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Do Women Have it Tough in Communist Systems? What Shailaja’s Absence in Pinarayi Cabinet Tells Us

File image of KK Shailaja.

File image of KK Shailaja.

Pinarayi Vijayan is very conscious of what eventually destroyed the Left in West Bengal. He is unlikely to repeat those mistakes in Kerala.

All political parties in India, with a singular exception, are feudal and patriarchal. The exception is the Trinamool Congress, which is still too adventurist to follow stratified political norms. But the exception really should have been the parties on the Left, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the CPI (M), which came into being essentially as an anti-feudal, anti-patriarchal movement of workers and the bourgeoisie and should have by now succeeded in obliterating all lines of discrimination, including that of gender.

During the Independence movement, the Congress, the party that fought for India’s freedom, borrowed many of its ideas of social justice from the Communists, but in the years since, it is the Left parties which have borrowed patriarchalism from other parties and have conducted themselves most miserably of all with regard to at least one section of society—women, constituting one half of the nation’s population. The Congress and other political parties, including the BJP, are accused of perpetrating dynasty—and, it is true that most women in leadership positions in political parties are either related to powerful male leaders or have carried forward the legacy of a male party founder. It was only in 2005 when a woman made it to the Politburo—the highest decision-making body of the CPI(M). Incidentally, Brinda Karat is related to Prakash Karat, a former general secretary and a very influential Communist leader in the country.

Now, in more evidence of the Left parties’ scant respect for independent women who make it under their own steam, in Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has dropped K.K. Shailaja, his former health minister, from his cabinet despite the fact that over the past year she fought a valiant battle against COVID-19 and the Kerala model of combating the disease has received much kudos from the world over. She has been consulted liberally by health ministers across India and she, in turn, has not been too far behind in borrowing the best practices from nations across the world to combat the disease.

This is not the first time, however, that a successful woman on the Left has been denied the fruits of her labour. K. R. Gouri Amma was earlier promoted by the Communist leaders as a future chief minister of Kerala but dropped like a hot potato when it came to the high stakes. Although, as Niloufer Bhagwat, a Left ideologue, says, in the context of Shailaja Teacher per se, it might be too early to write off the Communist leaders as patriarchal for Vijayan has dropped his entire cabinet including a highly performing male finance minister.

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“I am not against the policy of inducting fresh blood into the cabinet and preventing vested interests from growing by giving endless terms in office to one person,” she says, “But it is also true that the Communist parties’ record with regard to women in leadership positions is dismal and they are notorious for pushing them into areas where they will not interfere with the male hierarchy.”

For example, says Bhagwat, over the decades whenever a woman leader in the Communist parties has shown promise, she has been promptly shunted to work with the women’s wing where she would be no competition to the men. “In that sense, their record is worse than that of some other political parties who have, on occasion, allowed the odd woman leader to rise to the top.”

But Soniya Gill, who has spent long years working with the Left organisations, disagrees. At the moment, the president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions is a woman. K. Hemalatha is the first woman to head a trade union in the country and this includes trade unions affiliated to all political parties and not just the Marxists. “It has taken a while but women are getting there and this is true of not just the Left but all political parties.”

On Shailaja, both Bhagwat and Gill agree that one must wait and watch what role the party defines for her in the future, it is too simplistic to presume that she has been sidelined or dropped from the Vijayan cabinet for her competence that might have ruffled some male feathers across the state or party. Shailaja received the full support of her chief minister as well as officials in the state as she battled COVID and Vijayan, who was on television almost every day during the crisis, did not seem to curtail her or put out by her performance. So this particular decision, which has come as a shock to most observers, might not quite be the denial or deprivation as is being presumed by others.

Bhagwat believes it is a good idea to always get younger people with more energy into various government departments and use the more experienced hands for field work wherein they would not only leverage their vast experience for the state and the party but also help identify and spot people and issues that might miss the eye of less experienced people.

Vijayan is very conscious of what eventually destroyed the Left in West Bengal, and patriarchy in a society that sets store by the Mother Goddess has not been the least of the factors. He is unlikely to repeat those mistakes in a state which is fiercely anti-feudal and has always placed more value on women, having been a matriarchal society until after Independence.

At the moment, the ongoing COVID crisis makes one believe that Shailaja has been given the cold shoulder. However, there are many roles a leader of her stature can play outside the government and it remains to be seen whether Vijayan means to reward her or actually punish her for her competence. If the latter, it could sound the death knell for the CPI(M) in Kerala as well.

Disclaimer:Sujata Anandan is a senior journalist and is the author of Samrat: How the Shiv Sena Changed Mumbai Forever. Views expressed are personal.

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