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Beyond Feminine Public Altruism

The rapidly changing urban scenario seems to have important implications for gendering governance in Kerala. Thus, besides the different histories mediated by caste and community, the spatial location of women leaders in local governance appears to be of central importance in shaping their agency. This article which is based on the research about women leaders in local governance in Kerala in 2005-10 explores the extent to which success in local governance allowed these women entry into politics and gave them a greater presence within the public life. Generally it is seen that successful women leaders are often the bearers of a specific form of power that has been historically associated with the deployment of sentiment and affect, and ideal femininity, and that such power is understood to be crucial to local governance as well. However, an entirely different picture emerged from this study on women leaders of urban governance. Besides gentle power, successful women attribute their success equally to knowledge - of official norms and procedures.


Beyond Feminine Public Altruism

Women Leaders in Kerala’s Urban Bodies

J Devika, Binitha V Thampi

The rapidly changing urban scenario seems to have important implications for gendering governance in Kerala. Thus, besides the different histories mediated by caste and community, the spatial location of women leaders in local governance appears to be of central importance in shaping their agency. This article which is based on the research about women leaders in local governance in Kerala in 2005-10 explores the extent to which success in local governance allowed these women entry into politics and gave them a greater presence within the public life. Generally it is seen that successful women leaders are often the bearers of a specific form of power that has been historically associated with the deployment of sentiment and affect, and ideal femininity, and that such power is understood to be crucial to local governance as well. However, an entirely different picture emerged from this study on women leaders of urban governance. Besides gentle power, successful women attribute their success equally to knowledge – of official norms and procedures.

J Devika ( is with the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram and Binitha V Thampi (binithavthampy@google. is with the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai.

he 33% reservation offered to women in local bodies has certainly provided women in Kerala with a major opportunity to enter politics and public life since the mid-1990s. There was much hope about the empowering effects this would produce in the national debate as well, strong enough to convince sceptics (Ghosh and Lama-Rewal 2005: 7). For instance, Susheela Gopalan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), well known for her efforts to organise women and women workers, remarked in an interview in 1999 thus:

Initially I was against reservations but today there is no option…when women become Panchayat members they acquire earning capacity and become independent…They develop confidence and can be trained as potential candidates for Assembly and Parliamentary elections in the future (Kumari and Kidwai 1999: 163-64).

Has women’s participation in local governance delivered on this promise? Our research on women leaders in local governance in Kerala in the 2005-10 term was mainly driven by this basic question (Devika and Thampi, forthcoming).1 We focused on “successful” women leaders – those who have not only gained goodwill in their local communities, but also converted this into durable support, evident in their ability to return to power in later terms – and this choice was deliberate. The reasons why women fail in leadership positions are relatively better explored than the reasons for their success. We feel that it is necessary to ask questions of the nature of “success” itself. It is too readily assumed that women’s success implies the decline of entrenched patriarchal gender norms. As we were increasingly convinced in the course of our interviewing, in the present case, success is often contingent on women leaders’ conformity to entrenched gender norms, which are not entirely disempowering, but part of a “patriarchal bargain” (Kandiyoti 1988: 274-90).

In Kerala, we found that successful women leaders are often the bearers of a specific form of power linked to the deployment of sentiment and affect which has been associated with an ideal femininity since the late 19th-early 20th centuries (Devika 2007). The same form of power has also been projected as crucial for the smooth functioning of local governance. This is perhaps only to be expected in a society in which women are most often directed towards the domestic and the sentimental as true domains of femininity which they may legitimately claim, and from which they may derive resources to make sense of and deal with the world in general. However, besides “gentle power”, successful women attribute their success equally to knowledge – of official norms and procedure,

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which is certainly not associated with sentiment and affect, but with the rule of the state, clearly beyond sentimental considerations. This advantage arises from the superior level of education that women in Kerala often possess, and their practical experience of working in government institutions, often in positions of leadership, such as that of the school headmistress or government official. Thus, it appears that the ground has been set for the fl ourishing of a certain “feminine public altruism” which draws upon new elite gender norms, remains largely subservient to bureaucratic norms and rules, and rings quite differently from the militant class politics of the mid-to-late 20th century Kerala. It was, however, clear from our research that both these bring at best ambiguous and partial gains. Not only is maintaining the dividing line between “genteel” and “docile” behaviour tedious, it also traps women leaders in the role of welfare distributors, and undermines their emergence as leaders of local politics and development, besides making them overdependent on rules and norms. The elite moorings of “gentle power” were also evident from its relatively poor availability to dalit women.

