How Ramon Magsaysay and the award in his memory have divided the CPI(M) in Kerala

On a CPI(M) diktat, KK Shailaja refuses the award. Is an insecure Vijayan and his waning popularity the reason behind it?

ByK A Shaji

Published Sep 06, 2022 | 8:00 AMUpdatedSep 06, 2022 | 9:36 PM

Shailaja teacher

In the 2016 Kerala Assembly election, when CPI(M) Central Committee member KK Shailaja defeated KP Mohanan of the Janata Dal (United) in the Mattannur constituency, her margin of victory was a somewhat modest 12,291 votes.

Five years later, in 2021, when she defeated Illikkal Augusthi of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), she had a majority of 60,961 votes, the largest in the state.

The huge jump in her margin of victory was a reflection of how the higher secondary school teacher, who took voluntary retirement to actively engage with Left politics, saw her appeal grow phenomenally not just in her Mattannur constituency, but also across Kerala, in the five years she was health minister of the state.

Political observers attribute her popularity to the deft handling of recurring virus outbreaks — from Nipah to Corona. Though she was a first-time minister with limited exposure to the medical sector, Shailaja could instill confidence in the minds of the medical experts she worked with and provide them clear direction at a time when the virus outbreaks plunged many other states and countries into panic mode.

After the high, the low

But curiously, her achievements, and the national and international profile it gave her, may well have been a key reason for her losing her Cabinet berth, and the health minister’s portfolio, when her party, and the alliance it led, won a massive mandate riding, among things, on the goodwill created by her among the people.

A leader who was briefly even spoken of as Kerala’s likely first women chief minister if the CPI(M) was voted to power for a second consecutive time, Shailaja has now been reduced to the level of one among the 99 ruling party members in the state Assembly.

Although one of the 85 elected members of the party’s Central Committee, she does not hold any key position in feeder organisations like the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). Nor is she a member of the powerful State Secretariat of the party.


KK Shailaja, popularly known as Shailaja teacher, addressing a public meeting. (Supplied)

It was in this background that Kerala reacted with disbelief to the claim of the CPI(M) national leadership that Shailaja Teacher, as she is affectionately known, was asked not to accept the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award because it was instituted in memory of a Philippines leader who worked as a protege of America’s CIA and defeated the Communist guerilla movement Hukbalahap through brutal military action.

CPI(M)’s specious claims

This is a difficult-to-digest claim. For, the CPI(M) raised no objections in June 2021 when the Central European University (CEU) selected Shailaja as a recipient of its Open Society Prize in recognition of her influential leadership role in controlling the pandemic’s curve.

The CEU was founded by Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros, who played a significant role in dismantling Communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe during the 1980s and 1990s. Soros might also have accepted American aid and assistance.

Shailaja received the prize and gave an acceptance speech claiming credit for strengthening the public health care system in the state.

Many people across the state also find specious the party’s claim that Kerala’s achievements in the fight against coronavirus were the outcome of collective action and not the the actions of a particular individual.

‘Vijayan no different from Magsaysay’

More trenchant critics of the CPI(M) may well find similarities between Ramon Magsaysay and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. There have been several instances in the recent past where Vijayan’s police gunned down Maoists, who claimed to have been involved in guerilla warfare imitating the Communist rebels in countries like the Philippines. If the extra-judicial means adopted by Vijayan’s police can be justified, including the cold-blooded murder of suspected Maoists, the award named after Magasaysay could also perhaps be justified, they say.


KK Shailaja with CPI(M) leaders in Thiruvanathapuram. (Supplied)

Among these trenchant critics is KN Shajahan, an expelled CPI(M) leader who was private secretary of then chief minister VS Achuthanandan, who was very clinically marginalised in the party by Vijayan.

“The CPI(M) simply will not allow any leader to rise above the stature of Pinarayi Vijayan. What would have happened if the Philippines award organisers had requested Vijayan to accept the award? The message is clear. The party is not ready to bring the spotlight back on Shailaja. The party willfully keeps her in the dark,” Shajahan told South First.

“It’s good to reject an award instituted in memory of a capitalist who killed Communists in fake encounters,” said Dr Azad Malayattil, a prominent Left thinker. “But it is an irony the people who have justified extrajudicial killings and invoked the draconian UAPA against their opponents are now talking too much about leftist integrity. Leftist integrity must not be choosy and selective,” he told South First.

Pro-Shailaja sentiment among cadre

While critics will be critics, what should perhaps really worry Vijayan is the pro-Shailaja sentiment among the CPI(M)’s loyal cadres who powered the party to its second term in the 2021 election. The cadres appear to firmly believe the return of Vijayan to power for an unprecedented second consecutive time was made possible by the positive impression created by Shailaja in the health sector.

Talk to a few of them and they will also point to the hypocrisy of a party that lapped up the international (read Western or capitalist) media appreciation that Shailaja — and the state, indirectly — received on numerous occasions for emerging as a potent virus slayer with a deeply-rooted scientific temper.

Or of Vijayan himself participating the opening bell ceremony at that bastion of capitalism, the London Stock Exchange.

A top CPI(M) leader, who preferred anonymity, said there is a significant segment in the party that believes the prestigious Magsaysay Award — often called the Nobel Prize of Asia — would have boosted the party’s image at a time the popularity of the second Vijayan government is at its nadir.

It, he said, was a blunder not to have Shailaja accept the award.

What does Shailaja say?

Amidst allegations by some that she could not have rejected the award as she did not receive it in the first place, an unfazed Sahilaja told South First that the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation had sent her a letter saying it intended to award her, and seeking her consent to do so.

It was then that Shailaja approached the party’s Central Committee, asking whether it would be appropriate or not to receive the award.


KK Shailaja in queue at a voting booth. (Supplied)

On the CEU award, Shailaja told South First that she accepted it only because its organisers did not contact her in advance and announced it without waiting for her formal consent.

Shailaja claimed that, by refusing to accept the award, she has not dishonoured the award or its previous recipients from India, which includes Delhi Chief MInister Arvind Kejriwal. She said that, as she represents a Communist party and its Central Committee, she had difficulty accepting the award.

(An earlier version of the article said, “She does not hold any major position in the party or its feeder organisations, either.” This has been amended to clarify the position KK Shailaja holds in the party.)