Amid the relaxed pandemic restrictions on a late December evening in 2020, Arya Rajendran stepped in and out of houses in Poojappura, thanking her neighbours with folded hands and a smile. She was just voted councillor of the ward. Earlier that day, word had come that the CPI(M), her party, chose her as mayor of Thiruvananthapuram, setting a record of sorts. She was a month short of 22, and became the youngest to be appointed mayor of an Indian city. Scores of interviews, press reports and recognition from around the world came for Arya even before her first day in office. Skeptics were vocal too – mayoral post was too important for such a young person, they said.
It has been a year since she became mayor now and still a lot of the criticism that Arya faces somehow find their way to her young age. It doesn’t end with 'she didn’t do the right thing', it has to be connected to her ‘immaturity’. The remarks only seemed to help reinforce her earlier claim that the only thing the opposition “could find wrong was her age”.
The opposition (BJP, Congress) would have done well to focus on the issues at hand like they did previously against older and often male mayors. “Look mayor, this is a civic issue and you are not handling it well,” would have been so much more direct and effective than, say, “Everything is wrong because you are too young.” A remark of this sort backfired when Arya’s patient response to it went viral. It happened at a Corporation Council when a BJP member called her an LKG student and said that the mayor’s chair was not one to play with. Arya responded amid the racket that she had been facing such ageist insults for months but if she became mayor at this age, she knew exactly how to work accordingly and that she grew up through such a system.
She also didn’t hesitate to take action when a huge financial fraud was uncovered middle of last year. At one point when corruption of lakhs of rupees was discovered at one zonal office (Sreekaryam), the mayor asked the local audit officials to conduct searches at all 11 zonal offices, found more discrepancies in revenue collection and suspended several officials. Not that the Corporation had no troubles under her leadership.
Middle of last year, a major controversy broke out in the form of a technical flaw. The flaw occurred in revenue tax collection when transition to an online system was happening. For many taxpayers, an unreasonably higher charge was billed. Worried city residents flocked to the offices of the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation. Officials explained the delay and reassured compensations. But many people still felt excluded, challenged by technology. Protests occurred across the city. And the mayor joined her officials in answering the angered citizens.
But even during this crisis critics could not let go of another chance to bring up the mayor’s age. More than one opposing politician fell back to personal attack during the protests. Congress MLA Vincent brought back the “immaturity” remark when he said that her sense of democracy, like her age, was inadequate to handle the responsibilities. The worst of it came from Congress leader K Muraleedharan who compared her speeches to ‘Bharani paatu’ – songs of a goddess that are full of profanities. Duly, a police case was registered, and Muraleedharan claimed that he meant she was “immature”.
One fails to understand why some critics fall back on this tried-tested-and-failed ageist argument when they have a real issue at hand. The tax issue was real, genuine, and affecting so many. It should have been a well-worded criticism against the lack of communication or the poor handling of the online transition and not a personal attack against the young woman head of the city.
It also makes you wonder – would the critics have been more tolerant of a young male mayor or an older mayor? Would they say, “he’s so young and already a mayor” and would they say, “so what if he made a few mistakes, he is so young and could easily learn.” It may not come from rival politicians but it is not hard to imagine a male camaraderie in politics – a field that has been dominated by men for decades.
Arya has not failed to point this out in her early interviews too – it is her age and her gender that many find hard to accept. Perhaps a combination of both, for there have been older woman mayors before her. Ironically, Arya has responded to each of her criticisms with calmness and maturity. Almost never losing her cool, Arya repeats her points until it is heard, firmly. Older male politicians have crumbled for far less.
And many of them don’t ever seem to learn.
Without apparently picking up on the past mistakes, Muraleedharan once again hinted at the mayor’s “immaturity” after her car drove as part of the convoy of President Ram Nath Kovind, allegedly violating protocol, when he visited Thiruvananthapuram in the last half of December. Is there no one to teach her these things, Muraleedharan asked this time, in addition to calling her “stupid”.
It'd seem that levelling criticism directly for a political issue, without dragging age, gender or other personal details into the picture is a skill that politicians in Kerala are taking really slow steps to learn.
Cris is a journalist who likes to say she is a writer and troubles her editors with longish features on just about anything. Views expressed are the author's own.