However, an entirely different picture emerged from our interviews with women leaders of urban governance. The rapidly changing urban scenario seems to have important implications for gendering governance in Kerala. In our interviews, we observed that besides the different histories mediated by caste and community, the spatial location of women leaders in local governance was crucial in shaping their agency. Indeed, as Mary John (2007: 3986-95) remarks, the study of women leaders in urban governance may perhaps yield better insight into questions about women’s entry into and access to political power.

Urbanisation and Urban Governance in Kerala

Political decentralisation in Kerala in the mid-1990s coincided with a spurt in urbanisation. The pace of urbanisation in Kerala over the 20th century has been consistent but one of the slowest in India, rising from 7.11% in 1901 to 18.78% in 1981 (Sreekumar 1993: 27). Metropolises were absent; agricultural and trading activities dominated the urban economic environment (ibid: 58). Urban areas here were better dispersed spatially, leading to a “rurban” pattern of settlement (ibid: 73-74). However, this pattern was changing since the late 1980s, accelerating in the 1990s and after. Heightened urbanisation is linked to the inflow of remittances from the Gulf which fuelled consumption, leading to service-sector-led growth, the boom in the house construction sector, which has hiked the demand for real estate (Gopikuttan 1990: 2083-88; Sooryamoorthy 1997; CDS 2005: 44). Added to these was the emerging post-liberalisation national context which generated an intense thrust towards reshaping the city-spaces throughout the country, in which the prospective arrival of globalised capital and emergence of neo-liberal policy frameworks of urban management were key influences. These crucially informed the shape of emergent decentralised urban governance in the mid-1990s (Kundu and Kundu 2004: 132-70) and this applies to Kerala as well, which spelt out an urban policy in 2002 (GoK 2002).

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Scholars have pointed out that some unique steps towards demo cratising urban governance were evident in Kerala. For example, parastatals were dismantled to make space for democratically-elected local bodies (Kundu and Kundu 2004: 140); unlike in many other states, ward committees were set up to promote deliberation and consultation from below; Kerala has also passed legislation to set up metropolitan planning committees. However, the gains from these seem to be ambiguous from a perspective critical of the new public management framework. As the literature on neo-liberal urbanisation in other parts of the world (Harvey 1989; Lovering 1995: 109-26; Werna 1995: 353-59) observes, such measures tend to overlook the political dimension of social justice, reducing questions about welfare and redistribution of resources in urban space to technical issues dealing with mainly physical aspects of life – social services, infrastructure, and housing (Mahadevia 2005). Policy documents in Kerala display an unmistakable neo-liberal perspective. The document “Urban Policy and Action Plan for Kerala” (GoK 2002) notes that urban bodies have been given the authority to formulate spatial plans and therefore urban development authorities have lost their significance – they have been abolished in fi ve towns. However, this does not mean a divergence from the neo-liberal thrust of urban policy in India. It seeks to replace the urban development authorities with the urban regulatory authority, which is to be

entrusted with the responsibility to ensure private sector participation in municipal services, avoid creation of monopolies in municipal services, maintain quality of services, make sure that the cost of services to the public is reasonable…[and] function as a forum for receiving complaints/suggestions on all urban services. This authority will be given statutory powers to enforce these objectives… (ibid).

