The glass ceiling is unshattered in Kerala

K.K.Shailaja, known as “Shailaja Teacher” in Kerala, and hailed as the “Corona virus slayer” outside the State, has not been given a place in the new cabinet of Pinarayi Vijayan. She will be around as Chief Whip of her party in the Legislative Assembly, a role that ensures members follow the party line, which the CPI(M) legislators usually do. Her exclusion from the ministry and relegation to a new role came as a surprise to many in and outside Kerala, which is known for progressive policies that have helped achieve the development indices it is proud of, and helped fight the pandemic better than many other States. Chief Minister Vijayan himself has been careful to project his concern for women. On May 09, he wrote: “The self-sacrificing mother is a much-glorified image. Often, this restricts women's freedom and self-sufficiency. The Left stands for equality that transcends gender. On this Mother's Day, let us welcome our mothers outside the confines of our homes into a wide world.” So why was a high performing woman minister in the midst of a pandemic she managed so well, dropped?

Shailaja's exclusion from the second Vijayan cabinet on the grounds that no ministers would do a second term (barring the CM) has left voters wondering why an exception could not be made for the former health minister, who at least in some eyes was widely seen as a likely future CM.

Shailaja is not the first woman to hit what might be the rather hard glass ceiling in Kerala. In 1987, K.K. Gowri Amma, Kerala’s first Revenue Minister was by-passed for the position of Chief Minister that she was widely considered to be a front runner for. She had helped stalwarts like EMS Namboodiripad and A.K.Gopalan build the party which came to power in 1957 giving Kerala the world’s first democratically elected communist government. As a powerful revenue minister, Gowri Amma brought in revolutionary land reforms that changed the way of land use and upset the prevailing feudal system.  It was her help in the early initiatives which focused on health and education that have ensured that the State continues to have the best healthcare indices and highest literacy rate.

She was considered a serious contender for the position of Chief Minister after the election in 1987, when E.K. Nayanar was chosen over her. In fact, Kerala has never had a woman Chief Minister and Gowri Amma was being reckoned as the first. Of course, India has had many shining examples of woman Chief Ministers elsewhere, beginning with the noted Gandhian and freedom fighter Sucheta Kripalani, who was the first Indian Chief Minister of the largest State, Uttar Pradesh, between 1963 and 1967. Nandini Satpathy became the Chief Minister of Orissa in 1972, the second Indian woman to head a State. For most years, the country has always had at least one woman heading a State, with today Mamata Banerjee doing her third consecutive term in West Bengal. Across India, 16 women have headed States from Assam (Anwara Taimur: 1980 -1981), Jammu & Kashmir (Mehbooba Mufti: 2016-2018), and Goa (Shashikala Kakodkar: 1973- 1979) to Tamil Nadu (Jayalalitha: five terms between 1991 and 2016) since the 1960s. 

The “progressive” tag does not sit too well considering the low numbers of women in the State Legislature and Parliament from Kerala

Why has Kerala, in many ways a natural choice for a woman Chief Minister given the achievements of many women from the State, their role in politics, not to speak of matrilineal traditions that are seen in parts of the State, failed to have a woman Chief Minister? This is after all the State with a rich history of women participation and leadership on key issues, like the legendary freedom fighter A.V. Kuttimalu Amma who was jailed with her six-month old daughter way back in 1932 for participation in the civil disobedience movement in the Thissur area.

In the present times, Shailaja, like Gowri Amma, has earned a name for great capability and commitment. Her exemplary handling of Covid-19 and the flu outbreaks earlier were among the efforts that helped the government return this time bucking an over four-decades old trend that has alternated power between the Congress-led UDF and CPI(M)-led LDF. The “Financial Times”, UK, placed her among its most influential women in 2020 and Britain’s current affairs magazine “Prospect” picked her as the world’s top “thinker for the Covid-19 age” from a group of 50 that listed New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern and philosopher Cornel West. She also returned with the biggest margin of 61,000 votes from her constituency Mattannur.

So, her exclusion from the second Vijayan cabinet on the grounds that no ministers would do a second term (barring the CM) has left voters wondering why an exception could not be made for the former health minister, who at least in some eyes was widely seen as a likely future CM. The Marxist party State Committee meeting held before the new team was announced did not run its usual rambling course. Its brevity indicated Vijayan’s complete hold on State party matters.

Just as GDP numbers by themselves do not deliver wellbeing, we are learning something similar about human development indicators.

It was in some senses a replay of 1987. At a post-election meeting in that year, senior party leaders chose E.K.Nayanar over K.R. Gowri Amma although the party’s election campaign repeatedly suggested that the State would have the first woman chief minister if they won. The slogan heard then was: Keralanaattil KR Gouri Amma bharikkum (Kerala will be ruled by KR Gouri Amma). Though she never got over the slight of being by-passed by a man she regarded as a novice, Gowri Amma accepted the Agriculture and Social Welfare portfolio in the first Nayanar ministry. But mounting differences with the CPI(M) led to her expulsion in 1994.

Earlier this month, on May 11, just short of her 102nd birthday, Gowri Amma passed away. When she served as Revenue Minister, Gowri Amma was the only woman in the government headed by EMS Namboodiripad in 1957. She won eight elections and held many portfolios in the communist governments of 1957, 1967, 1980 and 1987. Her commitment to the party was beyond even her personal life. When the communist party split in 1964, she chose the CPI(M), irrevocably straining her marriage, as her husband TV Thomas remained with the CPI. The party did try to make up for the problems of the past with the Vijayan government holding a year-long birthday celebration for her in 2019, the year Gowri Amma turned 100.

This time, the 140-member State Assembly has 11 women MLAs, a double digit after two decades. In 2016, a total of 108 women contested the polls, but only eight were elected.

There have been many analyses of what has been called the paradox of Kerala – good development indicators that should in theory make the space for gender empowerment, but that empowerment has eluded Kerala. The women leaders being side-lined are but a tiny window in what is thought to be a major concern beneath the statistics that look remarkably good.  The “progressive” tag does not sit too well considering the low numbers of women in the State Legislature and Parliament from Kerala. This time, the 140-member State Assembly has 11 women MLAs, a double digit after two decades. In 2016, a total of 108 women contested the polls, but only eight were elected.  The figures for Parliament are even poorer.  Kerala sends 20 MPs to the Lok Sabha and has nine Rajya Sabha seats, but since Independence, only nine State MPs from both houses of Parliament have been women. What this indicates is that development by itself does not change social and cultural norms. Just as GDP numbers by themselves do not deliver wellbeing, we are learning something similar about human development indicators.  It is easy to build a school and get a degree but it takes much more than that to be learned.

(The writer is the Managing Editor of The Billion Press)

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