The opposition Congress in Kerala finds itself on the back foot, even as Assembly elections are looming next year. The ruling Left government, particularly Health Minister KK Shailaja, has stolen the thunder in the efficient manner in which it has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent statement by Kerala state president of the Congress, Mullapally Ramachandran, indicates a sense of insecurity about his party’s chances of winning the next elections.
Mullapally said Shailaja had been the “Nipah Rajakumari” (referring to her role in the 2018 Nipah virus outbreak) and was now trying to be the “Covid Rani”. She was only a “guest artist” during the Nipah outbreak, he said. This has triggered widespread protests in Kerala. He made these remarks while inaugurating a day long fast by opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala in protest against the state government’s policy making COVID-19 test mandatory for expats prior to boarding flights to Kerala.
Mullapally alleged that Shailaja did nothing during the Nipah outbreak apart from coordinating the efforts of others.
On Thursday, Mullapally, responding to reporters whether he would apologise for his remarks against Shylaja, said, “We are very unhappy. The international media says Kerala is number one. Forty-one journals wrote articles praising Kerala. This is the result of the PR work done by the government.”
He read out a headline in the London-based newspaper, The Guardian, which described as a “rock star”. But for reasons unknown he read the headline as “rock dancer”. He said, “See what is written. The Guardian says KK Shailaja is rock dancer. I am not familiar with such modern dance forms.”
Reacting to this, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan scoffed at Mullapally. “Rock star is a term used to refer to a celebrity admired by all. We don’t know how he understood it as rock dancer”. Vijayan, referring to Yoga Day on June 21, laughingly added that the day would be good for mental health as well.
“He (Mullapally) is the prisoner of his own insanity” said the chief minister. Vijayan also regretted that he was being forced to break his own rule on not using the routine COVID-19 media briefings to make political statements. Vijayan indicated he had no option but to respond when the Congress started witch hunting against KK Shailaja as she was a woman and a competent minister.
Mullapally’s attack on Shailaja attracted the attention of the international media. Laura Spinney, science journalist and author of the article in The Guardian, tweeted that when she referred to KK Shailaja as “rockstar” she was quoting others. She also remarked there had even been a feature film (“Virus”) based on her successful handling of the Nipah virus outbreak.
Mullapally’s sexist remarks and his attempt to justify that have embarrassed the Congress party. Former chief minister Oommen Chandy said Pinarayi Vijayan had no moral right to criticise Mullappally. Chandy did not try to defend Mullapally’s remarks, but only told the media that Mullapally himself had already explained his remarks.
Congress-ally, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), played down Mullapally’s remarks. IUML General Secretary KPA Majeed said Mullapally’s opinion was his own and not that of the alliance, the United Democratic Front.
Mullapally’s remarks against Shailaja sparked reaction from Sajeesh, the husband of Lini, the nurse who died of Nipah infection. Sajeesh said Mullappally, despite being a member of parliament, had neither called or visited him and his family at the time. On the other hand, Shailaja stood by him throughout which helped him to rebuild his life.
Ajanya, the nursing student who survived Nipah, made a Facebook video saying Mullappally had done nothing, not even a courtesy call to her. At the same time Shailaja visited her without even wearing a PPE after she was cured which helped Ajanya a lot. She added that people were scared to come near her and Shailaja’s visit helped to change that mindset.
Mullapally’s response worsened the situation. He fumbled in front of the media without being able to recollect even Lini’s name correctly. He first said “our sister Jisha” and again said “Liji” when someone corrected him. He got the name right after some more prodding. That a top political leader was not even able to recollect Lini’s name has angered many in the state. For, Lini evokes a painful memory of the Nipah outbreak and is regarded as an epitome of Kerala’s fight against that virus.
The irritation is so apparent that even those who generally support the Congress in social media platforms have openly criticised Mullapally’s attempt to show Shailaja in poor light.