The formation of master plans by urban bodies through consultation does not necessarily indicate a shift since land markets are largely in private hands (Kundu and Kundu 2004: 142). As confirmed by all our interviewees unanimously, the most daunting task in heavily urbanising contexts is the enforcement of building regulations, which are largely honoured in the breach. There is also research that shows that ward committees may not enhance democratic participation by themselves. A study based on fieldwork in two city corporations and two municipalities in Kerala (Thomas 2006: 138-200) notes that the selection of ward committee members was heavily influenced by the preferences of local politicians (ibid: 167, 181). Moreover, the contractor-raj seems rampant now in wards, where in the early phase of decentralisation funds were made directly available to ward committees which formed beneficiary committees to execute works (ibid: 170). Women’s participation is low, and their presence is on the strength of the positions they hold (such as that of the local Kudumbashree self-help-group functionary) (ibid: 161). Importantly, ward committee members reported that they were rarely consulted by the municipal/corporation authorities regarding the use of public land in their wards (ibid: 178). They complained that there was no mechanism to solve conflicting interests in wards and ensure equitable distribution


of resources. Those with political clout usually avail of the benefits (ibid: 184).

Neither High Politics Nor Local Governance

Reflecting on the effects of decentralisation in the fi eld of politics in Kerala, we argue that, first, a key effect has been the division of political space into “high politics” and “local governance”. The former is characterised by hyperactivity, especially in political decisions and policy innovation, characterised by dramatic instances of state action undertaken by leaders, including the dramatic ushering of political decentralisation itself (called the “big-bang approach”). In contrast, “local governance” is marked by governing-by-rule-and-procedure, and squarely under the supervision and guardianship of several agencies such as the department of local selfgovernment and the Ombudsman. Second, the modes of rule prominent in each are different: in high politics, political and moral authoritarianism and use of force, if not violence, to silence critics, is evident, whereas in local governance, there is a concession to working with the opposition. Third, the relation of each domain to capital is also different: while in high politics leaders struggle to smoothly translate the earlier agenda of state-led large-scale industrialised development into approval for neo-liberal growth, the domain of local governance tries out “sustainable and small-scale development programmes”. High politics, of course, remains the more powerful of the two domains, since all major policy decisions, including those relevant to local governance, are shaped within it.

It must not be assumed, however, that these are watertight compartments. There are instances in which features of the former are shared by the latter, especially in panchayats where earlier left militancy is somewhat more prominent, where the styles and concerns of high politics overrides those of local governance. The political spaces opened up in and through the municipal councils and city corporations in contemporary Kerala are also of an ambiguous nature, partaking of features of both high politics and local governance. First, the ideal of the hypermoralised local community cannot be easily projected on urban spaces as it is on village panchayats. As elsewhere in the world (Stren and White 1989; Mattingly 1995), urban spaces in Kerala too are being fragmented economically, politically and socially; mutually-incompatible interests

– business interests, realtors, local middle-class residents, migrant workers and working-class poor – jostle for space in urban wards. The evocation of “community” in urban contexts seems less related to democratising local governance so that the urban poor participate, and more to what has been referred to as the “rhetoric of enablement”, which helps mobilise resources (McCarney et al 1995: 91-141). Community often refers to more exclusively middle-class residents’ associations (CSES, CRM, CAPDECK 2003), counted as “community-based organisations”, collaborators in current urban development projects (see The Hindu, 19 February 2008: 3). However, urban local bodies too function under the department of urban affairs and the Ombudsman, and also have to take into consideration of the decisions of bodies set up for various development projects, such as the Kerala State Urban Development Project Empowering Committee and the Kerala Road Fund Board.

Cities and towns in Kerala are increasingly perceived as spaces meant for corporate and non-corporate capital (these are often in conflict) and their “development” is often treated as synonymous with the new urban management,2 which has the dual aim of setting up infrastructure for global capital and managing poverty among the urban poor. Urban bodies, therefore, cannot focus exclusively on welfare, but have to accord priority to the creation of urban infrastructure. Also, urban policy explicitly encourages private sector participation and this gives the notion of “governance” advanced in urban contexts a rather different spin when compared with its connotations in panchayats.

