How could the CPI(M) not give Shailaja Teacher a second term as health minister? After all, she had been the public face of Kerala’s competent Covid management, until chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan took over that role with daily press briefings that outcompeted any other bit of television programming in the evening in the state.
Some people see Vijayan nipping a potential challenge to his position in the bud. Others see this as manifestation of the party’s insensitivity towards gender. Some of the latter lot have compared Shailaja Teacher’s treatment with that dealt out to two women stalwarts in the past, KR Gouri and Susheela Gopalan, who could have made it to chief minister but did not.
Shailaja Teacher’s omission from the Cabinet reflects both Vijayan’s dominance in the party and the dominance falling short of unquestioned authority. She is not the central character in this drama. Those familiar with the play Waiting for Godot would know that Godot never puts in an appearance on stage: characters engaging the audience often matter less than dramatis personae offstage.
Shailaja Teacher is a dutiful comrade, who does a good job of the task she is given. That is about it. She is not a mass leader, she does not command a devoted following within the party, and she is not even remotely close to challenging Vijayan’s leadership.
She was not renominated as minister, to comply with a rule that Vijayan had set while choosing candidates: to have a two-term cap for MLAs, and to have fresh faces as ministers.
For Vijayan, Teacher would be good minister to have. She would do her job, can be trusted not to get into trouble with the media and would reinforce, rather than weaken, his own leadership. However, to renominate her would have meant deviating from the rules set at the outset.
That rule had prevented some important leaders, including EP Jayarajan, minister in the last cabinet, from being renominated. Those dropped on this count included Thomas Isaac, a competent finance minister whose productive presence the GST Council would surely miss.
If Vijayan had total control over the party, of the kind Modi has over the BJP, breaking the rule would not have mattered. But that is not the case. The party still functions with some modicum of internal democracy and total arbitrariness would create problems. So, Shailaja Teacher had to be sacrificed. That is about all.
Is the inclusion of Vijayan’s son-in-law Mohammad Riyaz in the cabinet a sign of nepotism within the party? It is not, because he married Pinarayi’s daughter only some months ago, whereas he has been a leader of the party in his own right for decades, from his time as a student.
He also represents Kozhikode, apart from the Muslim community. It is vital for Kerala’s democracy for Muslims to be represented in the leadership of mainstream political parties, even if these leaders are not quite the models of piety the clerics approve of.
Comparing Shailaja Teacher with KR Gouri or Susheela Gopalan does injustice to these tall leaders. Of the two, Gouri Amma, as she came to be known, was the more inspiring leader, by far.
In the first Communist-led government of Kerala of 1957, which included a legal mind like Krishna Iyer, who went on to become a Supreme Court justice, she was the one entrusted with the Revenue department, charged with framing the law for land reforms, to secure permanency of tenancy.
She certainly had the help of other legal professionals within the party, but it was her duty, primarily, to frame a law that could withstand legal challenge and deliver on the Communist movement’s most important promise to the people. She did a brilliant job of framing the law and defending it in the Assembly.
She was no backroom legal mind, but a mass leader. In 1964, when the Communist Party of India split and the CPI(M) was formed, she sided with the CPI(M), even as her husband and Communist leader TV Thomas stayed on in the CPI. This led to their separation.
She was popular enough for the party to allow a section of its campaign to project her as chief minister in the 1987 assembly elections. She was widely expected to become chief minister when the Communist-led front secured a majority.
She lost out to EK Nayanar, for no good reason other than her reputation for not being amenable to control. Nayanar then was more party apparatchik than mass leader, whereas she had already been a popular leader for decades. She joined as a minister in Nayanar’s cabinet, but later parted ways with the party; in fact, was expelled.
In 1997, when the Communist-led front secured a majority again, Susheela Gopalan nearly became the chief minister, but her selection would have been inconvenient to the faction led by VS Achuthanandan, who propped up, successfully, Nayanar as the chief minister yet again.
Patriarchal bias runs through Kerala’s culture, for all its history of matriliny. And that is something that the Left movement significantly has failed to address as part of its main agenda. That failure is responsible for the paucity of women leaders in the state.
But 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.
There is little reason to believe that new women leaders who have been brought into the cabinet would not perform in their roles as well as Shailaja Teacher had in hers.
The problem with the party lies elsewhere: in its anti-democratic urges symbolised by retention of Stalin as an icon, even after compelling historical evidence that he was a mass murderer who killed internal democracy within the Soviet Communist Party, and its choice to bury, in fuzzy talk about development, rather than confront, the incompatibility of its programmatic hostility towards capitalism with the absence of a viable alternative in the real world.
This article first appeared in The Economic Times | Leave Poor Shailaja Teacher Alone on May 19, 2021.
About the author:
TK Arun is the consulting editor with The Economic Times. He has also been a guest lecturer at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute.