Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] Polit Bureau member Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the 70-year-old veteran communist leader from Kannur who steered the party in Kerala for three consecutive terms as State secretary, died on Saturday. Doctors who treated him at Apollo Hospital in Chennai attributed the cause to complications arising from pancreatic cancer. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his Cabinet colleagues have cancelled their European tour to mourn the leader.
In December 2021, at a meeting of the Trivandrum Oncology Club, Mr. Balakrishnan had revealed that he was diagnosed with cancer in 2019 during a routine diabetic check. Later, the CPI(M) sent him to MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, U.S., for advanced treatment.
Mr. Balakrishnan rarely let the ravages of the disease obstruct his work. Gruelling chemotherapy sessions and a bleak prognosis failed to dampen his spirit. He executed his political duties even when steeped in chronic physical discomfort. Later, the party elected M.V. Govindan as the State secretary in his stead.
Mr. Balakrishnan’s tenure as State party chief saw the CPI(M) winning two successive terms. Left supporters had hailed the achievement as a watershed in Kerala politics. They had credited Mr. Balakrishnan and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for authoring the victory against heavy odds, including a ‘recriminatory campaign’ run by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In the run-up to the local body elections in 2021, he attracted controversy by going on leave briefly for treatment. Mr. Balakrishnan’s critics ascribed his brief absence to the legal tangles that dogged his sons. The CPI(M) had vehemently denied the ‘politically motivated’ imputation. The then Left Democratic Front (LDF) convener A. Vijayaraghavan substituted Mr. Balakrishnan as party secretary. At the zenith of the controversy, Mr. Balakrishnan said, "The law would take its course". He added that communists were inured to vituperative attacks on their person, character, and kin.
A storied political journey
Mr. Balakrishnan’s journey from a Left student activist to CPI(M) State secretary spanned 52 years. A graduate of University College, Thiruvananthapuram, he was the Students’ Federation of India’s (SFI) State committee secretary during the politically turbulent 1973-79 period.
During the 1975-77 internal Emergency period, the Congress-Communist Party of India (CPI) government in Kerala imprisoned him under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, 1970, for 16 months. Mr. Balakrishnan also rose in the ranks of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and was the youth organisation's first national president. Later, he served as CPI(M) district secretary, Kannur.
Mr. Balakrishnan was elected to the Assembly five times in 1982, 1987, 2001, 2006, and 2011 from the Thalassery constituency. From 2001 to 2006 and from 2011 to 2016, he was the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the House.
In 2006, Mr. Balakrishnan joined the V.S. Achuthanandan government as Home and Tourism Minister. At the time, Mr. Vijayan was CPI(M) 's State secretary. It was a period when factional conflicts dogged the CPI(M).
By some accounts, he was instrumental in easing the purportedly strained relations between Mr. Vijayan and Mr. Achuthanandan and preventing the government and party from drifting apart dangerously. Mr. Balakrishnan's tenure as Home Minister saw the police adopting community policing strategies, focussing on law enforcers winning citizens' trust to pre-empt crime and solve pressing civic issues.
For many journalists, Mr. Balakrishnan was an immensely accessible, gentlemanly and genial presence in the CPI(M). However, he never let on anything other than the party line.
He always appeared calm and contained at press conferences, rarely striking an abrasive manner with the media. The communist leader also had strong bonds with politicians across the aisle. Mr. Balakrishnan had shrewd political instinct and a fine-tuned sense of the ebb and flow of Kerala politics.
Many of his party colleagues viewed him as second only to Mr. Vijayan in the CPI(M)‘s Kerala unit and a likely political successor to the Chief Minister. However, time would have it otherwise. Nevertheless, Mr. Balakrishnan’s political message and manner have left a lasting imprint on Kerala’s political landscape. His wife, Vinodini, and sons Binoy and Bineesh Kodiyeri survive him.