If the jubilation around the second term for the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala was all about continuity of good governance in the face of a raging pandemic, the celebrations should be wound up now. First came the new government’s ill-thought-out decision of holding the swearing-in ceremony in a public place with 500 guests – rather thoughtless for a Chief Minister who is praised for leading from the front in crises and through example.
The second blow is the exclusion of K.K. Shailaja, whose exemplary work as Health Minister in the last term won Kerala much acclaim, from the new Cabinet. Her work and leadership are widely thought to have been crucial in the state’s success in managing to ensure some degree of normalcy and calm even as the disease spread remains unrelenting. There is a saying in Malayalam about wasting at the last moment the gains of hard work – which compares it to dropping a full pot of water on the doorstep, breaking it, after having carried it from a long way off. That seems to sum up the situation rather well, if grimly.
CPI(M) supporters have been quick to retort – they point out that there are three women in the Cabinet, even though Shailaja is absent, that these are younger ones who must be given a chance to prove themselves and gain experience, that Shailaja herself should not be confined to the Health Ministry, which, it had been often noted, is often highly feminized. They also claim that individual faces do not matter because in Communist political culture, all achievements of the government are taken to be the fruits of joint effort.
Unfortunately, none of these arguments work. The popular response to Shailaja’s exclusion has been one of immense shock and deep annoyance against the new government, even against Pinaryi Vijayan. It is a tragedy that this government sadly underestimates the intelligence of the Malayali people. They know well that when asked a question about the persistence of the glass ceiling, you cannot answer by pointing out that things are better in the matter of women’s representation in the Cabinet. They are ready to agree that other women should receive a chance, but also know only too well that this simply cannot be an excuse to exclude a woman with proven experience and success in a field the bolstering of which is a matter of life and death right now.
In any case, the critical mass argument – that when the number of women legislators reaches a critical tipping-point, politics begins to turn less patriarchal – is not so much in favour as it used to be. Others have emphasized the significance of critical acts, not critical mass, which turn the tide in favour of women and against patriarchy in politics. Viewed through that lens, K.K. Shailaja’s sterling performance as Health Minister of Kerala in the last term was indeed a critical act – it garnered massive amounts of popular confidence in women’s ability to lead and manage a critical situation efficiently, without letting it deteriorate into raw panic. Not a mean achievement at all in a densely populated state, where, because of many factors, natural and human, disease transmission is extraordinarily easy. Certainly, a political achievement by a woman unmatched in Kerala since the heyday of the legendary K.R. Gouri. People rewarded her with an election victory that registered a record majority.
Worst of all is the fact that this argument that ‘others deserve a chance’ extracts from Shailaja a very unfair price. In a system in which every step up the ladder of power has to be justified with ‘merit’, to be turned away at the last step when you are ahead of the race in every way with the claim that ‘others deserve a chance’ is to be tricked by sheer guile. Because the underside of that is ‘…at your expense’. If Shylaja protests, she can be accused of an old crone blocking the way and stopping ‘youth’ from rising up. Or of being plain power-hungry. Both appear more plausible in a patriarchal public when it is a woman who is thus punished.
As for the feminization of public welfare and health in Malayali politics, that seems now to be a legacy of the twentieth century – since in the twenty-first century, far from being powerless, these governmental concerns are of paramount significance in social life. Right now, the Health Minister is second only to the Chief Minister perhaps. But the most unconvincing and mendacious of these justifications is the claim that Shailaja is not really necessary as others can do as well as her, or because it is all a joint effort of the party. The logic of the latter would shoot the apologists in the foot – in that case, neither is Pinarayi Vijayan necessary. The argument that others can well replace Shailaja reveals how flimsy the claims of being a ‘caring rule’, made by the previous LDF government are. When people voted for continuity, they voted for the continuity of a sense of security bestowed by the last LDF government, however superficial it may have been. No, they did not vote for a break at all, and refusing to see this only shows how insensitive the present leadership is. Pinarayi Vijayan should not set an example for insecure masculinity. We have enough of such devils in Kerala. Please don’t add to our troubles.
(Dr Devika J is a Malayali historian, feminist, social critic, and academician from Kerala, currently a professor and researcher at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram)
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