Rs 5,784 crore against a treasury balance of Rs 700 crore – and says it will take at least three years for the state to regain financial stability. The aftershocks of corruption scandals that rocked the state politics over the past couple of years will leave an impact; Vijayan has openly sought caution against hangers-on who pose as persons with influence in the government. But he will also do well in bringing closure to the corruption cases which eventually contributed to the poll debacle of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).

By constituting a Cabinet sub-committee to relook at the UDF government’s last-lap clearance of projects with an adverse impact on the environment, Vijayan has indicated what’s in store for persons involved in the decision-making. "The big picture on environment, however, will only emerge with the government’s handling of the Athirappilly Hydro-Electric Project, the Kasturirangan Committee report on conservation of Western Ghats and the controversial proposal for an airport in Aranmula.”

Meanwhile, Vijayan’s endorsement of a Supreme Court-appointed committee’s contention that the Mullaperiyar dam was “stronger” has triggered opposition from the Congress and campaigners who push for construction of a new dam, a demand opposed by Tamil Nadu.

The new government – Vijayan himself called it “one for the people” – is expected to devise a slew of outreach programmes and social welfare schemes even as it tries to push the development line with infrastructure projects. The LDF, in a 35-point vision statement released as part of its election manifesto, had detailed its plans on hunger-eradication programmes, creation of 25 lakh jobs, social security pensions, better public healthcare, free housing schemes and initiatives pegged to women’s empowerment. It also envisages 1,500 startups, an impetus to the electronic hardware industry, completion of railway lines and a renewed focus on road infrastructure.

For the CPM and the Left, a pro-development government in the state will translate as greater political relevance in the national scene. If takeaways from Vijayan’s first round of meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley are any indication, infrastructure projects could be a thrust area. The new leadership, however, will have its task cut out as it tries to ensure better State-Centre ties. While pursuing the state’s interests with the BJP-ruled Centre, back home, the Left has to politically counter the rise of BJP and emergence of a new form of caste-identity politics.

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