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KR Gouri to KK Shailaja: When Women Leaders Threaten Patriarchal Politics in Kerala

‘Keram thingum Kerala naadu, KR Gouri bharichidum’

KR Gouri will rule Kerala - the land of coconut trees.

The reverberating slogan brought the communists to victory in 1987, but KR Gouriyamma projected as the Chief Minister candidate was left out. Instead, EK Nayanar was made the Chief Minister.

KR Gouriyamma, often called the Iron Lady of Kerala politics, holds the record of winning the largest number of elections among all politicians in Kerala by winning 13 out of the 17 elections she contested. She joined the Communist Party in 1947 and is the first woman minister of Kerala. She was a visionary, and her efforts were instrumental in shaping the aspirations of the state. Gouriyamma was the architect of land reforms in Kerala. The successful implementation of land reforms was one of the major driving forces in improving the socio-economic indicators in Kerala.

KR Gouri on the left (Source:The Hindu BusinessLine); KK Shailaja on the right (Source: Money Control)

Although she was one of the founding leaders of the Communist movement in Kerala, she was later expelled from the Party in 1994 as a part of disciplinary actions. The Party which she nurtured to grow, the ideology for which she left her marriage abandoned her almost five decades after joining. She later blamed EMS Namboodiripad for her eviction from the Party. According to veteran journalist BRP Bhaskar-"You can't blame her for saying that EMS was responsible for keeping her out. He knew that if she continued in the Party, no one could prevent her from becoming the CM. She had a mind of her own and was not someone out to further any personal agenda."

Kerala sees its history repeat when KK Shailaja, one of the star campaigners for the 2021 elections in Kerala, doesn't find a place in the new cabinet. The Party is going for an entirely new cohort of ministers except for the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. KK Shailaja has made her presence felt by her leadership as the health minister of Kerala and is celebrated as the epitome of women in power not just in Kerala but throughout India and abroad. She received international recognition for her efforts in curbing the Nipah virus outbreak in 2018. She became the face of Kerala in the fight against Covid -19 pandemic and was honoured by the United Nations in June 2020 for her efforts. However, her absence in the cabinet comes much to the dismay of the voters. If the Party's rule is not to allow a second term for ministers, why does chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan get an exception? The rule should apply to everyone. If there is an exception, who else is a better deserving candidate than KK Shailaja, who won the election with a historical majority of over 60000 votes, the highest ever in the state?

Source: The News Minute

The LDF denied everyone who won 2 consecutive elections party tickets in the recent elections to allow new faces, which is an encouraging initiative to bring newer candidates in politics and needs to be followed by other parties. But would this mean KK Shailaja could be denied a ticket in the next election if the norm needs to be followed? Is there a deliberate attempt to sideline KK Shailaja?

Even though the new government has three women ministers- Veena George, R Bindu and J Chinjurani, the highest ever in the state, it is not an apt justification for cutting off women with strong leadership and excellent administrative skills from positions of power. This tendency to sideline women is not exclusive to any political party. Irrespective of party lines, there is rampant sexism in the Indian political structures, which needs to be checked and voiced sooner.

Although KK Shailaja, the former health minister, denied any disappointment at being kept out of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's cabinet, saying that it was the "policy decision" of the Party that she accepted, it is a major disappointment to women in India who had seen her as an inspiration. If there are such check posts for the women politicians whose image grows beyond Party lines, how would India ever realise its goal of Gender Equality? The patriarchal mindset would limit the benefits of social and economic development that should follow democracies. If the patriarchal foundations continue to restrict the democratic structures of India, the equality of status and opportunity, the pillar of any democracy assured by the Constitution, is beyond reach in our lifetime. Decisions like these are a major setback for Indian women in their quest for political space and their ongoing struggle for an active role in India's destiny making.

There needs to be transparency regarding the decisions and 'policies' of political parties. They are also institutions of democracy and cannot behave like private organisations. There needs to be a call for democratic processes within all the political parties. We could see an over-representation of men and a total disregard for women in the highest decision making bodies of all major political parties. As citizens, our responsibility as voters doesn't end at the polling booths; we need to call out the discrepancies and ensure such deviations from democratic practices are on the check.

Aparna Dev, Advocate, Women for Politics

Aparna is an IISER Thiruvananthapuram alumnus. She is passionate about public policy, politics and would like to promote diversity, inclusion, and equity at workplaces.

She could be reached on LinkedIn here.

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This article gives the views of the author, and not necessarily represent the position of Women for Politics

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