Ernakulam: As he travelled the 16km from his village to Kochi city on Monday, Shashi K.C., an electrician and temple-going Hindu, passed through processions with red flags and “Inquilab Zindabad” slogans, before reaching the venue where Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan spoke out against his religion’s old customs.
Pinarayi Vijayan steps up as a mass leader with flood relief, Sabarimala stand
It was a hot day but as Shashi reached, the temporary hall built on what is otherwise a major exhibition ground in the city was filling in with crowds coming in hundreds of buses and autos. The crowd came to attend Vijayan’s “political explanatory” rally, held to set out his position on the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, with the state seeing massive protests against a Supreme Court ruling against a ban on women’s entry.
Slowly, as he spoke, Vijayan channelled his messages one by one in the rally: a direct attack on the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress who supported the protesters, a criticism of certain religious customs, and an outline of the history of social reforms in Kerala.
If such rallies, the fifth in a series, are any indication, Vijayan has effectively redefined himself as a mass leader from the skilful decision-maker he was best known as. From the image of a party strongman who hardly smiled, he is now getting lakhs of people to rally behind him as he keeps firefighting single-handedly on vexed issues like Sabarimala.
In his initial days after taking power in 2016, Vijayan’s failure to stay in the optics was under the scanner. He flanked himself in meetings with bureaucrats, company heads and so on, and at one point, even found himself unwelcome among the locals in the midst of massive devastation unleashed by cyclone Ockhi in December 2017.
But that was last year’s image. Shepherding Kerala amid the century’s worst flooding in the state in August, and positioning himself aggressively against Hindutva forces on Sabarimala, Vijayan has enhanced his standing as a leader of progressive ideas, behind whom voters like Shashi can get behind.
Shashi came to the rally because, he said, Vijayan was able to convince him on Sabarimala. “We have to take a stance, that is a necessity of the current times. We cannot let communal forces have a free run in Kerala,” said Shashi in Malayalam.
To be sure, Vijayan also benefits from unstinting support by his party, the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist). The rally, for instance, cost the party “crores”, according to one local leader who did not want to be named, and came at a considerable risk of irking many Hindu voters.
The party asked at least 15 members from each branch to attend the rally, along with their family and one additional friend’s family, as per the local leader. The calculation is that any fight for the rights of women would ultimately earn the committed support of progressive minds from every community, he said.