When Pinarayi Vijayan the Chief Minister of Kerala shouted at media persons on Monday asking them to ‘get out’ of a conference hall minutes before a bilateral peace talk between the CPI(M) and the BJP was set to begin, the communist strong man was once again opening up a very old wound.
More importantly Vijayan seem to have forgotten the sanctity of the high office he holds which calls for the utmost levels of civility in public conduct that enshrines on him the first among equals status.
For a man who is yet to come out of the party secretary mould that had engulfed him for 17 long years, this was perhaps the lowest he has stooped in recent times, in terms of public behavior.
But Vijayan is no novice. He is the seasoned politician, the man who decides what should happen not just in the government but also the final port of call when it comes to matters that are of crucial importance to the CPI(M).
It is only a well known secret that Kodiyeri Balakrishnan as the state secretary has only little say when Vijayan is close at hand, although the party machinery would want us to believe otherwise.
“That this was done in the presence of someone like Kodiyeri clearly has its significance. This is no spurt of the moment reaction and Vijayan is not an immatured politician to do so. It is a concerted effort by Vijayan to send out a message that he is the omnipotent force in the state and he has picked on the media to do it because the credibility of the media is at the lowest now, so they are a natural and east target to express one’s authoritarian trait,’’ says PA Pouran, noted social activist.
Pouran’s claim that it is not a one-off anomaly nor a sudden spurt of emotion gone wrong seems to be right, though the party and a section of the journalistic fraternity that is engaged in pushing a particular ideology would want the rest of the world to believe otherwise.
For instance, a few months ago when former Union minister E Ahmed passed away, Vijayan’s secretaries had called the local reporters in Kannur to take the Chief Minister’s obituary response at the Government guest house.
Local reporters recollect how an exactly similar Vijayan fumed at the media crew for waiting inside the guest house building rather than in the hot noon sun outside, much to the embarrassment of the Rajya Sabha MP KK Ragesh and other local communist leaders.
So if someone compares the present Chief Minister of the state to the notoriously autocratic and imperialistic CP Ramaswamy Iyer, the last Diwan of the then Travancore State and a staunch anti-communist, perhaps he cannot be faulted.
On record a few months back, Vijayan’s authoritarian behavior had become so suffocating at the state assembly, that the opposition leader openly compared the Chief Minister to the then Diwan.
From asking the Opposition to mind its own business inside the state assembly to spitefully asking the media to get lost from doing its primary job of keeping the people informed, Vijayan seems to be moving on a very fast lane to self destruct some of the strong convictions of democracy that his party had so carefully and painfully built in this state over painstaking years of struggle.
“We have had Left Chief Ministers like EK Nayanar who used to speak in rustic tone but it never hurt anyone because people knew Nayanar’s intentions. But Vijayan with his actions has lost that democratic face. He hardly believes in those institutions and that is reflected in his behavior with the media too,’’ says CR Neelakandan, noted political analyst.
No love between Pinarayi and media
Though many would argue that Monday’s super heated performance was a way to vent his frustration on the media, for having gone to town with the news of the Governor summoning him, its difficult to completely subscribe to that argument.
The reasons are simple. Pinarayi Vijayan hardly wears his heart on his sleeve, precisely the reason to believe that Monday’s action was not a spontaneous outburst but the continuation of a well thought of strategy to discredit the media and with it put on a gag that could have far reaching implications in days to come.
Otherwise, how does one explain the Chief Minister’s office summoning the general manger of the Mascot hotel seeking a written explanation on why the media was allowed inside and the unprecedented move by the staff at the Government Guest House to deny entry to media persons at a similar meeting on Tuesday?
“Whether there is a gag order on the media is something which time will reveal. But if that is what the government aims to do, then the media in Kerala will oppose it tooth and nail come what may,’’ said C Narayanan, General Secretary of Kerala Union of Working Journalist (KUWJ).
That Vijayan has a long standing duel with the media is a part of the folklore in Kerala’s political circles. But what makes this duel uglier than before is the fact that Vijayan is no more a party secretary who had the liberty to cross certain barriers at will but is the Chief Minister of not just the Communist Party of India (Maxist) but certainly the entire state of which the media is also an integral part. Over the last one year, Vijayan seem to have forgotten it.
