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From Gouri Amma to KK Shailaja: The patriarchal Left-wing political parties have no space for women at the top

Despite praised for her work as health minister of Kerala, KK Shailaj was dropped from Pinarayi Vijayan's new Cabinet as the communist party decided to induct new faces

Kerala’s former health minister KK Shailaja, popularly referred to as Shailaja Teacher by her supporters, was dropped from Pinarayi Vijayan’s new Cabinet as the communist party decided to induct new faces including Chief Minister-designate Pinarayi Vijayan’s son-in-law and DYFI national president Mohammed Riyas. The former health minister was instead named as the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s chief whip.

CPI(M)’s decision to not include KK Shailaja in the cabinet despite her popularity and contribution to Kerala’s struggle against Covid and Nipah outbreak has come as a shock to many, who have been criticising the leftist government since the state committee announced its decision.

Many social media users who voiced strong protest against the party’s decision to drop ‘Shailaja teacher’, reminisced how it was the Pinarayi Vijayan’s government that had sung accolades for her during the Kerala assembly elections for leading the state through many crisis situations.

KK Shailaja and her contribution to Kerala’s public health system

KK Shailaja was the health minister in the first term of the Pinarayi Vijayan government in Kerala. In the recently concluded Assembly elections, Shailaja was elected from the Mattannur assembly seat with a margin of around 60,000 votes. During her term as the health minister of the state, Kerala had witnessed an unprecedented growth of the public health system, particularly at the grassroots level. This development has ultimately played a vital role now helping Kerala fight the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, at one time, party circles had even highlighted Shailaja as the successor to Pinarayi Vijayan. And now, surprisingly, she has been denied a cabinet post this term.

Leftist parties anti-women culture

Though this decision by Kerala’s left government has been receiving widespread condemnation, it does not come as a complete surprise for those who are aware of the party’s patriarchal and misogynistic character. Well, this decision is being seen as another example of the anti-women culture of the Left parties.

Despite the Left parties rhetorics of often equating Left-wing politics with feminism, the fact is that women have never been welcomed in their political space.

And while talking about the hypocrisy of the left parties towards women’s participation in politics, it becomes important to remember the legendary Marxist firebrand and former minister KR Gouri, popularly known as Gouri Amma.

Gouri Amma, Kerala’s ‘iron lady’ and ‘architect of land reforms’ died on 11 July 2021, 9 days after the results of the Kerala assembly elections were declared. She was the lone surviving member of the first Kerala legislative assembly headed by legendary Communist leader EMS Namboothiripad in 1957 and the only woman in the first state cabinet.

The woman leader served as a member of various communist governments — 1957, 1967, 1980 and 1987 and was also a member of AK Antony and Oommen Chandy governments from 2001-2006. She was the longest-serving MLA after late K M Mani.

A report by the News Minute states that during the 1987 elections, though she was projected as the Chief Ministerial candidate, she was allegedly sidelined by the Marxist party which preferred E K Nayanar for the top post.

Likewise, Susheela Gopalan, a communist leader and minister in LDF Government was also believed to be sidelined by the party because of her gender.

Interestingly, KK Shailaja’s political journey with the leftist party in Kerala has been quite similar to that of Gouri Amma and Susheela Gopalan. Shailaja has also been sidelined at a time when it was being believed that in future she would prove to be the most powerful contender for the post of Chief Minister in the state.

Though the leftist government in Kerala has a history of dumping women politician, this has been a tradition with leftists parties all over India. CPM, the largest of the Left parties in India, which is also the parent party of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), a major force in JNU campus politics formed its highest executive body called the politburo.

In 2005, Brinda Karat became the first woman politician to become a politburo member. It cannot be a coincidence that the same year her husband Prakash Karat was made the party general secretary when Brinda Karat was inducted in the party. Brinda Karat disappeared from the political scene as soon as Prakash Karat too went out of the spotlight.

Similarly, if we look at the CPI(ML), the parent party of AISA, the largest political organisation on the JNU campus, its politburo is a 17-member body, of which only one is female.

In short, there has hardly been any woman controlling these parties. This proves that the decision making power in these leftist parties have always primarily lied with men, with zero or token representation for women.

CPI-M, whose decline from the India political scenerio began in 2009, fielded just two women candidates (out of 42) in West Bengal in the 2009 parliamentary elections. Likewise, in the 2014 parliamentary elections, it fielded only 11 women candidates across the country, of whom only one could secure her seat.

In the last Assembly elections in Kerala, Left Democratic Front (LDF) fielded 17 women candidates in a 140-member assembly. Out of this, 12 were fielded by CPM and four by CPI. Moreover, after forming the government, the LDF government in Kerala allotted only two cabinet seats out of 19 to women.

The leftists have, basically, never considered women capable of running a party or government and taking any decisions on the party’s behalf.

Though the Indian political perspective towards women changed when the country got its first woman Chief Minister in 1963 and the first woman Prime Minister in 1966, the leftist parties attitude towards women’s participation in politics remained unchanged. It should also be noted that women have never been elevated to the position of chief minister or home minister by these leftists parties.

Amidst all this, what is worse is that these shunned women politicians such as the likes of KK Shailaja are expected to ‘welcome’ the decision of their master, however, unfair it may be. According to reports, after the announcement of her exclusion from the cabinet, Shailaja told Malayalam news channels that she will “abide” by the party call.

“Everyone worked hard in their depts. But it doesn’t mean that only I should continue. There are so many other people like me, they can also work hard. It’s very good decision”, Shailaja told media.

The second Pinarayi Vijayan government in Kerala will be sworn in on May 20, with 21-member cabinet. The ceremony has already sparked a row after Pinarayi Vijayan’s announced 500 participants will attend his oath-taking ceremony.

There was widespread criticism that the government should avoid extravaganza while the capital is under triple lockdown in the wake of a Covid surge.

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