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What KK Shailaja’s exclusion says about Kerala CPM

KK Shailaja’s removal from Pinarayi Vijayan ministry shows CPM and its supporters may be reading Kerala verdict differently

Written by Amrith Lal |
Updated: May 20, 2021 8:25:27 am
K K Shailaja (Fcaebook/K K Shailaja)

Continuity in government (thudar bharanam) was the slogan the Left Democratic Front raised in the assembly election in Kerala. Voters endorsed it and re-elected the LDF with an enhanced majority — the last time they did so was in 1977. But Team Pinarayi that takes oath today represents a break with the past — barring Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, and the popular former minister and Speaker, K Radhakrishnan, 14 of the 16 CPM and CPI ministers are new to government. The shocking omission is of K K Shailaja, who held the health portfolio in the previous government and led the fightback against Covid-19. The heated debate around her absence has allowed the inclusion in the Cabinet of the CM’s son-in-law, DYFI national president P A Muhammed Riyas, and the wife of LDF convenor and acting CPM state secretary, R Bindu, to go relatively unnoticed.

This election was held in the backdrop of the Nipah outbreak, two devastating floods, and the pandemic that had robbed lakhs of people of jobs and incomes. People had become more dependent on state welfare and public goods. The government did not abandon them. It provided food kits and enhanced welfare and pension, on time. This allowed vulnerable sections of the population to live through the crisis with their self-respect intact. The LDF election campaign revolved around this narrative. It was too overwhelming a story for allegations of corruption and nepotism, or matters of faith, to sway voters.

The CPM machinery narrated the story of ordeal, survival and sarkar’s care through the face of the CM, refashioned as Captain. During the lockdown, Pinarayi Vijayan had transformed into a benevolent patriarch who gave assurance to a listless population locked up in their homes. Though she was the face of the government during Nipah and in the initial days of Covid, Shailaja receded into the background as Vijayan loomed large on TV screens. But people talked about her: Her quiet efficiency and visible compassion was admired by people, especially women, in a state where governance is seen as the fief of men. Her sober demeanour and empathetic responses were an antidote to the aggression and bureaucratese that defined public communication.

Though reasonably senior in the party hierarchy — she is a central committee member — it was as minister that Shailaja, or Teacher Amma, found pan-Kerala acceptance. She may have just been the right person at the right time, but her popularity may have rankled many in the party. And for the same reason, her absence has been interpreted by a cross-section of Kerala as a petty act of party patriarchs. Well-known actresses have launched hashtag campaigns and Left public intellectuals have registered their disappointment.

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An unspoken tension has come to exist between the party lines and government since Vijayan’s ascent to the CM’s office. Historically, the CPM CM and the party secretary have been parallel power centres, which at the best of times benefitted both offices. The party acted as the voice of the people whereas the CM represented the state and its interests. This tension defined the political character of the government and kept the interests of bureaucracy, crony capitalism, and regressive social groups in check. Today, the party’s authority has diminished and the organisation’s role is reduced to merely endorsing the government. The party is now an extension of Vijayan’s persona.

The election campaign reflected this new context. It was carefully curated to project the CM as a father figure who provided for the state at a time of crisis. Unusually for a Left poll campaign, rallies, banners and posters mostly featured just his face, and the candidate — the absentees included Marx, Engels, Lenin, P Krishna Pillai, AKG, EMS. VS, the face of CPM campaigns for nearly two decades, was conspicuous by his absence on campaign material. Not surprisingly, the party has interpreted the verdict as a vote solely for Vijayan. Other factors, including Shailaja’s popularity or the good work done by ministers (Thomas Isaac and G Sudhakaran, for instance) who ran the finance, public works and education ministries, were ignored as sub plots in an epic narrative centred on a single hero.

Anecdotal evidence from the campaign suggests that the subplots had a big role in drawing the non-party voter to the LDF tent. Of course, the expansion of the social base of the LDF was enabled by the entry of a Kerala Congress faction, the CPM’s backing of the anti-CAA movement, and ironically, anti-Muslim talk by some CPM leaders. These, alongwith the collapse of the UDF as a broad front with a clear leadership and vision and a discredited BJP, contributed to the LDF win. But for a substantial set of voters, a vote for the LDF was an endorsement of the performance of the Vijayan Cabinet. They voted for continuity and expected Shailaja in the ministry.

This non-party CPM backer is angry today. In 2006, she spoke for VS when his leadership claim was ignored. The party then acquiesced. In fact, she has been the reason why assembly elections have become polls for the LDF to lose — until the 1990s, the Left won assembly polls largely on negative votes polled against the Congress and allies. The party’s focus on mass politics, civic engagement such as the literacy movement, Kudumbashree, voluntary work during flood and pandemic, has expanded its support among sections that do not vote on ideological lines. These supporters, not to be confused with cadres, helped the LDF almost win a second term in 2011 — it lost office by two seats. To dismiss their outburst as emotional is in line with the macho image of the party apparatchiks but it is surely out-of-step with the sentiment on the street.

It is equally wrong to ignore voices that warn about patriarchal attitudes prevailing in Kerala politics. It is disturbing that a 21-member ministry in a state where women constitute more than 50 per cent of the population has just three women ministers, one more than in the past, and one Dalit. It is unfortunate that a woman who excelled as an administrator had to make way for a new face.
In a social media discussion, when women CPM backers criticised Shailaja’s exclusion from the Cabinet, a male comrade responded with a Malayalam meme. It said: “For a week, Kerala will see some shouting and wailing. Thereafter, its intensity will reduce and the storm will weaken.”

The misogyny apart, unfortunately, there may be some truth in the meme.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 20, 2021 under the title ‘Excluding Teacher Amma’.

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