“There is no doubt that Vijayan has not been able to make that transition from the party secretary to a Chief Minister who represents all. He behaves like the helmsman of a Stalinist party. I presume he still honestly believes there is a media syndicate working against him,’’ says veteran journalist BRP Bhaskar.
There are certainly reasons for Vijayan to hate the media, a part of the blame which the media itself needs to carry on its shoulders.
For Vijayan during the 1996-98 era or even before it was not a media hater. Rather he was the highly receptive Power Minister of the state whom the same media praised as one of the best in the business. But the SNC Lavlin case turned it all around.
With speculations taking form that Vijayan had taken crores of rupees as kickback from a Canadian company for modernization of generators at three hydro electric projects in the state all hell broke lose among media.
This was a time when Kerala had less than one third of the media presence that one sees today. Online media was not even heard of and private news channels were still a fascination for many. But Vijayan no doubt was subjected to one of the worst witch hunts seen in Kerala media’s history and the entire move was remote controlled by his own nemesis in the party VS Achuthananthan.
While Achuthananthan and his team knew how to use the media to serve their best interests, Vijayan fell back not just in his dreams to adorn the Chief Minister’s chair but also fell out forever with the media.
Infact it would not be an over estimation to say that the souring Vijayan-media relation was the biggest fallout of the terrible power struggle between Vijayan and Achuthananthan in early 2000s.
“I think Vijayan strongly feels that it was the media coverage and the media’s intervention that inhibited his efforts to tighten control over the party. See he had even succeeded in using the state party to block VS candidature in 2006. But it was only due to media’s sustained writings against him that got the Polit Bureau to take a deviant stand. I don’t think he has forgotten all that or ever will,’’ added Bhaskar.
While stories after stories were willfully planted against Vijayan in the Malayalam media with even its English translation being sent to Delhi to make a case against him in the all powerful Central Committee of the party and then the Polit Bureau, Achuthananthan kept smiling as his sinister political strategy almost worked to create a terrible image of an eternally tainted party secretary.
Vijayan’s pack back time
But then the tables turned as the party stood tall as it rightly had to with an exonerated and all powerful Pinarayi Vijayan in 2013. As Achuthananthan faded into political irrelevance following the last assembly elections, Vijayan got what he always eyed for which is the CM’s chair. But then he had the unfinished business to settle with an old foe, the media.
As a sign of things to come, Vijayan the Chief Minister stopped regular cabinet briefings saying that the pointers of important decisions would be given to the media through the PRD’s website. He also ensured that personal staff of ministers do not entertain media persons and placed stringent regulations for the same.
The media that was used to Oommen Chandy’s extravagant indulgence and generosity to entertain even the most twisted queries were shocked by this blockade. Close on heels came the attempts to keep the cabinet minutes out of the preview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
If Vijayan set the ball rolling, the reverberations were felt elsewhere too as a section of the judiciary ousted the media from the courts and court reporting was nothing short of a ‘glove-off violence’ experience.
Though there is hardly any concrete proof to show whether the Chief Minister or his best men in the party had a role to play in vitiating the relation between the scribes and the men in robes, there is circumstantial evidence to put the CM and the top brass of the party in the dock.
“See following news reports MK Damodaran was unable to become the CM’s advisor. Clearly a section of the judiciary had an issue but then I feel both Vijayan and the party were only too happy fan the dissent,’’ says a leading lawyer who has CPM connections.
What had raised eyebrows were the peace talks that Vijayan initiated between the media and the lawyers which in itself was a perfect hogwash. That Vijayan had no commitment to set the relation between two important pillars of the democracy right was evident from his comment when he said that “it would be better if the media does not go to he court to beat or get beaten”.
That till today the relation continues as a sour one stands gives credence to the argument of who set the whole issue in motion. Inspite of this wretched relation there is one momentary coziness that Vijayan showed, an example of his political opportunism.
Just before going to polls in 2016, the same Vijayan leading the much hyped ‘Nava Kerala Yathra’ delayed his press meet by 30 minutes at the Press club and waited patiently for the news channels to go live with the 10 am bulletin, a rare moment when he needed the media more than the media needing him.
It is only an irony that he wants to banish the same cameras which took out his message to the people on the eve of the elections, and drew our voters in his favour, out of sight now.