This means that many issues that are perceived as more relevant to high politics than to local governance are of key signifi cance in urban governance. Thus, in contemporary, urban governance in Kerala, we typically find a mix of bureaucratic control along with intense power struggles characteristic of high politics, which, however, increasingly rejects urban “political society”, even those elements of political society integrated closely with mass organisations of the dominant Left parties.3 While Kerala has put in place measures that seem to yield urban governance that is more democratic (like ward committees), a huge amount of business is transacted through informal channels. Residents’ associations, for example, have been given a prominent place in urban governance; however, it has been observed that “they are actually quite strong lobbies for the interests of their members, who are mostly the middle- and upper-middle class. Though they have more access to local governments than any other organisations, usually they do not follow the formal democratic channels (gram sabhas, ward assemblies, etc) but have access through informal channels to secure favourable decisions” (CSES, CRM, CAPDECK 2003: 39). There has also been much discussion in the press of how building rules are being systematically flouted by the real estate players who have access to powerful figures in high politics and higher bureaucracy (Basheer 2006: 5; Bhaskar 2007). Given the high degree of political fragmentation, municipal councils have been often rocked by no-confi dence motions and heated politicking, especially when the ruling party had only a thin majority (Muraleedharan 2010: 4). There is reason to think that welfare distribution in the urban local bodies serves to bolster political patronage.4

The councils’ powers are also limited through multiplication/duplication of authorities in the wake of large urban development projects such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB)funded Kerala State Urban Development Project.5 Both critics (Raman 2010: 135-56), and more sympathetic commentators of the ADB loan were critical of the conditionalities that it imposed. As a more sympathetic commentator argued,

the ADB’s financial plan, while desirable, lacks respect for the robustness of local democracy… Given the economic potential of the urban local bodies, the language of and the compulsions following from these clauses need modification (Oommen 2007: 737).

Further, as elsewhere, urban bodies in Kerala too are overloaded with new responsibilities and grievously understaffed

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(GoK 2009: 83); they lack technical support for projects (Kundu and Kundu 2004; GoK 2009: 75, 145-46) which often need to be produced in complicated formats required by the central government agencies (GoK 2009: 30). The common lack of clarity on town planning and problems with implementing building rules as well as identifying the nature and sites for urban welfare, are present in Kerala too (GoK 2009: 145-46). In short, urban governance in Kerala seems to offer plenty of loopholes and opportunities for patronage and corruption.

From the above discussion, it is evident that the urban scenario is an extremely challenging terrain for women, especially those who have no experience at all in “high politics”. Neither “gentle power” nor “knowledge of the rules” seems to be of much use, at least by themselves, in urban governance. Rather, the ability to negotiate with local politicians, increase influence and connections with powerful groups and seize emergent opportunities seem all-important for enduring success – or perhaps even for sheer survival.

This paper is based on our interviews with 11 women leaders in urban governance from the past term. They range from leaders regarded as “highly successful” to those considered “utter failures”. Eight were chairpersons of municipal councils (out of 18 such posts reserved for women in the past term and two mayors of city corporations). We also interviewed an ex-mayor. The most striking feature of this group was the remarkably high educational achievements of its members. A good number were lawyers and professors; almost all (with the exception of one dalit woman leader, who had been a worker) were from middle-class or affluent backgrounds. This is perhaps not surprising given the present identification of urban development with urban management. Age-wise, most of them were above 30 and below 60; those who had young children were supported by other female members of their families. Spouses (with one exception) were well-educated and well-placed, and/or with considerable influence in “high politics”. Though many reported to be not interested in re-election, some who reported thus did contest the 2010 elections to local bodies. The urban areas in which they held their terms were also diverse, ranging from towns that retain many rural features, to fully-urbanised municipalities.

Neither ‘Gentle Power’ Nor ‘Knowledge of the Rules’

A majority of our interviewees were conscious of their middleclass moorings. While many of them came from families with explicit political sympathies, they themselves had remained apolitical or at the fringes of mass organisations, pursuing professional careers. But they regarded their middle-class status not as an anomaly, but as a feature that political parties recognised as valuable in the context of changing notions of urban governance. A leader from one of the municipalities in the Kochi metropolitan area pointed to a political change that she felt had occurred over the past 40 years. In the 1970s, the Left trade unions were an invincible force in Kochi; they could “hold the place to ransom, if they wanted”. But things have changed now. The clout of the unions has decreased considerably, and this seems to coincide with the rise of the notion of

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urban governance as urban management, with all its elite and civil connotations. Highly educated women with minimal links with politics appear to be fit to be the new urban managers. “And somehow, city governance is identified with a middle-class issue. That is why women like me, with more contacts in the middle class, were chosen.”

