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Enter the Paavam: Women Candidates in Kerala’s Elections

March 24, 2011

I am not surprised that  neither the LDF nor the UDF both of which had endorsed the reservation of fifty percent seats in the panchayats for women, have not fielded a significantly higher number of women in the forthcoming elections to the Kerala State Assembly.  Anyone who has observed the shaping and widening of the division between ‘high politics’ and ‘local governance’ in Kerala since the mid-1990s can well see that the rules of the game remain totally unchanged in ‘high politics’ and it will stay so even if ‘local governance’ is entrusted completely to women’s love and care.  None of the women leaders who entered public life through the panchayats and have by now completely got beyond the loving-caring-maternal stereotype are in, of course. At least one of them,Latika Subhash, who had indeed been a successful leader in local governance, saw the writing on the wall well in advance. I had a chance to listen to an interview she gave a researcher from our team studying gender and governance a few years back, in which she clearly indicated that in order to move up the political ladder, it was necessary to move into high politics. This is how she justified her decision to get back into politics despite being quite popular as a leader of the panchayat.Not surprisingly, most of the women who have indeed become candidates are well-versed with the ways of high politics and possess the necessary connections.

However, what seems new this time is the entry of the paavam.

Paavam is a word that has many connotations in Malayalam. It means a person devoid of resources, substance, or both; it implies passivity, timidity, non-threatening demeanour, lack of desire, and weak agency. Paavam folk are often liked but scarcely respected. Like good girls, paavams rarely make history. Importantly, it is a gender-neutral term. In the field of Malayalee politics, no one, male or female, can risk looking like a paavam entirely, not even A K Antony. Antony may have got away with it somewhat, but his paavatharam is cloaked in an ascetic-masculine Gandhian look of sorts .  But women, at least those who were not trying to cash on popular sympathy for a deceased husband, till now, could not afford it. The leading women politicians across generations and parties have actively resisted the paavam look — just think of K R Gouri, Leela Damodara Menon, Annie Thayyil, K R Saraswati Amma, Dakshayani Velayudhan, Khamarunnisa Anwar. Even those whose circumstances may have tempted others to regard them thus have resolutely refused it. Akkamma Cheriyan who rebelled against blatant injustice to women and growing avarice in the Congress in the 1950s and fought the elections as an independent candidate when she was fully pregnant, did not play the paavam card.

Yet, in these elections, the paavam has finally entered the fray — and the paavam is female.

So it struck me while talking with a friend the other day about the LDF candidate list. Jameela Prakasham, wife of the Janata Dal (S) politician A. Neelalohithadasan Nadar whose most recent claim to fame is his nimble escape from sexual harassment charges levelled against him, is contesting on the LDF platform, it seems.  Feminists in Kerala had campaigned long and hard against attempts to bestow legitimacy to his presence in left politics — and he seems to have slipped away safe with relatively minor bruises. Jameela, who is the daughter of a leading former politician and MLA R Prakasam, and who was active in student politics in her youth, had left it  behind her after she married Nadar. She is the quintessential middle class educated woman of the Malayalee new elite, a bank employee. Clearly, her political ambitions, if any, are very recent. When I mentioned this, my friend, a man clearly sympathetic to assertive women, responded , oh, but she is a paavam! As if that exonerated her and preserved her as innocent from what she was participating in — her party’s strategy to get past the stiff opposition of feminists. This sort of paavam is not non-violent; rather, she is the person whose passivity covers up violence. And note that this is not the usual case of the wife succeeding to the husband’s constituency after his death. In this case, the husband is perhaps facing political death and certainly enjoys little popular sympathy.

That set me thinking — from when did we start tolerating paavams in Malayalee politics? Certainly we have not started tolerating it among men. Among women, well, a somewhat similar issue had emerged about a year back when a woman leader, noted for her respectable middle class look, had been picked to become an MP over and above a vocal and clearly non-paavam woman leader of the SFI. In insider circles, the value of discreet and respectable feminine demeanour over slogan shouting unfeminine loudness was thus silently affirmed.  In any case the paavam was nowhere in the scene. Therefore the emergence of the paavam in the present elections is indeed an event.

