“You are the hero,” the crowd cheered as Kerala chief minister VS Achuthanandan, 87, was helped on to the dais for a meeting 100 km north of Thirvunanthapuram last week. Once a hardboiled Stalinist, VS — his nickname — is presumably everything that an allegedly modern, c like Kerala’s must loathe.
But VS is a darling of the masses, though hated by senior CPI(M) leaders, who are often cornered by his strong-headed politics. However, his popularity among the cadre has prevented the party from expelling him. Party workers forced the leadership to give him the ticket after it was initially denied to him.
“You are our leader,” shouted the crowd as VS began, his eyes closed, head slanted and face twisted in a sarcastic frown.
That sarcasm is meant equally for his opponents within the party — secretary Pinarayi Vijyan tops the list – as it is for Congress leaders. “I chased him for two decades and he is now jailed. I will jail many more,” VS declared, referring to a former United Democratic Front minister who has been convicted on corruption charges pursued by VS, first as leader of opposition and later as CM. The emphasis on ‘I’ is unmistakable. ‘He is different’ is the message that he drives home — in this meeting and nearly 140 others he will address across the state.
VS has made this election all about himself. What marks out this man, who is prone to making angry, eccentric remarks but does yoga nevertheless? “I don’t womanise, I don’t drink, and I eat modest,” he said recently.
An ascetic who keeps off sex and alcohol and is a crusader against corruption — this is the image of himself that VS has sold to a lot of the 33 million Malayalees. According to a survey by Asianet, 48% people want him to be the chief minister again though only 41% want his party in power.
The irony is that Malayalees are not exactly ascetic. Annual per capita liquor consumption among Malayalees is one of the world’s highest — 8.3 litres. Malayalees eat 1.5 million kg of meat and 10 million eggs a day — the highest per capita consumption in India. Sexual permissiveness is not quantifiable but Kerala is not conservative, given the highly mobile workforce and spouses living long, separated lives. But teetotalers and ascetics are revered in society.
“VS is capitalising on the moral angst of Malayalees, who want in others what they can’t practise,” says a Left-leaning intellectual. “VS is claiming moral supremacy over all other leaders, in all parties, including CPM,” says Appukuttan Vallikkunnu, who used to be a powerful party leader. “A spate of sexual crimes has unnerved the people.”
VS then delivered the punch line of all his speeches. “I will handcuff sexual offenders and parade them on the streets.” He stretched the word ‘parade,’ allowing the crowd the time to erupt. The context is the recent resurfacing of a sex scandal in which Muslim League leader PK Kunhalikkutti allegedly bought the silence of a woman he allegedly had a liaison with. The subtext is an ongoing sexual harassment probe within the CPM against leader P Sasi.
Until he became opposition leader in 2001, VS was a quintessential Marxist whom only the cadre could relate to. Higher-class Leftists frowned upon his working-class humour, laced with double meanings. When the party organisation gradually slipped out of his control and his hostility with one-time protégée Vijayan grew, VS repackaged himself for the masses. A perceived fight against corruption and sexual offences — also a proclaimed adherence to sexual morality – defined his new image. VS has placed himself above the party, which is charged on both counts.
The Leftists like him because he is seen as taking on the corrupt within the party. Left-haters like him because he is seen as exposing his own party. That conveniently deviated the whole campaign from any discussion on the five years of his rule, and any politics for that matter, as both the fronts are lecturing on morality. The Congress is trying to demolish his larger-than-life image by unearthing wrongdoings by his son and VS’s own compromises with the corrupt within the party.
However, VS’s current sense of triumph will fade once the results come. History is more likely to remember him as a leader who lost the polls with his obstinacy and one who destabilised a strong party. But then, history is not his priority right now.