However, almost without exception, all our interviewees from highly urbanised areas agreed that higher education alone was of limited value in confronting the actually-existing urban scene (an exception was a chairperson of a relatively new, still largely rural municipality). The more one’s education prepared one for public life, the better, they said. Thus, lawyers felt that their experience in law practice not only prepared them better to deal with urban politics, it also made them appear less vulnerable than others. One of the lawyers remembered:

When I entered municipal governance, I was already a practising lawyer of many years’ experience and held superior degrees in law. But the truth was that I knew little about governance. I had to ask my junior-most staff about what the Kudumbashree was, I had no clue about the abbreviations that were commonly used to refer to offi cers and various committees … But nobody dared to climb on my head or call me ignorant. Somehow, they never noticed that I was so ignorant – and that, I feel, was because I was an experienced professional in law.

This was, indeed, in sharp contrast with the experience of another woman leader of the same Kochi metropolitan area, who had been a schoolteacher. She had worked in administration and knew the basics of office management. Yet, she was considered, in the early days, to be “inexperienced” and hence faced more of interference from both local politicians and offi cials.

The narratives of women leaders in urban governance reveal a different relation to “gentle power” – even when endorsed, those who favoured it did feel that it could be used only selectively and strategically, and not as a “natural” capacity. They, thus, differed from many “successful” women leaders of panchayats, who associated it with the “naturally feminine”. Many reasons were cited: the urban poor are far more fragmented than the rural poor; beneficiary lists in urban areas are often means of the local councillor’s political patronage, and trying to bring about transparency through patience and persuasiveness is near-impossible. Though some of our interviewees did attempt to exercise gentle power, they granted it largely strategic and limited value. As one of our interviewees remarked:

The officials, well, they are pretty sharp and quite wily. The secretary is powerful and one should be careful not to antagonise powerful offi cials. So you need to be gentle, “soft” (mayatthil nilkkanam). But you also give the message that if necessary you will be tough, and that you know the norms and procedures…The vice-chairman is usually a powerful local politician and much senior to you. Again, do not make enemies of him. But never be totally dependent – yet give the impression that you are taking his views on everything.

The exceptions to the above are, however, interesting precisely because their experience seemed to reveal the limited value of gentle power. To quote one of them:

I had contested as an independent supported by a political front, and I felt, early on, that I should preserve my neutral image. It worked well.


I also gave a lot of respect to the leader of the opposition who is a very experienced councillor and that served me very well, though my own party colleagues were sometimes uncomfortable. But you have to carry with you a large number of councillors, so I could not pay attention to their discomfort!… I have also been very respectful to senior politicians within our party… They treat me like a sister…and the MLA here, he is from the other front, he too has been extremely welldisposed towards me. He has helped us with many things…and I am almost like a daughter to him.

Commenting on another woman leader who has been generally judged an utter failure, she linked this failure to her unwillingness to exercise gentle power: “She was always too stern, too openly confident of her abilities…she never would even bother to smile at officials or show respect to party leaders… That made her very unpopular!” However, she did admit that male leaders did not have to project themselves thus; this was because “our society is still unprepared to accept a woman leader”. And it did become apparent that gentle power actually brought unstable gains. In a later interview, she admitted this, speaking of her experience of unexpectedly losing the 2010 elections to the same municipality (quite unlike the panchayats, where women who exercise gentle power do get re-elected frequently). She had been too successful in her deployment of gentle power – “they (her own party workers) felt I had established myself without their help…so they allotted me a ward where I had a slimmer chance of winning. They set up things so carefully that I did not even have a slight doubt until four days before polling. And they succeeded”. Her party had lost power in her municipality by a very narrow margin of seats but elements in the local party wanted her out “even at the cost of the party losing power – since I would have cooperated with whoever who won to ensure that all the projects that I had initiated be successfully completed”. Another interviewee who vouched for the efficacy of gentle power in overcoming defections and no-confi dence motions from rebel members of her own party is, however, now completely out of politics, and does not contemplate any kind of public life.

