Opinion: In KK Shailaja’s exclusion, history is repeating itself in the CPI(M)

Shailaja’s exclusion has been so savage that it is hard to enjoy the fact that the LDF has given three minister posts to women - a first for Kerala.
CPI(M) leader KK Shailaja in a white and blue saree speaking to Gouri Amma
CPI(M) leader KK Shailaja in a white and blue saree speaking to Gouri Amma

Nine days after KK Shailaja won with the greatest margin in the history of Kerala Assembly elections -- by 61,035 votes-- KR Gouri or Gouriamma as she has been known for decades, passed away. I had been working on a profile of this great political figure from Kerala for long, trying to piece together the exceptional life that Gouriamma had led. I had not expected that the profile would end up being published on the very same day that she died. It filled me with feelings of a deep loss, as I listened to her voice on tape on loop, and regretted that I never got a second chance to speak to her. What I had definitely not expected? That exactly a week later, all those feelings would rise up in volcanic rage, because KK Shailaja would be sidelined from the Pinarayi Vijayan Cabinet to be made a party whip. 

This was history repeating itself. The perfect “othukkal” or sidelining. The CPI(M) has been perfecting the art of sidelining strong women since 1987 - when it famously won an election on posters and slogans promising Gouriamma as CM, but then went on to give the mantle to EK Nayanar. I cannot see this latest move of the party as anything but their sidelining of Shailaja, with many believing she is the frontrunner for the post of Chief Minister, five years down the line.

After the news broke, and public reactions erupted in protest, Shailaja called these reactions to the news as "emotional" and stuck to the line that it is a policy decision of the LDF. Let this not be understood as Shailaja being compared to Gouriamma. Shailaja I firmly believe has years of political career ahead of her. And so the scale of this pain is not to be measured or equalled to that of Gouriamma's. 

But Shailaja is a strong woman, with a proven track record and with hard-won popular public acceptance. This move has been so savage that it is hard to enjoy the fact that the LDF has given three minister posts to women - a first for Kerala. These three new faces are promising but that isn’t any ground for sidelining one who has proved her administrative might and gained the most popular mandate of 2021.

The replacement women might be deserving candidates, but as newcomers they have no choice but to be loyal to the political power above them. They have no mass support beyond their constituency. CPI(M)'s choice for women ministers are no doubt achievers in their own right —  R Bindu is a former academic and Mayor; Veena George is a former journalist; and CPI's Chinchu Rani is a former sportswoman and national council member of the party. However, they would need more time to see themselves tested against major odds and gain popular acceptance, the hallmarks of a strong leader.
KK Shailaja stands today far above Bindu, Veena or Rani. For instance, during the Nipah outbreak, where Kozhikode could have easily become a Wuhan, KK Shailaja managed to control the outbreak locally. Nipah has a far greater mortality rate than COVID-19. If Shailaja had failed, it would have earned India a bad name globally. Besides this, her fight to control the death rate in COVID-19 has made Kerala among the best in the world in COVID-19 mortality rate.
Shailaja has walked a tightrope in the past five years, as the Health Minister in the time of a pandemic in a state that was the first hit by the coronavirus. Yes, she had a team to handle the pandemic, and yes Kerala’s health achievements are not Shailaja’s alone to claim. From the missionaries who built the infrastructure to the Travancore kings who nurtured it, and the successive democratic governments who maintained the Health Department - it has always been an able one.  But to use that during a debilitating pandemic, and turn it into a fortress was her achievement. She has been called “the coronavirus slayer” and the “rockstar Health Minister” by the international press. And truly there is no Health Minister in India who can hold a candle to her. I interviewed KK Shailaja at length during the pandemic as well as several of her staff at different levels in the department. Shailaja knew her department and her duties well. She was always open to taking questions, knew her facts and figures like the back of her hand, and constantly reminded us reporters that this wasn't a one-woman show, that she had an excellent team behind her.
Her voice will thus carry more weight politically in the state. It is hard for women politicians to emerge as leaders in their own right, and Shailaja Teacher did that. A science teacher-turned politician, Shailaja has certainly been a role model for women professionals not just in Kerala, but across the country. Pinarayi sidelining Shailaja would certainly be seen as nipping the emergence of a tall woman politician in Kerala's landscape.
The political line of succession with the new names in the Cabinet is clear: it is a long list of men. They are going to get far more political prominence in the next five years, and Shailaja Teacher, whether she would stand up to Pinarayi or not, would lose out to one of these men, who all are perceived to be loyal and far too reverential to Pinarayi. One of them, Riyas, again an able youth leader in his own right, for example is Pinarayi's son-in-law. 
An omen of things to come

