The Magsaysay slayer

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By MG Radhakrishnan

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K K Shailaja | Photo: Mathrubhumi

K.K.Shailaja, the renowned “Covid slayer”, has entered history books again as the “Magsaysay slayer". The former Health Minister and school teacher appears to be the first to decline the highly regarded Magsaysay Award in the “Asian Nobel’s” 64-year history. Of course, "teacheramma" took this momentous decision at her party’s behest, although she said the choice was as much her own, as a disciplined Communist.

CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury gave three reasons for dumping the Magsaysay when asked if this was another “Himalayan blunder” like CPI(M)’s rejection of the Prime Ministership offered to Jyoti Basu in 1996. (the reporter got it wrong as Basu in 1997 called the rejection a “historic blunder”). One, Kerala’s fight against the pandemic was a collective effort of the state government, not Shailaja’s personal achievement. Two, the Magsaysay is not usually given to active politicians, so Shailaja can’t accept. Three, Ramon Magsaysay, the former Philippines President, was a notorious Communist-baiter, so no Communist would dignify the award instituted in his name by its acceptance.

Sitaram Yechury

Like most of you, dear readers, this writer, too, was stunned by this decision. Yet, after thinking further on Yechury’s words, it began to ring valid to me, particularly for his third reason. Should one accept an award named after somebody whose values and deeds were the antithesis of what one believes in? How can any democrat receive an honour instituted in Adolf Hitler’s name? Or can any civilized Indian imagine taking a prize that is named after Nathuram Godse ? So, the CPI(M)'s rejection deserves credit for its political content. For now, I deliberately choose not to think that the CPI(M) has been increasingly turning apolitical and assumes ideological stances only when it suits them. For, with this rejection, CPI(M) can legitimately feel it has settled a score on behalf of its Filipino comrades, hunted down by the US-backed Magsaysay government about seven decades ago.

Forget awards named after anti- Communists, the CPI(M) has rejected honours from the "bourgeois" Indian state also. In 1992, EMS Namboodiripad declined Padma Vibhushan, in 2008, Jyoti Basu said no thanks to the Bharat Ratna -India’s highest civilian honour-, and this year Buddhadev Bhattacharya refused the Padma Bhushan offered by the Modi government. When Buddhababu rejected, Ghulam Nabi Azad who recently left the Congress, accepted it in January, inviting some “prophetic” barbs from his detractors like Jairam Ramesh. Congratulating Buddha for rejecting the Padma, Ramesh said; “He wants to be Azad (free) and not a Ghulam (slave)”.

EMS Namboothiripad

Nevertheless, it is interesting to ponder if it was the rejection or acceptance that would have made a better way to pay back. Wouldn’t an honour instituted in the name of one of the world’s biggest anti-Communists, being awarded to a hardcore Communist, be a classic case of the empire striking back?

Whatever Magsaysay’s record as a ruler was, the award in his name instituted by the purely American, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, has gone chiefly to those who genuinely strived to make the world a better place. The nearly 70 Indians who have won it until now also include Left-wingers like social activist Aruna Roy, journalist P. Sainath, and musician T.M. Krishna. Shailaja would have been its first woman winner from Kerala.

Though the third reason sounded sensible, Yechury’s first two appeared specious. How could an award to one who led the state’s efforts to manage the pandemic take away the credit due to her team or government? Is it CPI(M)’s argument that Shailaja didn't play an inch above the rest of Kerala in its battle against the virus? If so, what is the need at all to have a minister to head any department? The rejection has helped the CPI(M) to deprive itself of a much needed global recognition when it is struggling on its weakest political wicket in history nationally, notwithstanding its unprecedented return to power in Kerala.

Yechury's second reason the award is never given to active politicians is so vacuous that it doesn’t merit even a discussion. If Yechury had given only the third reason, the rejection would have been justified. But the other two make it suspect and provoke tongues to wag like it was yet another proof of CPI(M)'s leadership’s envy for Shailaja’s stellar show as a minister or its patriarchal mindset as alleged in the case of KR Gouri's missed Chief Ministership.

