Colas, Windows, Techno Parks, what’s next in his line of fire? Wait and watch. Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan believes it’s this fiery Marxism that endears him to the people, writes KA Shaji
A hardliner in personal life too, VS begins his day with 20 minutes of pre-dawn yoga followed by three idlis. Lunch is rice and vegetables; dinner is three rotis and a banana
The CPM veteran’s decision to enforce a blanket ban on the production and retailing of Coca Cola and Pepsi in the state may have been quashed by the Kerala High Court, and his attempts to go on appeal before the Supreme Court may also not succeed. But, as a doughty fighter, he has succeeded in winning Kerala’s public consciousness in favour of his decision to ban the colas, whose manufacturers’ exploitation of the Palakkad groundwater has forced the residents of the district to walk miles to collect potable water. As a recent opinion poll conducted by a television news channel found, Achuthanandan’s decision to ban colas has only increased his popularity. He is yet to take to task the party’s youth activists for attacking cola godowns in the state saying they would not allow the mncs to re-enter the Kerala market.
Apart from being the first chief minister to impose a ban on Pepsi and Coke, Achuthanandan, affectionately called VS by his comrades, is also making headlines by logging the mighty Microsoft out of Kerala schools and saying a firm ‘no’ to investors with shadowy backgrounds. That the Achuthanandan effect is hitting where it hurts most was evident recently when US Undersecretary of International Trade Franklin Lavin wrote to the Union commerce secretary warning the Centre of a possible fall in US investment if US companies’ interests were not protected.
Following Achuthanandan’s decision to promote free gnu/Linux software, nearly 1.5 million students in the state’s 2,650 government and government-aided high schools will no longer use the Windows platform for computer education. About 56,000 high school teachers are now acquainting themselves with the Linux platform as a result. “There is no ban on any it company in Kerala. However, we wish to make Kerala the foss (Free and Open Source Software) destination of India,” said Achuthanandan, in response to criticism. In 2000, as Leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly, he was the first Indian leader to have discussions with free software guru Richard Stallman. Stallman is now one of Kerala’s it advisors, much to the embarrassment of Achuthanandan’s party rivals led by state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan. Vijayan’s group had favoured introducing Microsoft software in schools during the AK Antony regime. However, Achuthanandan stuck to Linux and warned Antony against Microsoft.
His decision to re-examine the Internet City proposal with Dubai’s Tecom Group to set up a smart city and an exclusive global it park in Kochi over a 100-acre area at an investment of $ 300 million also evoked widespread criticism. Achuthanandan detractors accused him of taking Kerala back to the Stone Age. But, to the utter shock of his adversaries, the promoters agreed to strike off clauses in the agreement they signed with the previous government that were found objectionable by the new chief minister.
Achuthanandan’s copybook Communism has been the reason why his rivals can’t stand him. But the same quality had them begging him to start their poll campaign
His opposition to the Internet City clauses has now drawn supporters from unexpected quarters. This week, the Union commerce ministry has its guns on the abuse of Special Economic Zone (SEZ) incentives. Predictably, some of his other decisions have led to Achuthanandan being labelled an anti-development CM. Like when he directed the state labour department to ensure that all companies in the state should shut shop on August 15. Objections raised by bpos located in Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram and at Info Park in Kochi had no effect. He still opposes the Rs 7,000-crore express highway project and another multi-crore venture for mineral sand mining along the Alappuzha coast. Both projects have severe environmental consequences and his opposition to them has earned him encomiums for being a ‘green chief minister’. The lobbies, which influenced the previous udf governments to sanction the two controversial projects, are now active, and as a result some of his Cabinet colleagues have started diluting their opposition to these projects. But Achuthanandan is not ready to relent.
Born on October 20, 1923 to Sankaran and Accamma in Alappuzha, Achuthanandan faced poverty from a very young age. Orphaned early, circumstances forced him to discontinue his studies in Class vii and join his elder brother working at his tailoring shop. Later he earned his living meshing coir at a local rope factory. “I may have been able to continue even without buying books but I didn’t have the strength to starve in school everyday,’’ he has said. However, he has remained an ardent reader. He began his political career as a trade union activist and joined the Congress in 1938. Like most Congress leaders of that time, he was attracted by Communist ideology. He joined the Communist Party of India in 1940 and soon became the Alappuzha district secretary. As a freedom fighter, he was imprisoned for over five years and spent a further four-and-a-half years underground. He found a position for himself in the history of the Communist movement in Kerala by actively participating in the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising where a police bayonet was driven through his leg. And now he is one of the three surviving leaders of the undivided cpi, who walked out of the national council in 1964 to float the CPM.
The CPM veteran is also a hardliner in his personal life. Known for his strict sense of discipline, his day begins with 20 minutes of pre-dawn yoga followed by a breakfast of three idlis. Lunch is a handful of rice and vegetables; dinner (always before 6pm) is three rotis and a banana. He sleeps for exactly five hours a day. “My strict diet helps me walk kilometres and climb hills even at this age,’’ he said once. He is not a fan of either music or films. Recently induced to watch a Malayalam movie with a heavily political theme, he later revealed that he was watching a film for the first time in 30 years. His wife Vasumathi worked as a nurse; she retired about 15 years ago. Son Arun, an mca holder, is deputy director of a government firm in Thiruvananthapuram. Achuthanandan’s daughter Asha holds a PhD in pharmacology and works at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Biotechnology.