I am certain that my friend was not really endorsing paavatharam, it had simply slipped off his tongue. Yet that reveals some of our most deep-seated misconceptions. Most Malayalees tend to be relatively naive as far as paavatharam — the quality of being a paavam– is concerned. The debate around the ‘proxy question’ in the panchayats seems to tell us that the figure of the passive, obedient woman who is supposedly a mere puppet in the hands of her male relatives is more or less unreal. No matter how seriously disadvantaged in terms of abilities or confidence, it appears that women leaders, even those who tend to follow their male relatives’ dictates, are never completely passive. And many of these women do actively share the ambitions of their male relatives and thus even though they may not be admirable, they cannot certainly be accused of passivity. And in Kerala, paavatharam has been indeed a major way in which new elite women have negotiated their bargain with patriarchy. In other words, paavatharam undergirds their caste and class membership and beyond the pale of these, this quality is not really expected of them.  Therefore I do not feel that the new elite woman endowed with paavatharam deserves any sympathy at all.

The fact that Jameela is a woman, and one of the few women candidates in the LDF list,  will defuse the threat of feminist protest against the misogyny perpetrated by her party and this will serve her party pretty well. I don’t know if Jameela Prakasham is really a paavam. Yet the fact that she renounced all political ambition despite enjoying key advantages and connections in politics, patiently bore years of inconvenience and ignominy, and defended her husband as well  makes it easy to portray her as such.The stark contrast that makes with her husband’s notoriety, it seems, may bring their party significant gains. Interestingly, many successful women leaders of the LDF in Kerala’s panchayats in the last term who we met during fieldwork over the past few years mentioned qualities of patience, gentleness, and mildness — all of which may indicate paavatharam — as the key reasons for their popularity. None of them, however, have made it to the candidate list. Clearly, new elite feminine paavatharam has been summoned up for a purpose, and our progressive brigade, the purveyors of socially conservative liberal feminism, are unapologetic.

This also makes me feel grateful for the vociferous non-paavam women of the Congress who have been threatening to contest as rebels. It takes spunk for a woman to declare herself a non-goody-goody, and that’s what these women are doing.  I can well imagine the good development-activist types tut-tutting about my unholy glee at the sight of non-paavam female politicians on the warpath who may well be, ah, utterly cantankerous. They perhaps have a point : surely, the goody-goody woman is easier to approach. What I feel, however, is a kind of rebellious delight, at seeing women out there with openly declared ambitions and desire for power. The paavam, as I mentioned earlier, is neither passive nor desireless of power. But the non-pavaam woman’s desire is full-blooded and in-your-face. And that’s the way I like to see desire in women — buck naked, shameless, unapologetic. It is common to conflate such openness with violence, but that is wrong. Thank goodness too, that there are openly gutsy women in the fray as well. Latika Subhash, who will take on V S Achyutanandan, is one such. She may not win, but the campaign will certainly make her a stronger politician.

Yet there may be no guarantee that paavatharam will yield victory, for it is an unfortunate truth that the left leadership still has no clue about the extent of the dormant resentment and anger among the ranks — and that they are adept at subversion. During the last election to the Parliament in Kerala, stories of how old foot soldiers of the party had launched remarkably shrewd and subversive campaigns against candidates foisted on them from above were rampant. The most interesting one was about a constituency where a particularly obnoxious character had been fielded, where a senior party member and campaigner apparently went door to door apologizing to ‘sure voters’ that the party had put up a stinking lout  who was nothing but trouble and a lecherous monster besides, but reminding them that they should vote for him since the party had put him up, after all. After such generous hints, the sure voters all knew what they should do.And surely enough, the candidate sank like a stone. Hopefully, the good souls at the bottom, who have not run after money, power, and cheap visibility — who are certainly not too few — will see through this deployment of paavatharam too. And who knows, Jameela may turn out to be a complete non-paavam and perhaps even zoom ahead, her husband reduced to an insignificant dot somewhere far behind!

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