Tale of Three Women, Caste and the CPI(M) in Kerala

“What a sad era when it is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice.”
Albert Einstein

The 2nd of May, 2021 made history of sorts in the brief 65 year existence of the state of Kerala, inasmuch as since the two political fronts in Kerala was more or less solidified, or in other words after 1984, a political front came to power for two consecutive terms. The crucial swing neutral Kerala voter gave up their famed penchant for alternating political formations this elections for a variety of reasons that neither the winners nor the losers in the electoral battle seem to have noticed – dangerously.

Any discussion about Kerala polity has to keep in mind it’s unique, albeit hegemonic, diversity in terms of religion. It is the only state (apart Panjab, erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir and North Eastern hill states), where religious minorities have a strong political presence. These elections were held in the backdrop of a raging Covid pandemic, a Hindutva union government that was visibly threatening to disenfranchise minorities and polarizing communities and an ineffective failed opposition. The voters decided that continuity would be the best option in dealing with the pandemic – with the Health Minister in the previous ministry K. K. Shailaja having had hands on experience in dealing with pandemics and disasters under the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the political positions taken by the Left Democratic Front with respect to National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, though half-hearted – the attempt to stand up to the right wing bullying on implementing the Supreme Court verdict on women’s entry into Sabarimala, while the United Democratic Front was playing to the savarna gallery and finally in a state that is getting off the yoke of Nair hegemony in its polity – the lead party of the United Democratic Front was more or less a soft Hindutva Nair-Syrian Christian male club – the resentment to which offset the regressive move by LDF to implement the controversial and immoral Economic Weaker Section reservation.

Nonetheless, the LDF approached the ballot with a brag that they stood for women’s and youth empowerment by trying to build a perception around the government’s handling of Sabarimala women’s entry – which was halfhearted and women effectively couldn’t gain entry into the temple and the appointment of Arya Rajendan as the youngest Mayor – which has been read as an attempt to exclude eligible Muslim and Dalit candidates in a Nair dominated constituency.

In an unprecedented move, the CPI (M) decided that all its ministers would be freshers. But, reminiscent of the Orwellian quote about Napoleon being more equal – this wasn’t to apply to the Chief Minister, himself. Effectively this meant that K. K. Shailaja – irrespective of her merits or demerits – was to be excluded and has been demoted to party whip. Coupled with the new rule that a person cannot contest for more than two consecutive terms for an elected position, this would mean that she could go into political wilderness after this term. This is pertinent given that Shailaja got more traction in the national and international media than the Chief Minister and also won this round of elections with the highest victory margin in the history of Kerala – more than the Chief Minister.

According, to the party, its decision was in line with the new party policy to enthuse youth leadership and is not at all an attempt to sideline Shailaja. Some of the cadres have also gone on the offensive attacking opinions that have questioned Shailaja’s exclusion. This defense proffered by the party and its cadre rings hollow, particularly given the history of how the party has treated powerful women in the past. In 1987, the party had won a mandate projecting Gouri Amma who was popular both among the voters and the bureaucracy as the Chief Ministerial candidate. The slogan that the slogan that was used to woo voters was “keram thingum Kerala naad, K. R. Gouri bharikatte” (Let K. R. Gouri rule the state filled with coconut trees). However, post victory, the position was given to a “nair” – E. K. Nayanar prompting Gouri Amma herself to say that she was denied chief ministership because she was a “choththi”(chovan woman). To put her in place, she was first demoted from the party state secretariat to district committee and finally thrown out of the party itself in 1994 – in all probabilities because the party couldn’t stand an outspoken lower caste woman with charisma and voter base. This was despite the fact that Gouri Amma was the second most important minister in successive left governments. Once again in 1996, one of the founders of the communist movement and a grassroots worker, Susheela Gopalan lost the vote for chief ministership by one vote and had to be content with being Minister for Industries and Social Welfare. Interestingly this time when Pinarayi Vijayan gets reinstated as the Chief Minister, there has been no calls for vote.

