KK Shailaja. (File photo) Exclusive
KK Shailaja. (File photo)

With Shailaja’s omission, decoding the Indian Left’s gender blind spot

The CM may have ruled out a rethink but not everyone is convinced with this decision. HT spoke to a cross section of women Left leaders on the record, including a Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member, who don’t agree with the chief minister
By Sunetra Choudhury
UPDATED ON MAY 28, 2021 11:23 AM IST

When the Pinarayi Vijayan led government announced last week that the new Left Democratic Front government’s (LDF) cabinet of ministers wouldn’t include the 64-year-old KK Shailaja, popularly called “Teacher” or more recently “Teacher Amma”, it faced a backlash of protests not just from members of the public but also from within the Left.

As Kerala, which gave a rare mandate of voting its incumbent government back to power (for the first time in 40 years), was under a lockdown, the protests were mostly on social media with the call “Bring back our Teacher” becoming a trending hashtag. The argument was straightforward — if the LDF was voted back for its handling of public health crises such as Nipah and Covid, then, surely, the first-time health minister Shailaja had equal claim to continuity; and if there was a rule that no one could get a second term, why was Pinarayi Vijayan still the CM?

“We respect their sentiments. But the party has taken a decision much earlier to induct new faces. It can’t give exemptions to some. It was a collective decision. All ministers of the outgoing government worked well, and it reflected in the election also. You may ask why the CM got exemption then. It was also the decision of the party... there is no room for individual decision, it is a collective one. Many are giving an interpretation that I was behind the move, but it is not right,’’ said Vijayan on Wednesday.

The CM may have ruled out a rethink but not everyone is convinced with this decision. Hindustan Times spoke to a cross section of women Left leaders on the record, including a Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member, who don’t agree with the chief minister.

“We do have to keep fighting and pushing for greater inclusion,’’ said Subhashini Ali on Wednesday, one of the two women members of a total of 17 in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM politburo, the highest decision-making body of the central party unit.

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Vijayan is a member of the politburo but as the party general secretary Sitaram Yechury said, the decision to drop Shailaja was that of the state unit. Ali told HT that she didn’t want to comment on the Kerala cabinet but was speaking about women’s position in a more general sense and why there very few women in bodies such as the politburo.

The politburo took in a woman member as late as 2005 when Brinda Karat was inducted. Karat distanced herself from Shailaja’s exclusion but didn’t seem to endorse it. “In our party, the decision to choose the ministers is the prerogative of the state committee. And it is for them to give an explanation and answer the questions which are being raised by their decision.”

The Left and gender parity

To be sure, as Ali rightly pointed out, the lack of proper representation of women isn’t just the Left’s problem. The current Parliament has the largest representation of women with under 13% women parliamentarians, but this still makes the Indian 145th in the world when it comes to gender parity.

Even though the Congress, the Bhartiya Janata Party and the Left all came together to push for the Women’s Reservation Bill that seeks to reserve one-third of Lok Sabha and state assembly seats for women, these efforts haven’t translated into law. In the 2019 elections, the Congress and BJP fielded only 12.9% and 12.6% women candidates respectively and the CPI (M) was only slightly better than them at 14.5%.

In the 2021 Kerala elections, there were only 103 women candidates out of the total 928 candidates who contested. The CPI(M) fielded only 10 women out of the 83 seats it contested in the 140-seat assembly. 11 out of the 126 winning candidates are women from LDF and while there were just two women ministers last time around, this time, there are three new faces, including Veena George who will replace KK Shailaja. While the party pushes the view that three women among 20 ministers is progress from the previous cabinet that just had Shailaja, and Mercykuttyamma, women are not convinced.

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“It really is very disappointing,’’ said Annie Raja, who is a member of the national executive of the Communist Party of India (CPI) which is part of the LDF. Like the CPM, the CPI too has only two women in its national executive of 35 and only one out of the 11 members in the top Central Control Commission is a woman. Raja also happens to be from the same constituency as Shailaja and personally vouches for her exemplary work -- her fearless handling of the Nipah outbreak, which has been made into a movie, and her delivery as an MLA, which drew praise even from the Opposition.

“This was an opportunity to show us as an alternative, to send a message to the people who have acknowledged our work and we should have responded by acknowledging what they wanted,’’ said Raja, pointing out that Kerala was yet to have a woman chief minister.

In a way, Raja and other women Left leaders feel that by failing to elevate Shailaja and ignoring her achievement of getting the highest margin of over 60,000 votes, the party is letting down a key communist principle, that of equality. Instead, the CM and his supporters cite their constitution which expects a communist to always place “the interests of the Party and the people above personal interests”. This, critics point out, is often cited while denying marginalised groups such as women and Dalits their fair share.

The Left’s defence

One of the key arguments LDF used to defend their decision to drop Shailaja is that they are giving an opportunity to new faces, and that they were bringing in three women instead of just one. But this argument is misleading and false, according to women leaders HT spoke to.

“The argument being offered shows gender blindness’’ said Kavita Krishnan, a member of the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation politburo. Again, just like the CPM and the CPI, the politburo has only her as the lone woman member in a team of 17. “To say that you are keeping cabinet seats for new faces, this cannot apply to women. I expected more from a 21st century Left organisation.”