It’s not hard to think of Gouriamma again when I think of that moment in early March 2020. It was when Shailaja’s press conferences had become an instant hit. She had been doing it for an odd few days, when soon CM Pinarayi Vijayan took over. The daily briefing went on to become a great media event, and Vijayan ably led from the front, reassuring the public, stating facts, taking questions, upholding science. Women switched from their evening saas-bahu and bhakti serials to hear their CM give them details on what's happening with the pandemic and how the state is facing it. But we also saw Shailaja sitting on the sidelines and observing him day after day, rarely getting a word out. While he did a great job, it is hard not to see this as something that was taken away from his comrade.

That was perhaps an omen of how this would all be managed. We understood how it was all being done. CPI(M) abhors personality cults, unless it is of the party heads. Shailaja was wise in managing to never threaten the CM. Looking at Gouriamma's life, being non-threatening was a necessary lesson to learn to live inside the CPI(M). Shailaja has smartly cultivated an image of “teacheramma” for herself - one of the most endearing ones to Malayalis. She deftly balanced the art of being in Vijayan's shadow while also proving her might. Beloved in her department, much admired by the public, she is able, she is intelligent. And she takes no nonsense.

And as was the case three decades ago, strong women have no place in the CPI(M).

While Gouriamma was a thandedi -- an outspoken firebrand -- Shailaja was not. Shailaja’s perfect positioning as teacheramma appeared to me as coming from a politician who had learned her lesson well and was smartly overcoming any obstacle her way. At the same time Shailaja was also someone who stood in the Assembly in February 2020 and asked, “Pennu bharichal entha kuzhappam” (what’s wrong if a woman rules in response) to IUML MLA KM Shaji saying that “even West Bengal led by a woman” had shown more spine in the matter of the National Population Register (NPR).

A lot of women who read my profile on Gouriamma got in touch with me. Some were surprised to know that a progressive party like CPI(M) that runs by the principle of human equality could be so intimidating a space for women. But many who belonged to the party, thanked me for tracing the history of their hurt and for making them ask again for when they’d see a change. In their lifetimes would they be able to walk into a local CPI(M) committee office at Panchayat or district level, and see a woman call the shots? They hoped that in that familiar ‘kattan chaaya, parippu vada and the beedi smell’ they would see a woman pulling up a chair, and finding a space that was comfortable for them to exert themself, rather than play demure, and shadow their political bosses.

I don’t need to call those women to know that today with the news that Shailaja won’t be sworn in at the stadium on May 20 that the future is looking dim once more.

The party has many justifications. Shailaja was a humble first time minister in the last Vijayan Cabinet. She was given a chance by the party to prove her mettle. She proved it. Now the party is back with a bigger mandate and it can afford to give chances to new faces to earn their space in the party leadership. The party is thus making a prudent move to build the next rung of leadership, while Shylaja can use this time to excel at managing the Assembly and be a more active central committee member. But when the party keeps repeating that the individual is not important, I can't help but hear EK Nayanar repeating that line in 1994, after successfully ousting CPI(M)’s greatest women leader, Gouriamma from the party. He said, “Individuals are secondary here. Prashtanam aanu valuthu (the party is important),” and shut the door on the face of the best CM Kerala never had.

If the 2021 mandate was overwhelmingly for CPI(M), it was also a vote for Pinarayi and KK Shailaja. If that party wants to try new faces, give opportunities to prove themselves - then reserving posts for the CM and the Health Minister - they could have tried 10 new faces, instead of Pinarayi and 11 new faces, would that have made any difference?

With constant vigilance, women will wait to see what CPM - a party that talks of human equality - does to the next strong woman politician amongst them.

Leena Gita Reghunath is an award-winning journalist based in the US and India.

Elections 2023

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