KK Shailaja’s exit and Kerala’s future

Relegation of Shailaja to the post of the party chief whip in the Assembly adds insult to injury. This is a post in which she will make absolutely no independent decisions or gain any serious presence

Former Health Minister of Kerala, KK Shailaja
Former Health Minister of Kerala, KK Shailaja

J Devika

The honeymoon between a large section of Kerala’s citizens and the new government of the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF in Kerala seems to be over, and it is just on social media that the tremors are being felt. Women, especially older women, are shocked and angry beyond belief. They are unable to digest the unceremonious exclusion from the new cabinet of K K Shailaja, whose work as Health Minister in the last government has been widely perceived, most strongly among public health workers, as exemplary. The rumour is that this decision was kept from her till the morning of the announcement of the new Cabinet.

The party’s social media influencers have swung into action offering various justifications. None of it really makes much sense. It is pathetic to see the most articulate adherents of the CPM – especially Malayali SFI students from JNU and other places – making the most illogical claims. The new Cabinet intends to introduce a new, youthful generation: but the age ranges of men in the Cabinet range from 77 to 45, and that women, from 58 to 44. I cannot see much youth around, the average being about 59.

The Party, they say, is supreme, individuals are not. The Party’s decisions are made after balancing multiple considerations; individuals have to work very hard and be ‘meritorious’ in order to be considered. Yet the Party’s decision does not seem to have considered Shailaja’s undeniable ‘merit’ – endorsed warmly by voters who gave her a thumping majority – and neither has it considered the fact that voters who are not party members or supporters too preferred her in large numbers. After all, the Party’s vote share did not swell as enormously as the Party leadership’s ego – it stayed at around a modest twenty-five per cent.

The apparatchiks pushing this line seem to be oblivious of the fact that people might interpret these ‘multiple considerations’ quite differently. That these may have included the fact that Shailaja is powerful within the CPM and can hardly be pushed around easily. In contrast, of the three women who have been included in the Cabinet, Veena George and Bindu Vijayaraghavan, while known to possess skills and experience in governance, are hardly ahead in the party hierarchy and can well be turned into passive instruments (it is another matter if they stand their ground when thus pushed, but it must be seen to be believed). Also, ‘multiple considerations’ could have also included her potential candidateship for the Chief Minister’s post in the next term – a post coveted by powerful male politicians waiting in the wings. Indeed, the relegation of Shailaja to the post of the party chief whip in the Assembly adds insult to injury. This is a post in which she will make absolutely no independent decisions or gain any serious presence – indeed it seems almost designed to systematically erode the gains in presence she made over the past years. And thus calculated to upset any chance of her being considered for the Chief Minister’s post in the future.

Personally, I cannot get over the sadness over us losing a magnificent opportunity. If Shailaja was included, there would have been four women in the Cabinet, and combining Shailaja’s experience, popularity, and power within the CPM with the skills brought by these new faces, and their total number, they would have formed an exciting collective voice – that of Malayali women – in the Kerala State Legislative Assembly. It has been pointed out that the preponderance of privileged women in the Cabinet means no gains to women of Kerala’s oppressed communities, but this would still have been some sort of a real beginning of women’s substantial presence in the highest echelons of political power in Kerala, a historical first. I am not convinced by voices which assure us that Veena is super-efficient and will make an excellent Health Minister. This may well be true but it does not undo the injustice done to someone who has definitely prevented a truly critical situation from collapsing into sheer despondency and helplessness. It also does not stop me from worrying if the same sort of injustice will not be done to her too, at the end of five years of hard work, whether it will not be normalized, if it has not already been.

But what has been even more worrying is that despite the widespread sense of outrage, the response has been muted. Except for a few leading women actors who have spoken their disappointment, few collective voices of protest have been heard. Left civil society seems thoroughly intimidated and caught between the looming threat of Hindutva majoritarianism hostile to Kerala, temporarily stalled but still active here, and the Party leadership that treats their preferences and views with the most cavalier disdain that reeks of right-wing arrogance. Leading literary lights too seem powerless to protest strongly and persistently – they have not gone beyond pleas. The threats from Hindutva elements in Kerala to freedom of expression and creativity seem to have led them to take refuge somewhere inside the Party’s wings; and more importantly, the readership of many leading writers in Kerala are predominantly CPM supporters. This is something that matters hugely at a time when the social media is all-important site for anyone who seeks to create, assert, and maintain a popular literary persona.

The worst, however, are the social ramifications of this irresponsible decision. There can be little doubt that it normalizes the glass ceiling and the Party seems disconnected enough from society to perceive that its effects will travel to other social institutions as well. If someone as powerful and as resourceful and competent as K K Shailaja can be nixed with such nonchalance in the space of public politics, what prevents others from nixing women who perform well in say, schools, colleges, hospitals, panchayats, companies, media organizations? What prevents them from being demoted to positions – like that offered to her now, of the Chief Whip – which may seem important but actually erode their future prospects as a whole?

In general, the CPM leadership seems to have squandered all the goodwill it had garnered for good governance – after a fairly promising start through prescribing a reasonably humane set of rules for the lockdown it imposed. Shailaja’s exit will have huge psychological repercussions which could well translate into political losses in the future. All around the world and at home too we see entire countries, populations, brought to their knees, dragged into misery by egoistic, thoughtless male leaders puffed up with pride and blinded by power. The Malayali voters and public wanted lessons to be learned from the New Zealand model (though no imitation), but we are offered something else. We wait in dread now, but at least we are warned.

(The author is a historian, feminist and teaches at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram)

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