Krishnan’s point is that while the LDF may couch its decision as an opportunity for freshers or an opportunity for the less privileged, it cannot be used to deny space to someone who is marginalised. In fact, feminist and academician J Devika says that it is exactly this kind of “insidious” logic that was used by white authority figures to deny black people their rightful position in the workplace. “It’s like a person of colour who rises through the ranks and then when it’s time to get a position of authority, they are told to make way for the less privileged, usually a white person. It’s a common ploy to deny meritorious groups,” said Devika.

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But the party’s explanation can also be viewed as tactically astute in stifling any dissent. By offering these explanations, the party leadership has made it quite difficult for women to oppose it. Shailaja herself has publicly accepted the decision.

“Everybody should get an opportunity,’’ she said in response to the outrage after the announcement, encouraging them to accept the party’s decision. But was this a way of pitching one woman against others?

“A woman cannot open her mouth and will have to accept because of two reasons. One, she will be seen as power hungry. And second, she will be seen as denying opportunities to three other women,’’ said Devika. While the Left leaders aren’t sure if there is a bigger plan for Shailaja, in terms of elevating her to a larger role in the future, feminists see this as a classic ploy to silence a woman with guilt.

HT reached out to new minister R Bindu to understand how she viewed this controversy but she said she was travelling, and would be unable to talk due to network issues.

Is it Gowri Amma 2.0?

What’s unclear, as of now, is the reason behind this decision. When Shailaja got the highest vote margin in the state with more than 60,000, was she perceived as a threat to the chief minister? Or were there other powerful lobbies in the state that were against her, that felt threatened by the kind of publicity and praise that Shailaja received from all across the world?

“This rule of no second term does not seem to have been applied to Pinarayi Vijayan. Shailaja should have been CM,’’ said Sucheta De, a central committee member of CPI (M-L) Liberation. Using that same, wistful phrase “missed opportunity”, De however links the issue to the larger social landscape. Just like women in the larger society struggle to get their voice heard, the same is true for women within the Left. Just like women are minuscule in positions of power elsewhere, so it is in Left organisations too. Because the leadership and party workers are all a part of society and therefore reflect its patriarchy, she says.

“Patriarchy is always using some kind of logic to explain their actions and we see it in their cabinet change explanation too,” said Kawalpreet Kaur, who is a national vice president of All India Students’ Association (AISA). “They say we had one and now we have three, what kind of logic is this? They talk about women’s representation but only when it suits them.”

The KK Shailaja episode has also brought back memories of what happened with KR Gouri, the founding member of the party and six-time minister in the 1987 state election. While the CPI(M) fought the election with her at the helm and she led them to a win, they chose EK Nayanar soon after. Gouri made her unhappiness clear and objected which finally led to her expulsion in 1994.

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“The two cases are very similar, the only difference was that the elections then were fought under Gowri Amma. However, when you talk about continuity, then to a large measure, it is about Shailaja’s work,’’ said Devika.

But academic P Geetha differs on this point. “It would be great injustice to the history of Kerala, women and the communist party if somebody draws a parallel between Gowri Amma and KK Shailaja. Gowri amma is one among the leaders who led the foundation of communist movement in the state. She belongs to an era of sacrifice, struggle and bravery. She is a legend,’’ she said.

There are more recent instances as well, of the party expelling women who speak their mind. Like the party’s central committee member Jagmati Sangwan, who was expelled in 2016 because she went public with her views against the Left tie-up with the Congress in the assembly elections. While she is now back in the party, she no longer has the seniority. She didn’t want to comment on the Shailaja matter, when asked by HT.

Carole Spary, author of the book Performing Representation, on Indian women MPs said the gender discrimination was very apparent in the Left.

“Something that has often struck me is the dissonance between how politically active women are in the Left parties’ women’s organisations and in mobilising other women on behalf of their parties, and the lack of opportunities from their parties to serve as elected representatives or in party leadership positions. In other words, they have a ready made base of politically experienced and motivated women from which to choose potential candidates so they can’t cite lack of interest or available candidates,’’ she said.

The quest for more equity

While most of the women leaders HT spoke to are disheartened, there are signs of change every day. Signs that younger leaders such as De, Krishnan and Kaur see around them. Yes, there is patriarchy but there is also a lot of engagement with the idea, there is also a lot of conversation around it and an acknowledgement of it.

Kavita Krishnan recalls an event in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 1994 when council elections were on. When a woman proposed their induction, a man got up to say, “What’s the point of having 5-6 women when there is already one in the council?” His response sparked considerable outrage and helped her make up her mind to take up the position but Krishnan is quite certain that no one would publicly dare say something like this today.

For Annie Raja, change is personified in her daughter Aparajita Raja. A student leader who is active in Left politics and was a prominent face in JNU, Aparajita is far less tolerant than her mother of such inequality. “I once told her this is ok for a man and what she told me keeps me awake at night even today- I didn’t expect this from you.” A new, more assertive group of feminists is ready to take on the patriarchy in the Left.

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