Mullappally Ramachandran (L) with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in the presence of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, New Delhi. (File Image)
Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee President Mullappally Ramachandran has kicked up a storm with his sexist comments against Kerala health minister KK Shailaja. On June 19, speaking at a protest meeting flanked by senior Congress leaders from Kerala, Ramachandran used terms such as “Nipah Princess” and “Covid Rani” for the minister, who had been winning accolades from all over for her co-ordination of the state’s COVID-19 response.
What could well have ended with a mundane retraction and apology has now snowballed into a huge issue, thanks to Ramachandran’s obstinacy and refusal to express regret over the issue. For some strange reason, Ramachandran, who is a two-time minister of state in the Union Cabinet and seven-time MP, fell back on a write-up in The Guardian, where Shailaja is referred to as a ‘Rock Star’ to try and defend himself by misrepresenting the usage to “Rock Dancer” instead.
Sadly, Ramachandran’s is not a one-off case. Despite all its pretensions of being a highly-literate state, Kerala’s politicians of all hues are routinely used to making sexist comments against their political rivals, and women in general.
Meanwhile, the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) and its leaders have been going to town over the issue. However, the record of Left leaders when it comes to sexist remarks and comments laced with misogyny is equally bad, if not worse.
In the run-up to the 2019 general elections, LDF Convenor A Vijayaraghavan made a misogynist comment laced with sexual innuendo against Congress candidate Remya Haridas, which triggered a backlash against him.
Veteran Marxist leader and former Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan was in the eye of a controversy in the run-up to the 2011 assembly elections when he made a similar innuendo against his Congress opponent Lathika Subhash by stating, “She (Lathika Subhash) is famous for many things. I don’t have to tell you. You can make out”, which he later retracted.
Even former Chief Minister and CPI(M) leader late EK Nayanar, who endeared to people with his quick wit and smiling disposition, was notorious for making sexist and misogynist comments. “As long as there are women, there will be sex scandals,” was his reaction to a sex scandal during his term in office. On another occasion, he said, “In the US, rape is like drinking a cup of coffee.”
Even a stalwart like late EMS Namboothirippad was not above it. When Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things made waves, he accused Roy of writing ‘immoral things about her mother, who did not protest. I am not that kind of communist,’ EMS is reported to have said.
Kerala has been witness to a large number of sex scandals involving politicians. Politics aside, Kerala’s art and cultural landscape too have been afflicted by misogyny and sexism. Many popular movies by actors such as Mammootty and Mohanlal are a case in point; although things are changing slowly. The casual sexism in Kerala’s popular TV soaps, comedy skits and other programmes show no signs of change, though.
Recently, a male anchor in a Malayalam news channel while holding a primetime debate refused to dub Ramachandran’s comments as outright sexist; instead extrapolating the colourful language to a more gender-neutral construct, thereby exposing the lack of comprehension of such issues by even trained news presenters.
All these point towards a larger malaise in societal Kerala with its high human development indices. The other side of the prevalence of casual sexism is the existence of prudishness and moral policing guided by a sense of Victorian morality. While the younger generation has displayed more gender sensitivity compared to their predecessors, it will not be easy to change the prevalent norms overnight.
Even Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who swears by gender equality makes a mockery of it by making the health minister a mute spectator at press conferences by not allowing her to take questions pertaining to the health ministry.
Coming back to Ramachandran, his fellow Congress leaders aren’t willing to concede that his comments were sexist. The fact that he hasn’t been taken to task by the central leadership of the Congress reflects poorly on the grand old party, led by a woman leader.Anand Kochukudy is a political commentator and editor, The Kochi Post. Views are personal.