Shailaja Teacher with K R Gowri

In an opinion piece in the Economic Times, T. K. Arun parrots the regular defense of the exclusion of K. K. Shailaja in very condescending terms that she is only a “dutiful” comrade, who does a good job of the task she is given!!! And that she has no mass base and following in the party. While the first statement is patronizing and I suppose people want leaders who do a good job, the second statement is far from the truth. Shailaja’s historic victory margin is enough evidence for it. If that isn’t satisfactory, I have been on the field working for (left) candidates both in the recent local body elections and assembly elections and I have heard many party workers saying that K. K. Shailaja would win from any constituency that she chooses to contest. A girl who memorized the names of all the sitting Members of Legislative Assembly and their constituencies in Kerala, when asked which MLA, she would want to meet, her prompt answer was Shailaja. Arun goes on to say that Shailaja isn’t as tall as Gouri Amma or Susheela Gopalan, but nonetheless in a retraction of his justification of Shailaja’s exclusion, he argues that Gouri Amma was excluded in favour of Nayanar, who wasn’t as much a mass leader, because he was amenable to the party “apparatchik”!

Arun’s opinion piece reflects a regular left malady in Indian politics – to deny the elephant in the room – namely the primacy of caste and gender in socio-political realpolitik. What Arun insinuates as “…the immediate reason for either K R Gouri or Susheela Gopalan failing to make it to chief minister or for Shailaja Teacher’s omission from Kerala’s forthcoming council of ministers is not gender bias. Rather, blame the dynamics of power politics within the party, its dominant factions and their leaders…” is exactly what lesser mortals would call patriarchy.

Since we are at it, it will also be pertinent to look at the other elephant that the CPI (M) refuses to acknowledge, while claiming that it is addressing the same. In what is perhaps a first in India, the CPI (M) has appointed K. Radhakrishnan, the only Dalit in the cabinet, as the Minister for Temple administration. While this has been hailed as “progressive” what it belies the composition of the cabinet and the sway of traditionally dominant communities therein.  We should let statistics speak for themselves, Nairs – the most dominant caste in Kerala after the Brahmins form around 14.46% of the total population of Kerala, but have managed to get a representation of 19% in the assembly – which is a statement on Kerala society. Now, if one looks at how the Pinarayi cabinet has dealt with proportional representation of particularly marginalised communities would clearly show the community blindness of the left movement in Kerala. In the run up to the election, G. Sukumaran Nair of the Nair Service Society – the strongest caste based organization in Kerala – gave a public call to vote against LDF. In all probabilities Nairs voted all three ways – LDF, UDF and NDA – and it is no secret that the leadership backbone of Hindutva in Kerala is the Nair community. Despite all of this, the LDF continues to patronize the caste dominance of the Nair communities. Out of the 12 ministers and the speaker that the CPI (M) has allocated itself, 5 belong to the Nair community, whereas the CPI has allotted 3 out of 4 ministerial berths to Nairs. Dalits with 10% representation get one minister, Adivasis get none and backward Christians one. Muslims have the single biggest community representation in Kerala assembly with 24% get exactly 3 ministerial berths and one of them goes to the Chief Minister’s son-in-law. Here, I need to add a caveat that Mohammed Riyas is a seasoned politician who has risen in the ranks of the party through his own steam and perhaps deserves the ministry. However, there is a cardinal principle that “not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.” 

The social distribution of the present LDF government is tabulated below:

Community% of total populationNumber of MinistersRepresentation
Nair communities11.98+205.8%
Ezhava communities21.65+5.22%
Other Hindu BCs7.01-35.06
Savarna Christians12.63+8.23%
Other Christians5.781-22.36%
Muslim communities26.563-48.66%
* Adivasis aren’t represented in the Cabinet at all!

But, the tragedy of Kerala polity and fortune for the LDF, is that the main opposition is in complete disarray and is being led by a male feudal dominant caste cabal who aren’t able to read the writing on the wall and is fast ceding it’s space to the LDF or NDA depending on the political perspective and identity location of its supporters.


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Bobby Kunhu Written by:

Bobby Kunhu studied Law


  1. Jay
    May 21, 2021

    Well written.

  2. Rajshree
    May 21, 2021

    Spot on ! Very well written.

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