Walk into the Kerala House in Delhi for a meeting with K.K. Shailaja, the former health minister of Kerala, who grabbed the world’s attention for the masterful way in which she handled the fight against Covid-19, and immediately a few stereotypes about politicians are busted.
For starters, the meeting starts dot on time.
Shailaja Teacher as she is called all over Kerala, in her starched cream coloured saree and friendly smile, looks and behaves like the lady next door — chatty, candid, and as interested in you as you are interested in her.
The former minister, who defused a potentially dangerous situation in Kerala, where the Covid-19 numbers were very high, has just released her autobiography My Life As a Comrade, published by Juggernaut. It is an exceedingly well-written book, gripping in its structure, and narrative flow as well as the depth of thoughts.
Far from being just about the way Shailaja handled the Covid situation, the book through her life story gets into the fascinating caste and communist contexts of Kerala down the ages.
It delves into her family’s history, the strong influence of her grandmother, her ideology, life as a teacher and a party worker, the Kerala model and the Covid times.
Shailaja gives generous credit to Manju Sara Rajan, the co-author as well as Chiki Sarkar, founder and publisher, Juggernaut for giving pointers on how the book should be structured.
Excerpts from a free-ranging interview:
Congratulations on a wonderful book. How long did it take to get written?
More than a year. Not only did Manju visit me in Trivandrum, but three times I went to her house in Kottayam district. It was a lovely house, calm and quiet. I would narrate the thoughts in my head — sometimes in the past, sometimes in the present, and Manju captured it.
Your grandmother seems to have been a big influence on you?
My grandmother was an outgoing person. She was also a born storyteller. Everybody would sit around her when she told stories — about Rama, Krishna, some Bhagavatham, and beautiful stories about Shiva.
Now I am reading up on the things she recounted, as also the history, the evolution of the human being from the rock age to modern age.
But as a communist, you are not supposed to believe all these legends, right?
We don’t believe in superstitions. But communism is not against the religion or beliefs of the poor people. Even Marx said that when people are miserable, they should rely on somebody — that is most often God. Of course, that is not a proper remedy. Human beings should work to solve their misery. We are not against believers.
It’s a way for people to deal with their suppression. But if somebody is propagating beliefs then we have to take action against that. We are very much promoting culture and dance forms like Theyyam, known as the dance of the Gods. Communism is not a dry thing but highly practical.
In the book, the women in your family, be it your grandmother, your mother or your mother-in-law emerge as strong protagonists. And yet the paradox is that in Kerala women continue to be subjugated as captured in the film The Great Indian Kitchen, which you too have mentioned.
My grandmother was a political worker and social worker. At that time, the household burden was the responsibility of women. So, my mother handled the household work, while my grandmother went out. I was lucky I could also go out like my grandmother and work for society.
In the 30s and 40s women had to work hard, with no assistive devices for their household labour. They were not educated also. The situation changed a lot in Kerala after land reforms and education reforms, and movements like from the kitchen to the playground.
Now the girls in Kerala all have postgraduate degrees. Yet, they are still focussed on household activities. They should come out and work for society.
What you are saying is true. But everyone from Indra Nooyi to even you, go through guilt about managing a dual role. In the book, you talk about it.
Women should be free from household activities. They should be shared. Nurturing children should be shared. But there is a bridge between children and mother.
That emotional bond is special, and of course, you want to be there for children. That emotion is also a good thing for human beings. If you don’t have emotion, you become dry. But that should not stop your social activity.
You captured the world’s attention with your successful handling of Nipah and Covid. But in the book, you modestly say it was the success of partnerships.
The biggest lesson from the crisis that I learned was that nobody can do anything alone. When Nipah occurred I did not know what the disease was about.
Lenin said that bureaucrats are experienced people and we should use them. I called Rajeev Sadanandan. He is the one who suggested a protocol. We looked for precedents and he said we could rely on the Ebola protocol.
Similarly, we took inputs from the Virology Institute at Manipal, and Dr RL Sarita in Kozhikode. I patiently heard all of them. I didn’t know most of the things. So I realised I had to listen.
