Pinarayi Vijayan is starting as the chief minister of Kerala on a strong note. Kerala ministers who took oath on Wednesday offer the right mix of everything a first-time chief minister can hope for – experience and people with proven track records in their own fields. More important, he’ll have less trouble from smaller coalition partners that were a constant pain for the outgoing Oommen Chandy government. The LDF’s dominant mandate with 91 out of 140 seats is a clear advantage.
But Vijayan has big challenges too. The first is within his party – the corrective force led by VS Achuthanandan, which would act in full swing if Vijayan fails to get his act right and deliver on poll-promises. Second, Vijayan’s relationship with the BJP-ruled centre is crucial. If he fails to work out a good rapport with the Modi-administration, it’ll be difficult for him to secure funds to push ahead the capital-intensive development plans of the southern state including new roads, ports and airport. The Chandy government had nothing much to show on the progress card as far as major development initiatives were concerned.
As a political leader, Vijayan doesn’t command the popularity and public-support of Achuthanandan, nor the backing enjoyed by Oommen Chandy from Muslim, Christian minority pressure groups that have a significant say (constituting 45 percent of the population) in the affairs of the state. But, Vijayan is known as a taskmaster in Kerala’s CPM circles and is known to get the work done without creating much hype. Vijayan’s brief stint as the power minister in 1996-1998 is regarded as an above-average performance.The only black mark was the SNC-Lavlin episode. Vijayan, as power minister, was one of the accused in the multi-crore scam related to the award of hydroelectric infrastructure contract to Canadian company SNC-Lavalin in 1995, which resulted in huge losses to the state exchequer. On 5 November 2013, Vijayan and 6 other accused were cleared of charges by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Special Court for lack of evidence. But, his image took a hit during the allegations and counter allegations.
Once the honeymoon period is over, there is a big to-do list that awaits Vijayan, some of which have to be addressed in the immediate future and some over the medium-to-long term. These are both political and economical.
First, reinstating the feeling of security in the state that has shaken following the Jisha murder case in Perumbavoor is a major task. Chandy government’s failure to arrest the accused in the case despite weeks after the daylight murder hurt its prospects in the state-polls, especially among women voters. One of the promises Achuthanandan – CPM’s star campaigner in state elections – in the run up to the polls was bringing justice to Jisha once the LDF government comes to power. In a recent presser, Achuthanandan reminded Vijayan about this promise by saying he will continue to remain as the ‘sentinel’ of people of Kerala, taking up their issues. On Wednesday, Vijayan announced that the government will set up a new investigating team to nab Jisha's murderers. But the question is can Vijayan ensure speedy justice to Jisha? Remember, this is the first time Vijayan has addressed this issue after securing the mandate. If Vijayan fails to fulfill that promise, VS is sure to hit back.
Second, Vijayan has to get the formula right for state’s liquor policy. The UDF’s flip-flop on liquor policy has done much damage to the Chandy government. There wasn’t consensus clearly even within the Congress party and UDF on how to take ahead the promised liquor ban. The government’s move of closing down a majority of bars but letting only the ones with five-star rating to continue with liquor license backfired. Instead of a blanket ban, the government could have come with a phased reduction. In October, the High Court directed the state to re-open 250 bars. The frequent flip-flops and the alleged bribery case against UDF’s finance minister KM Mani turned the liquor-policy as a forgettable episode for UDF government. Will Vijayan get the solution right?
Third, Kerala’s economy, largely dependent on foreign remittances and tourism, is on the verge of a crisis. The state has debt of over Rs 154,000 crore, of which 60 percent will have to be repaid in five years. According to a CAG report tabled in Kerala assembly in February, the state has failed to meet fiscal deficit targets and capital expenditure on development declined during the last four years while debt liability increased.
Kerala has heavily depended on borrowed funds since 2011-12 even for meeting primary expenditure. This raises the big question. How will Vijayan find money for capital expenditure necessary to give a leg up to the state’s economy? According to the CAG report, capital expenditure on development showed a declining trend since 2012-13. Out of the 80 percent non-plan revenue expenditure, 60 percent was incurred on salaries, wages, pension and interest payments.
Fourth, the Vijayan-government will also face additional challenges to accommodate the problem of returning Malayalis from Persian Gulf on account of massive job losses in the region in the aftermath of crash in oil-prices. Till this time, the state doesn’t have a strong industry base to give employment to its people – one of the reasons why there is a exodus of talent to other states from Kerala. Can Vijayan assure the people with employment generation?
The bottom line is this: Vijayan, 72, has tough days ahead to steer the economy and also to tackle the immediate political challenges. Vijayan’s task will be even more difficult if infighting begins within CPM’s state unit and can get worse if Vijayan fails to find an equation with the Narendra Modi government at the Centre.
But then Vijayan, the son of a toddy tapper, who fought his way through constant struggles within and outside his party, is no stranger to such challenges.
Updated Date: May 25, 2016 21:36 PM