Kerala, we don’t need you to be exceptional. Just give the woman the place she won. And give Kerala a whole lot more women to rise to the top, to not just serve tradition.
During this pandemic year among many other new things one minor struggle I have had is with the idea of Malayali exceptionalism. To be praised for something you haven’t earned is wonderful but not relaxing. Like having someone walk on your back during ayurvedic massage. Any minute, you fear you will hear a cracking sound.
Kerala is doing so well, Kerala is being so sensible, Kerala is the way to go, Kerala should be the capital. I have heard it all with what is known as a ‘vallicha chiri’ a rotten grimace. Why grimace you ask? Partly because skepticism is also part of my political inheritance as a Malayali. Partly, because this exceptionalism business ends with crying.
In all this, the one thing that has been real is my admiration of KK Shailaja, Kerala’s hard-working Health Minister. Never more than that moment in April 2021 when she said “had the Left been in power at the Centre now, we would have nationalised healthcare and education” – my heart leapt. Quarrel as you may with the nuts and bolts of a nationalised health system (and every country with one does) just the idea of a political leader who has a vision for the future and can articulate it in a sentence or two rather than go on for hours about their ugly hankering for an imaginary past? It knocked me off my feet.
In May, when the LDF won for the second time and then Shailaja won her seat with the greatest margin in the history of Kerala Assembly elections, I experienced a great and vicarious joy. More recently, I shared a sensationally sensible Mother’s Day posts from the Kerala government’s women and child welfare department with much pleasure. In brief, the post said that please treat mothers as individuals and not stereotypes. They were superb and I shared them widely. After a year of this first rank behavior, I was braced for the responses. My highly intelligent non-Malayali friend said Kerala should be the capital of India. I told her that I wish I had an emoji to express one feeling – my skepticism of Malayali men. She laughed and offered to make it for me.
She didn’t need to. Malayali men, my sisters, are doing it for themselves. As of yesterday, KK Shailaja is not to hold a position in the Cabinet and will be a party whip instead.
It’s a common trope on social media to complain that liberal men are the worst because you don’t know what is coming. In the same way that self-proclaimed liberal men seemed awesome in comparison to the men you grew up with, worked with, had to listen to whose iniquities were much more clearly visible, Pinarayi Vijayan and Co. have seemed truly stupendous in comparison with the Modi regime at the Centre. Like liberal men who have learnt to think well for themselves for the bare minimum, the LDF government in Kerala thinks well for themselves while we are supposed to continue to praise them.
The entry of three new faces in the Cabinet is a wonderful thing and perhaps Shailaja genuinely is okay with this decision (despite reliable stories that she was trying to staff her team even as recently as last week). But putting the brakes on her career at this point is about more than her. An old card-carrying Leftist friend said to me this week, “I worry that people have forgotten what equality is as a political goal.”
It has to be said that right now when the appearance of kindness, competence, good sense and most of all egalitarianism — in a country where the thinnest veneer of equality has been stripped away, the last mouthing of lip service to equality has fallen silent – even the acknowledgement of egalitarianism feels like medicine that will heal us. But it’s time to move from this gratitude for relative merits. And as even someone thinking about equality for the very first time – unlike my friend who has been thinking about it his entire political life — would know equality does not mean same. It means resonant, proud affirmative action.
One of modern India’s biggest political red herrings is the measuring political progressiveness on the basis of Hindu-Muslim amity because in different parts of the country we do social injustice in our own special Miley Sur Mera Tumhara way. Kerala does what I like to call Demonstrated Instances of Public Secularism and I, too, feel the cockles of my heart genuinely and unironically warm when they happen. But it does not clean up Kerala’s record towards Dalits, Adivasis and women. That is why it has been a significant development that Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is an Ezhava man. His unruffled, statesman like presence has been important not just because of the end-times we are living through.
And in the same vein, Shailaja KK’s presence is also important. While Kerala’s political party rank and file are full of raging, articulate women, the leadership is the same old (usually savarna) men. In 60 odd years, the percentage of women MLAs in the Kerala Assembly has never been more than 10 percent. Across Kerala’s colorful political spectrum, women are rarely given tickets to stand. (If you don’t know what happened to the best chief Minister Kerala never had, you can read about Gowriamma here in brief or here at length)
Consider Kerala State Mahila Congress President, Lathika Subhash. Her party didn’t give her a ticket for the 2021 Assembly elections and on March 1, 2021 in front of live TV audiences, she shaved her head in the yard of party headquarters. Lathika’s behavior electrified me for standing up for her ambitions and for spitting in the face of that thing expected of women in Kerala – dignity.
My only point of non-fandom for Shailaja (and really who am I to make aesthetic demands of a political star in the middle of the apocalypse) that she is swathed with dignity. It is a figure that commands admiration but also encourages other women to squeeze their ambition into non-threatening boxes, unlike Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee or the late Jayalalithaa. How can she when her universally admired USP – and the associated subliminal messaging of ‘dignity’ — seems to be that she doesn’t want power? Dignity is a value closely tied to the other piece of status quo apparatus that is being cited to defend her absence from the cabinet. That the CPM has a party tradition of giving new persons a chance. If ever there was a time to rethink party tradition, it would be now. And if there was a party that should pride itself in not being tied to tradition it should be the CPM. That is if a second year of the pandemic and Shailaja’s huge margin didn’t prompt a rethink.
Or consider a rising student politician from Kozhikode, that a friend once told me about. In the mid 2000s she was managing her public life carefully to fit within the Left’s acceptable modes of being. This unfortunately included her one day having to take her identical twin sister aside and telling her not to be seen in public with her boyfriend. In case someone mistake the non-politician sister for the politician one. That metaphor stayed with me. The idea that every woman’s behavior would affect the candidate’s prospects. And that the candidate’s behavior would dictate how other women should behave too. We are not really into personality cults in Kerala – that old skepticism thing but in the case of women, the demand to be self-effacing leans hard into self-erasing. We are encouraged to work hard and get jobs and make money as long as both means and ends involve serving other people.
Yesterday, a friend said to me that perhaps when the pandemic is over we will all be too broken by loss and suffering to protest anything. Or even alive. But the news about KK Shailaja being made into a party whip brought me out of my stupor. My skepticism is on high alert and I might even make that emoji. Kerala, we don’t need you to be exceptional. Just give the woman the place she won. And give Kerala a whole lot more women to rise to the top, to not just serve tradition. That’s not exceptional. That’s normal.
The author has also written The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories