Ahead of Kerala Assembly polls, CM Vijayan faces multiple challenges

The Vijayan government will forever be remembered, not for the good things it has done but for trying to muzzle the freedom of expression
With months to go for the Kerala Assembly elections (due April-May 2021), Kerala Chief Minister and proud Communist Pinarayi Vijayan is having a torrid time of it. Otherwise known as an able administrator and undogmatic to a fault, he has been battling multiple challenges in the past six months of his tenure.

Take the latest, wholly avoidable controversy. The government amended Section 118A of the Kerala Police Act to impose rigorous punishment — five years imprisonment and a fine of Rs 10,000 — on anyone found to be bullying, insulting or disgracing individuals through any content. The offence included forwarding such content. The state cabinet had on October 21 decided to bring in a penal provision against those engaging in character assassination or misogyny on social media. But the scope of Section 118A was more sweeping. Worse, it had remarkable resemblance to a similar central law the Supreme Court had struck down earlier (Shreya Singhal  versus Union of India on Section 66 of the Information Technology Act 2000). As outrage broke out — both at the sloppy drafting of the law as well as its actual intent — the government announced it was withdrawing the amendment. But the damage was done. The Vijayan government will forever be remembered, not for the good things it has done but for trying to muzzle the freedom of expression.

In the four years the Vijayan government has been in office, Kerala has had to battle cyclones (Ockhi and now, possibly, Nivar), two floods and two epidemiological disasters — Nipah and Covid-19. While its initial management of Covid-19 won it plaudits, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was only quoting the chief minister when he lashed out at the “carelessness” of some states that led to its further spread: Pinarayi himself conceded that “initially, everyone hailed Kerala for good work in containing Covid-19 as we took necessary precautions. But we became complacent that is why we’ve reached the present situation.” At one point Kerala had only 100 Covid-19-positive cases left — if it had been diligent then, it could have stamped the infection out altogether. Kerala also scored high on the compassion index when it came to handling the problem of migrant labour.

The jewel in the crown has to be the state’s achievement  on the infrastructure front. The 444 km GAIL Kochi-Koottanad-Bengaluru-Mangaluru pipeline project (KKBMPL) was commissioned in 2013. But hit by problems of land acquisition, campaigns by religious groups  and other kinds of political obstructions in North Kerala, the company was on the verge of winding up the project as in the intervening  years it had been able to build only 39 km. The project was crucial for the future of Petronet LNG’s terminal in Kochi, to ensure natural gas supply for domestic and industrial use in Kerala and South India. Although 15 months late, the project could be commissioned any time now as only 4 km of the pipeline is left to be constructed. The credit for this should go entirely to the Vijayan government.

But the downside is the macroeconomic anxieties in Kerala. The unemployment rate of the state is 9.53 per cent, much above the national average of 6.1 per cent. As many as 3.6 million youths are unemployed — including 7,303 medical graduates, 44,559 engineering graduates, 6,413 MBA graduates and 3,771 MCA. Covid-19 has only accentuated unemployment as Gulf migrants return home, putting more pressure on the jobs front. Kerala has cumulative debt touching Rs 1.71 trillion. And on the social and religious front, the state is facing seriously divisive strains.

When you add to this the fact that the Chief Minister’s Office has been directly drawn into a gold smuggling racket with a bureaucrat who was the CM’s right-hand man in custody, it makes for a depressing epitaph of a government that started out with the best of intentions. State Finance Minister Thomas Isaac has led from the front in demanding the centre follow financial federalism in letter and spirit, especially relating to the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Going against its ideological grain, Kerala appointed Gita Gopinath advisor to the government although for the Left, she was deeply entrenched in an institution that is a bulwark of neo-liberalism, the International Monetary Fund.

There is hardly any doubt that the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by Vijayan and the CPI(M) is on its way out. But was it a government that curtailed the freedom of the opposition and the media, threw Kerala’s economy under a bus and prevented the Centre from rolling out projects for the benefit of the people of Kerala? That is too harsh a judgment for a state that battled natural disaster bravely and leveraged the strong foundations of its health and education system to protect its people as best it could.

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