Sonia Gandhi

Though they are not exactly similar, Shailaja’s Magsaysay incident reminded me of a more than a decade-old controversy related to Sonia Gandhi. In 2006, AICC President and Loksabha member Sonia received an honour -Order of Leopold- Belgium’s second highest civilian honor and an honorary doctorate, during her visit to Brussels. In 2009, P. Rajan, eminent journalist and my senior colleague in Mathrubhumi, approached the Election Commission (EC) to disqualify Sonia from contesting the elections for having received this honour. Rajan’s case was that acceptance of the honour was a violation of Constitution’s Article 18(2) which debarred Indian citizens from receiving titles from a foreign state. But the EC dismissed the plea by a majority decision holding that the honour was not a title but an award although the Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami wanted the matter further inquired. Later President Prathibha Patil took the final decision, favoring the majority in EC.

Hope Shailaja doesn’t lose sleep over her missed honour. In 1997, Jyoti Basu told MJ Akbar in an interview with the Asian Age that CPI(M ) committed a “historic blunder” by not accepting the Prime Ministership. According to the grapevine, Basu (and the Bengal CPI(M) too) never forgave Prakash Karat, the then CPI(M) General Secretary who led the party hardliners to reject the offer. It was reported later that Basu and Harkishen Surjeet in the Politburo were for taking the offer to help India get its first Communist Prime Minister. Their opponents included besides Karat and Yechury, all Kerala leaders like E.Balanandan, E.K.Nayanar, V S Achuthanandan, S Ramachandran Pillai, and others.

Jyoti Basu

* * * * *

It is a coincidence that CPI(M)’s ideologically-driven decision to decline Magsaysay award came days after M V Govindan assumed office as the party’s state secretary. Govindan appears to be one of the last few in the party to talk in ideological and ethical terms. There was a time in the not too distant past when even the most ordinary party member could not talk about mundane things without resorting to complex Communist terminology. Forget about ordinary members, it’s been long since even top leaders are heard mentioning ideological issues. The end of ideology, “when revolutionary movements which aim to overthrow liberal democracy will no longer be attractive to the working class” appears to have reached our shores also, exactly six decades after Daniel Bell made this prophecy about the Western world. Taking the cue from Bell, another scholar, Daniel Strand wrote that if the 1950s saw the end of ideology, the 1990s birthed the “post political world”. “Globalisation would undermine left/right distinction and that politics would be shaped by cultural affiliations than ideological alignments”. In 1989, an over-excited Francis Fukuyama even called the end of cold war as the end of history, the finishing point of mankind’s ideological evolution and a final triumph of liberal democracy! (In 2018, Fukuyama postponed the end of history saying identity politics is the new threat to liberalism).

MV Govindan

Therefore, Govindan’s assumption of the new role couldn’t be more opportune as the CPI(M) has never been more apolitical and ideology-neutral than now. Be it “development” projects, new plans in fields like education, health etc or treatment of “Maoists” etc, CPI(M)’s line doesn’t seem to be too different from the “bourgeois” parties. Even the bold steps it dared to take initially on issues like women’s entry to Sabarimala or bring in gender-neutral reforms in schools etc have been withdrawn hastily after religious interests flexed muscles. The last politically brave statement heard from a CPI(M) leader was when G Sudhakaran, former Devaswom Minister publicly said a decade ago that Makarajyothi was nothing divine but lit by people hired for it. However, this doesn’t mean that CPI(M) should go back to all its ideological orthodoxy. Like every ideology, it too needs to be reformed and even rewritten with changing needs of the time. Even dumping an ideology for another needn’t be seen as blasphemy or heresy. But continuing to swear by one even as smuggling another through the backdoor is hypocrisy. Hope Govindan takes the lead in not just making his own party more political, ideological and ethical but also reforming them in tune with time without sticking to old textbooks.

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