The purportedly self-effacing political demeanour of M.V. Govindan was apparent at his inaugural press conference as the Kerala State Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Thiruvananthapuram on August 26. An emergency State committee meeting had just elected him as the new party secretary to replace Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who was later shifted to Chennai for treatment.
Mr. Govindan, 69, rejected the suggestion that his elevation portended a shift in the CPI(M)’s politics. Instead, he extolled the virtues of collective leadership. He stressed ideological and organisational cohesion on the political battlefield, while also displaying a disdain for placing the individual above the party.
Born in a working class family in Morazha, Kannur, Mr. Govindan faced political and personal struggles in his life. That Mr. Govindan had once stopped his car to greet his mother, who was engaged in road laying work, is a party anecdote.
He had left his job as a physical training teacher in a lower primary school in his village to become a full-time worker of the Kerala State Yuvajana Federation (KSYF), a precursor of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI). In the party, Mr. Govindan is regarded as an autodidact and self-taught Marxist theoretician. A CPI(M) insider said Mr. Govindan had never totally shrugged off his teacher’s mantle, given his active presence in party study classes. Over time, he earned the label Govindan Master — a hark back to his teaching days. “The new secretary tends to view society and politics primarily through the prism of Marxist thought. However, he is acutely aware of the exigencies of realpolitik and factors them in decisions,” said the insider.
Lessons from the past
It was not always smooth going for Mr. Govindan in the party. In the late 1980s, his name was reportedly linked to M.V. Raghavan, a communist veteran from Kannur who had triggered a fractious ideological strife in the CPI(M) by proposing an alliance with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Kerala Congress. The deviation from the party line led to Raghavan’s expulsion.
By some accounts, the CPI(M) disciplined Mr. Govindan and other leaders who allegedly sympathised with Raghavan’s political tack. The party soon reinstated Mr. Govindan as CPI(M) Kannur district secretary. Possibly drawing lessons from the past, Mr. Govindan hunkered down when the stormy intra-party strife in the CPI(M) saw Pinarayi Vijayan and V.S. Achuthanandan on opposite poles.
Party followers believe Mr. Govindan struggled to remain above the fray and sought refuge behind the party’s constitution and organisational dogma. In his writings, Mr. Govindan has displayed a deep aversion for the Kannur-style confrontational politics that he felt spawned tit-for-tat violence and criminality.
He has also argued against the misuse of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). However, the arrest of two youth hailing from party families in Kozhikode under UAPA on suspicion of Maoist association had reportedly cast many veterans, including Mr. Govindan, in a moral and political dilemma. It did not help them that Chief Minister Vijayan justified the arrests.
Mr. Govindan was not always above controversy. The Congress had blamed his wife, P.K. Shyamala, a former chairperson of the Anthoor municipality in Kannur, for the suicide of an expatriate businessman allegedly due to official antipathy. Mr. Govindan reportedly faced criticism in the party over the incident.
He ascends to the helm of the CPI(M) in Kerala at a time when the party and the ruling front face several challenges. Foremost, Mr. Govindan will have to steer the CPI(M) through its volatile disputes with Kerala Governor Arif Muhammad Khan. It will be imperative for him to maintain the apparent synergy between the party and government achieved by Mr. Balakrishnan and Mr. Vijayan.
Mr. Govindan also faces the challenge of mobilising the party machinery and civil society to insulate the government from the Opposition’s “recriminatory campaign” and prepare the ground for the Lok Sabha election in 2024. Another task before him is to stem the growth of right-wing forces by popularising progressive ideals through mass campaigns.