From these suggestions, I had to decide how to act. That is the role of the leader. I also discussed with the Chief Minister, of course. He never insisted on anything. But said if you think it is right, you can do it.
Did your science background, and the fact you were a chemistry teacher help?
That definitely helped. I could grasp the terms, and although I was not a doctor, I had a good understanding of molecules.
Was there any point in the epidemic where you felt fear that things could get out of control?
In Kerala, child mortality and maternal mortality are low. But given the unhealthy lifestyle and high incidence of diabetes and metabolic syndrome, in the case of infectious diseases, we are more vulnerable.
The second danger was the growing population. The density is 860 people per sq km, whereas the national average is around 430. The third thing was the number of senior citizens.
Therefore, our burden increased. We had to protect all the vulnerable people. We protected them through reverse quarantine and supplying medicines at home and calling everyone to reassure them. Not an easy job. But we made them calm. In the next phase too while the spread was there, the worry was less as the vaccine came.
After the way you so successfully handled the situation, did you feel bad about not getting a portfolio in the next government? Especially as the public wanted you as the CM.
I never felt disappointed as the government continued the policies I had put in place. Everything depends on the policy and not the person. Besides, I can express my opinions and views in party meetings.
Since the book deals widely with the communist ideology, can you talk about the relevance of this ideology when the whole world is moving to a market-driven model? And how in little Kerala it continues?
We may be tiny, but our ideology is not tiny. Each and every country the situation is different, culture is different. According to the situation and culture, we can change the practice of socialism.
There is no one stereotype model of socialism. Socialism means equal opportunity for all people. All the men and women work for society.
We cannot build socialism in the same manner everywhere, we cannot make a masterplan for socialism and replicate it in every country, but have to adapt it to the context.
The thread of socialism is to provide people with a comfortable life. Can you say capitalism is good for human society? No. All these wars are for wealth. If all the world becomes socialist, no war will be there.
But many socialist countries do engage in war? And, in fact, start the war.
They have to fight capitalism. In Russia, in China every place, there are anti-communists, who want to try to get rid of communism. That resistance they are getting from the capitalist world. At such times, the communist society has to fight with the capitalists inside and outside.
Everyone talks about Kerala model? But it seems very unsustainable given the large dole-outs for social welfare.
Our country is obeying capitalist rules. It is not good federalism. Even Gandhiji said grama Swaraj. But here money goes to some families. Even during the Covid, some families gained a lot.
They got huge loans from the nationalised banks. Government writes off the loans, but the poor people are getting nothing to eat. Kerala is working a different thing in the shade of this capitalism. It is only getting 33 per cent of the tax share from the central government.
But instead of asking for a larger share, shouldn’t you try to generate investments on your own?
What is the Kerala model? We are helping the poor people through services, and pension. To sustain the social welfare, we do need to generate funds.
In 2016-2021, we thought about making more investments in the State, asking investors to come, and improve our tourism, and to put in good infrastructure.
Kerala has been trying to develop infrastructure from 2016 onwards. We have invested in building roads, hospitals, and schools. We asked our youngsters to invest in Kerala. We are inviting the bourgeoisies, the capitalist industries.
But you are driving away companies like Kitex?
That is a different story. You cannot believe only that side. There are two sides to the story.
The impression is it is difficult to do business in Kerala.
Not at all. Previously the licences used to take time. But we are making it online and it is getting easy and the situation is changing.
All through the book, where you talk about ideals like men and women sharing household work and so on, you sound too idealistic and unrealistic. How do you get people to cooperate with such thinking?
Communism is a very practical idea. Youth and men and women should come together to work for society. Everyone should be an idealist. Human beings are right now very conservative and nobody wants to change the status quo. How can we change that? We should all be humanists.
What’s your future plan? You are the party whip now.
That’s not a great job at all. That is just monitoring attendance and so on. I have enough to keep me busy. I have a lot of things to do in my constituency, for education, health.