Negotiating for Connections

It appears that women in urban politics need means other than gentle power, like the ability to negotiate shrewdly – quite similar to the situation in high politics. Women in high politics negotiate actively for connections, and also take advantage of strategic opportunities and family and other connections. Successful women leaders of urban bodies draw on both these styles. The first was well-illustrated by the experience of a highly successful woman leader of a municipality who has been elected unopposed from her ward a second time in the 2010 elections – and her party managed to retain power despite massive setbacks throughout the State. This leader also stressed the importance of building alliances across political fronts, but rejected gentle power entirely. Knowledge of the rules was prescribed as the best way of dealing with offi cials, while negotiating alliances and networks with more groups in civil society and business, she felt, was the best way to deal with local politicians, especially party colleagues. She pointed out that she was relatively junior in the party compared with the chairmen of the standing committees. “That does not matter if you have strong connections in places where the party does not have any. That makes you indispensable”. She said:

When I first became councillor, I took care to see that my work did not focus exclusively on my ward. I saw to it that my ward was well-provided, but I gradually acquired a lot of experience working on general issues relevant to the municipal area as a whole, which made me indispensable to both fronts. I also gained a large number of contacts with both ordinary people and those in positions of infl uence. I was already very successful in my profession which involved meeting a lot of people. This gave me a lot of confidence in dealing with my own party as well …and I have stood as firm as a rock on many issues…my advice to ladies is – ‘stay utterly firm when you have taken a decision about which you are completely convinced’. Do not step back even an inch. Stepping back only makes you look like a paavam (docile person).

This leader, who has excellent connections with all sections of people in her municipality, including businessmen, powerful community leaders, and religious organisations, was also insistent that alliances have to build on “negotiations” and not on gentle power, which, she felt, “reminds them all the more, that this is a woman, a ‘paavam’ ”. Her first act as the leader of the municipality was to distribute copies of the Municipality Act to all the members. “I told them that I know this Act well, and I expect them to know it well too. We have to work by it, and not by what the officials may say. The chairperson has executive powers – the power to make an official do something which he says cannot be done.”

She was also keen to stress her distance from all possible manifestations of gentle power. She was not intimate with welfare beneficiaries – “I think it is my duty to listen to them very, very carefully. We are public servants and owe them that respect. But I do not listen to their sorrows – that will immediately relegate me to the paavam woman’s status”. Again, dealing with opposition members successfully, she said, had nothing to do with being gentle: “do not be a paavam, be fair. Women think that they need to assert themselves only when necessary. That is an illusion. Be firm from the very beginning, but be utterly transparent and fair in all dealings with the opposition. Convince your own members – and stay firm – that being unfair will only make things difficult for us.” This seems to have worked for her, judging from her success in the present elections and acceptance as the unquestioned leader of her party in the municipality.

But connections were perceived in other ways as well, as “family” connections. In this case, women leaders had powerful male kin in political parties, sometimes in positions that enabled them to negotiate with the opposition informally. The husband’s experience in politics and local governance was crucial, often to the rise of women leaders of less-urbanised municipalities. The leader of the least-urbanised municipality in our sample claimed that she relied entirely on her party to build connections for her; the metaphor of the extended family was frequently used by her to refer to the party. Indeed, this leader, who was formerly a leader of women’s self-help groups,

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was keener to talk of their activities than about her role as urban leader. However, such submissiveness is relatively rare among urban leaders compared to the panchayat leaders.