The main reason for Achuthanandan’s popularity is his simplicity and straightforwardness. Also, it is said that he has never been known to hesitate to raise his voice whenever he discovers irregularities. And if later proven wrong, he has always been quick to publicly acknowledge it. Whether it is the drinking water scarcity in Plachimada or the multi-million dollar mnc software war, Achuthanandan is heard with rapt attention because the Kerala voter is confident of him. He has relentlessly pursued corruption cases and harassed mafia that deal in ganja, sandalwood and land. The sand mafia and the sandalwood mafia, the plantation companies encroaching on public land, the tourist resort operators who ravaged God’s Own Country to fill their coffers, the sex lords who exploited women and minor girls, the private hospital owners who built a business of trading in human organs — all have met their match in this diminutive man. Political leaders, who compromised with these elements for their personal safety and growth, cynically describe Achuthanandan as a fool who rushes in where angels feared to tread. “I have gone after several of them... like the owners of the steel smelting factories... the cola factories, looting groundwater when people did not have water to drink. So, these forces opposed to me have sent agents here to ensure that my votes could be bought over. But the people’s political reasoning cannot be bought like that,” he told this correspondent during the last Assembly election when asked about the free flow of money to ensure his defeat from Malampuzha constituency.
Nearly 1.5 million school students will no longer use Windows for computer education. About 56,000 teachers are now brushing up their Linux skills
His appointment of economist Prabhat Patnaik as vice-chairman of the state planning board is perceived to be an attempt to address the agrarian crisis plaguing the state, which has seen a large number of farmers’ suicides in Wayanad district. The government is now floating an agricultural commission, a debt relief commission and a price stability commission to tide over the crisis. As immediate relief, he ordered the waiver of all loans to farmers who had committed suicide and a moratorium on all agricultural loans. As with his anti-cola stance, the courts stayed the implementation of the Bill on self-financing educational institutions but it boosted the morale of dalits and economically weaker sections. The Bill had set aside 50 percent seats in professional colleges for Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, Backward Classes and economically weaker sections. The Kerala Assembly passed the Bill unanimously but the private college managements appealed in the Kerala High Court and the Supreme Court.
But the challenges from his party colleagues are yet to ebb. Should Kerala have a Buddha-type pro-reform CM like Pinarayi Vijayan or a doctrinaire and Stalinist VS, asks www.pinarayivijayan.org, a new website promoted by his party rivals. In the 1996 Assembly election, his adversaries ensured that Achuthanandan lost in Mararikkulam constituency even as the party won a thumping majority. He first won Malampuzha in 2001, but the Congress-led United Democratic Front took the Assembly majority. In the run-up to the state elections earlier this year, the pre-poll drama saw his rivals try to cold shoulder him by denying him a ticket. The cadre, however, saw it as punishment for doing all the right things. Ultimately, his popularity forced the Vijayan faction to eat humble pie and the party declared his candidature from Malampuzha. On the day he was to take over as chief minister, the party’s Malayalam mouthpiece Desabhimani carried photographs of all ministers on page one except Achuthanandan’s. The paper also carried a front-page advertisement from a business tycoon wishing the new government luck. This tycoon is not known for his transparent dealings and had been on Achuthanandan’s wrong side. Party sources say the businessman splurged crores to ensure his defeat.
It is Achuthanandan’s copybook non-pragmatic Communism that has been the reason why his rivals and critics can’t stand him. The same quality endowed him with such influence that rivals, MA Baby and TM Thomas Isaac, begged him to visit their constituencies and inaugurate their campaign. As a disciplined party cadre, Achuthanandan went and spoke for about three hours in each constituency on the party manifesto. At the end of the speech, he urged voters to cast their ballot for party candidates.
Achuthanandan’s supporters range from tribal leader CK Janu and women’s leader K. Ajitha to women and youth. To Kerala’s Marxists, he is one of the last of the galaxy of stalwarts like AK Gopalan, BT Ranadive, Pramode Dasgupta and EMS Namboodiripad. His politics is also known to be shrewd and one that doesn’t favour opportunism. The CM’s political line was proved correct when former Congress leader K. Karunakaran’s Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran) was denied entry into the ldf. There was considerable pressure from the Vijayan group to ally with Karunakaran. According to Achuthanandan, such an alliance would smack of political opportunism.
“Those who are opposed to my political philosophy and style of approach never missed opportunities to shower me with abusive language. Comic programmes being aired by Malayalam television channels are also trying to portray me in poor light. On most occasions, they stoop to the level of character assassination. However, I have no vengeance against anybody who is involved in such activities. There is no need to be insensitive to the artists behind these comedy programmes, who make a meagre earning out of them to support their families,’’ he said in response to the public outcry against television programmes, which showed him in poor light.
Achuthanandan may be the lone CM in the country who has no friends in any industrial house. And unlike Buddhadeb, he is proud of his Communist lineage. Addressing a rally in Hyderabad recently, he remembered the sacrifice of more than 4,000 Communists who took part in the Telangana rebellion.
“I wish to salute the martyrs who bring me courage to decide in favour of the poor. My government would strive to achieve what the martyrs of Telangana dreamed about,” he said.