The Malayali population on Raisina Hill — the peak of Indian state power, where the President’s estate, offices of the Prime Minister and the ministers of external affairs, home, defence and finance are located — has not suddenly increased. It’s just that ‘mallus’ are suddenly more visible, occupying high-profile offices. Old-timers say they were doing far better on Raisina in the earlier days of the republic — so much so that the endless running around the corridors used to be termed ‘from Pillai to pillar’.
Driven out of Kerala by high population density and lack of economic opportunity, Malayalis have acquired extraordinary spatial mobility and adaptability. With modest entrepreneurial skills, the Malayalis developed survival skills as wage earners. A joke dating back to the Nehru-era says the PM asked a group of Malayalis whether they were Rightists or Leftists. “We are typists,” replied one.
But Malayalis clicked beyond typewriters too. Nehru had several powerful Mallus around him — VK Krishna Menon and KPS Menon, grandfather of the current foreign secretary. MO Mathai, an assistant to a Kerala bishop who called on Nehru, became the prime minister’s assistant right on the spot.
After a lull, the Mallu brigade is again shining on the Hills. But what is it that makes Mallus tick? “When it’s a situation of unnees-bees (a close contest) a boss would prefer a Malayali,” says Prof TK Oommen, sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. “Generally speaking, a certain amount of efficiency, dependability and impartiality is taken for granted in a Malayali. A Malayali doesn’t get attached to north Indian caste categories which is convenient to the political boss,” he says. A senior Malayali bureaucrat on the Raisina Hills said understated and low profile attitude helps. “Nair Sir (principal secretary to the PM), for instance. He rarely hogs the limelight but delivers efficiently.”
Except Mathai, who scandalised Nehru by his words and deeds in later years, there aren’t many examples of Malayalis landing their bosses in trouble. “Malayalis are generally risk-averse and prefer to go by the rulebook,” points out Oommen. In bureaucratic ambience these are additional qualifications. Do Malayalis network and act as a lobby? That depends on the social context. Prof. S. Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, says, “They have lobbies in the Gulf and in the US but not as a rule.” The risk-averse Mallus in fact goes out of the way to appear proper.
There is a joke a about Neil Armstrong being served tea on the moon by a Mallu. Something close, however, happened. Harsh Gupta, the Indian scientist who led the country’s first expedition to Antarctica in 1983, recounted that it was a bit of an anticlimax. An Indian — a Mallu named Yesudasan, an aeronautical engineer in NASA — was already stationed there when the official Indian team reached.