The importance of building connections through multiple routes was also evident from the experience of a woman leader with relatively less experience in politics, the mayor of a major city corporation. Anti-corruption, transparency and effi ciency measures may be high up on the urban governance agenda, but even this or other tasks cannot be performed without adequate political support. Such failure or “ineffi ciency” gets quickly translated into gendered accusations of women’s inherent incompetence at dealing with complex situations. She told us:

The corporation’s problems did not spring up suddenly. The issue of waste disposal, the traffic congestion, the City Centre getting overcrowded – all these are old.6 But media and other politicians behave as if they were new issues, and as a woman’s failure. But I have tried to intervene effectively in people’s issues. In this office, earlier, people could come only via agents. That is not the case today.

This leader sought to build a political base through improving administrative efficiency, by efforts to reduce corruption, but this did not rescue her from gendered accusations of inefficiency. In a rapidly-urbanising city like Kochi, anti-corruption measures may be regarded as relatively less complex than others like waste management, which she failed to resolve, and this was related to her inability to garner enough political support. This was read in gendered terms, she observed, as the “inadequacy of an inexperienced woman”. The mismatch between the demands of urban politics and those of the new urban management is such that what were deemed upper middle-class woman leader’s merits may end up being perceived as her weaknesses. Thus, this leader’s highly-educated status came to be perceived as a disadvantage which predisposed her to elitism.7

The other feature vital to success in urban areas relates to leaders’ ability to grasp the changing urban scenario and the increasing stakes in it of the private sector on the one hand, and the middle-classes on the other. Most of our interviewees were uncritical of the new urban management agenda – and this is not surprising, given their middle-class, relatively apolitical backgrounds. Thus, one of them proudly reported that she had got all the roadside hawkers off the road: “I used to be very particular… would even stop my car, get out, and scold hawkers who plied their carts on the main roads…”. Indeed, the most successful ones in urban governance swam with the tide. Commenting on the losses to the CPI(M) and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in the 2010 panchayat elections, one of them argued that it was because the party failed to see that people perceived “development” differently: “People are not interested in welfare anymore. For them, development means roads, large bridges, buildings, modern amenities. We have to work towards that and borrow large sums, if necessary.” In contrast, less successful leaders were reluctant to borrow large sums. One of them admitted that she had streamlined welfare distribution and made it transparent; however, this went unnoticed: “Welfare, after all, is distributed to individuals.

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What people count are the more visible things. They felt that we had done nothing – why? Because, we did not build a town hall, a stadium, or large buildings.”8 The poor fi nancial condition of her municipality prevented her from hiring consultants; because of this, they failed to secure key central funds. Some interviewees did identify welfare distribution as the most satisfying responsibility, but notably, they were usually of relatively less-urbanised municipalities.

But it is also important to see that urban governance is not high politics: leaders in urban governance are closely supervised by a number of bodies, often constituted by politicians powerful in high politics and senior bureaucrats. A woman leader of a highly urbanised municipality in central Kerala complained vehemently about how urban bodies had to seek “permission” from “innumerable offi cials, offi cers, clerks, IAS officers, and who else…”:

This was about the solid waste recycling plant project which was approved and about to be tendered. When we approached the KSUDP [Kerala Sustainable Urban Development Project] office, they said that the empowered committee had to take a decision. This committee ordered that the tender should be routed through the Kochi Corporation. We were not even consulted; we were told after the decision was taken! This was unacceptable to us, and I protested quite strongly on a public platform where senior politicians and bureaucrats were present. But they were unwilling to re-examine the decision. This caused us such distress – I had to be in and out of the Kochi Corporation, goodness knows how many times, to get it done!

Further, it is important to note that in the present context of intense political fragmentation, it is all the more diffi cult for political leaders, male or female, to build political bases among city populations.9 And the middle-class backgrounds of these leaders do not seem to be translating into special influence on the urban middle-class. Political fragmentation often leads to all sorts of unexpected coalitions which prove insurmountable. The frustrating experience of trying to set up waste-recycling plants in city areas which almost all women leaders from more urbanised municipalities recalled, indicated this. The experience of trying to find land for this purpose was described as truly harrowing. Many interviewees reported that this turned many of their ardent supporters into enemies almost overnight, and when support was not forthcoming from all sections of the municipal council, the project would simply have to be dropped.

