Padmaja Venugopal
Padmaja Venugopal

Padmaja’s BJP switch is debatable, but her revelation of sexism in politics is not

Padmaja’s switch to the BJP may be for many reasons best known to her. But her revelations about sexism within the Congress are an important marker of why women struggle to come up in politics.

The Congress party in Kerala recently suffered a political setback when Padmaja Venugopal, daughter of veteran Congress leader and three-time Kerala CM K Karunakaran, joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. While this has invited many trolls and discussions about the appropriateness of such a seminal Congress leader’s daughter switching to the BJP, some of Padmaja’s farewell comments about the Congress reveal the lesser-discussed systemic misogyny within politics.

“As of now, the party’s culture is really degenerative. They won’t let any woman succeed, look at why Bindu Krishna or Shanimol have never had a major election win yet. They may give seats to women, but they don’t think much of any woman,” Padmaja alleged in a recent interview with a Malayalam news channel. 

Padmaja made her political entry into the Congress in 2001. Thereafter, she contested from the erstwhile Mukundapuram constituency (later dissolved and replaced by the Chalakudy constituency) in the 2004 general elections. She lost to the CPI(M)’s Lonappan Nambadan. In 2016 and 2021 as well, Padmaja contested under a Congress ticket from the Thrissur constituency – also a place where she was born and brought up. But she lost both times and drew flak for it. 

Now, after joining the BJP in 2024, Padmaja alleges that she could have easily won from her home constituency had her own party members supported her better. 

She attributes this hostility to the fact that she is a powerful leader’s daughter, which threatens the ego of other party members, mostly men, and also the fact that she is a woman. “They had many unholy dealings and affinities with people from other parties. They saw me as a roadblock in many ways,” she said.

Padmaja also alleged that party members mock women even as they allot seats for them, to the point of normalising such sexism. “If you hear the sexist remarks they pass when we suggest the names of women, you’d know. I have felt like saying I am also a woman,” she said. When asked if there are no mechanisms to address this within the party, she answered in the negative. 

Padmaja further observed in the interview that when Sonia Gandhi was active, there was more intervention in the problems of women within the party because Sonia took a special interest in it. “Ever since she has been unwell and removed from active politics, there is hardly anyone who will listen to such grievances. I have myself complained against people in the party several times but nothing came out of it,” Padmaja recalled.

When asked if she thinks she has failed to garner support and operate as a strong force within the Kerala Congress (I) Group, she agreed. “Everyone speaks highly of me, as the revered K Karunakaran’s daughter, but anything I say is hardly implemented or taken seriously by the party. I had no power to protect people who backed me or to have my decisions implemented. So how can I come up as a strong force?” she asked.  

Padmaja’s father formed the Kerala Congress Indira Group or the (I) Group to pledge allegiance to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the time of the 1978 national emergency when discontent was on the rise against her. This faction was later joined by Padmaja herself, her brother K Muraleedharan, Ramesh Chennithala, and the current Opposition leader VD Satheeshan among others. Padmaja’s shift from the Congress to the BJP is being criticised as a “betrayal” of her father’s legacy, with even her brother K Muraleedharan announcing that he would completely cut ties with her. While the political appropriateness of her choice is for another debate, it must not be forgotten that her statements about in-party sexism reveal how women, even those who come from a political legacy like her, struggle to be taken seriously.

“I was expected to beg and plead for each thing. People thought I would always just be a doormat, but in the past few years, I have retaliated strongly to the Congress in my own capacity,” she said. She also said that the BJP has not promised her an election ticket and that she does not crave that either. “I just want the freedom and respect to do my work in peace, and I think I may find it in the BJP,” she said. 

The problem of how women face systemic misogyny in politics is not new. AICC national spokesperson Shama Mohamed recently criticised the Congress regarding women’s representation in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, after its list of candidates came out. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress had two women candidates, which has now come down to one, while in the last Mahila Congress programme held in Kochi, Rahul Gandhi spoke about how 50% of the chief ministers in the country should be women in the next ten years. Pointing out that only one woman has been fielded by the party in the state, Shama said that despite passing the Women’s Reservation Bill, women are not being given importance. “Ramya Haridas, the lone woman on the list, got a ticket only because Alathur is a reservation seat. Or else she too would have been dropped,” she alleged. 

The way KPCC President K Sudhakaran responded to Shama’s comments affirms Padmaja’s thoughts on how women are viewed in politics. Sudhakaran called Shama a “nobody of the party”, and dismissed her concerns. She had to then share her official ID card to reiterate that she is the AICC national spokesperson. Kerala Congress Opposition leader VD Satheeshan later apologised and expressed “guilt” in not being able to field more women in the Assembly polls. He also accepted that what Shama said was true, adding that women have not been treated properly.

If we look back at history, one of the most striking examples from Kerala about gender-based sidelining in politics is that of KR Gouri. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) projected her as the chief ministerial candidate in the 1987 election, capitalising on her ground support. But once the elections were won, the CPI(M) chose veteran leader EK Nayanar as the CM. Gouri was later expelled from the party – the strongest woman leader of their fold – and she founded the Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithi (JSS) in 1994. 

Parallels were drawn between Gouri and KK Shailaja during the 2021 Kerala Assembly elections. Shailaja was at the peak of her popularity as health minister, having led the state through the Nipah outbreak and the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Though Shailaja emerged as the CPI(M) candidate with the highest majority (over 60,000 votes, a whopping 10,000 more than Pinarayi Vijayan), she was relegated to the position of the party Chief Whip, giving way to controversies about the in-party chauvinism of the CPI(M). The current Kerala cabinet does have three women ministers though.  The LDF’s candidate list for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls has three women.

Coming to the BJP, the party has been unsuccessful in opening an account in Kerala, but it's optics at the Union are commendable with two women– Nirmala Sitharaman (Finance, Corporate Affairs), and Smriti Irani (Women and Child Development, Minority Affairs) – handling major portfolios. But the party’s views on women and sexual minorities, as well as religious minorities and caste-oppressed communities have proven to be nefarious. The party’s initial Kerala candidate list for the approaching Lok Sabha polls has three women.

Padmaja’s switch to the right wing may be for many reasons best known to her. It may perhaps even be right that she has tactfully chosen the BJP’s side because the Kerala Congress seems to be a sinking ship. She may not have made any significant electoral wins like KR Gouri or KK Shailaja, and her allegations surely come as a farewell note on her time with the Congress. Whatever the noise around that is, her revelations about how many within the Congress view women and how she herself fought to get past such biases are important markers of why women struggle to come up in politics.

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