In this complex scenario, dalit women appeared clearly disadvantaged, unlike in the panchayats where many of them did surmount a number of hurdles, including those of caste. The two dalit interviewees presented two models of disempowerment. One appeared to be completely embedded in her local party, and insisted that all decisions were taken in and through the party, and she had little more to add except her view that the “party is like a family and we meet all our social needs through it”. The other seemed quite unable to take advantage of the fact that she became the chairperson because the party which won the majority did not have a successful dalit woman candidate. During the interview, she was continuously interrupted and corrected by the vice-chairman. She seemed to be disadvantaged by her relatively poor education, lack


of connections, and working-class status and seems to have suffered considerable latent violence from both sides: the ruling side, which wanted to keep her in check through the vice-chairman, and the opposition to which she belonged, which wanted to ensure that she would not make mistakes. But her experience certainly does not represent that of dalit women in urban governance in any general sense. There are others, such as V Devayani, the (former) chairperson of the Palakkad Municipal Council, who survived such a situation quite adeptly. But it may also be that she had greater space for manoeuvre, since the council was deadlocked without a chairperson for long and Devayani was sworn in following a directive of the Kerala High Court to fill the post reserved for scheduled caste (SC) candidates. She apparently remarked that from being completely ignorant of urban governance, she vaulted into high levels of self-confidence “the day I realised how important my signature was” (Mathrubhumi, 28 July 2010: 4). Indeed, she left the Congress during the negotiations around candidature in the 2010 panchayat elections, protesting that the Congress had denied her a SC reservation ward to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (The Hindu, 1 October 2010, Thiruvananthapuram edition).


As Mary John has noted, the relative neglect of women in urban governance by scholars studying decentralised governance is a serious flaw because it is the urban scene “that includes many more dimensions of the political arena” (2007: 3992). Contemporary urban governance in Kerala, we fi nd, shares many key features of high politics while remaining bound by the constraints of local governance. This produces significant challenges for women leaders of urban bodies. Unwillingness to engage with politics appeared to us to be the surest recipe of failure in the urban scene. A women leader of a municipality who had grappled hard with bureaucracy complained thus:

I have no talent for politicking and these days, unblemished conduct in politics seems to be of least value. I tried my best – was very conciliatory to the opposition and insistent that I will not support corruption. But it was quite useless. Overcoming unwarranted interference took up all my time and getting the bureaucracy to get something done…that was another torture. I still remember how we were made to run from one government office to another to get a project approved, and my pleas were useless. Finally, I got our vice-chairman and some male members to come and they dealt with the issue in a language only politicians can speak. Only then did the department officials clear the hurdles without delay. I cannot speak that language, and so this is not my fi eld.

These skills and orientation are of value, too, in panchayats undergoing rapid urbanisation in Kerala, which are not few. Here, powerful processes of political fragmentation often render councils unstable. Diligence in welfare distribution pales into insignificance as a useful strategy for building a political base; rather, a set of very different skills emerge as vital for not just success, but survival itself. These include the skill to negotiate with all the players in the political field, to summon support from a range of diverse political sources other than one’s own party, to draw upon diverse forms of social capital (in Bourdieu’s sense), and to put together the technical expertise to access funding for infrastructure projects.10

Access to powerful politicians in high politics and the ability to negotiate across parties is also vitally necessary even in the panchayats, when the panchayat leader, male or female, seeks to get beyond welfare distribution and intervene seriously in local development priorities (Sharma 2009: 123; Devika and Thampi, forthcoming). In Kerala’s village panchayats, we found that women are less likely to possess these skills. However, wherever development continues to be perceived largely as welfare distribution, women who exercise gentle power and knowledge of the rules continue to gain popularity, with strong chances of re-election. But rapid urbanisation does mean that women will increasingly have to face the challenge of governing urbanising spaces. It appears that women leaders do not always fail. Perhaps it is befitting to end this paper with a quote from an interview with a highly successful woman leader, who had to not only keep the opposition on her side, but also curb the intrigues of her party colleagues, without, however, letting the constant internal struggle for power spill into the public:

Now I do know that I am absolutely necessary for the survival of my party here; so I am hardly challenged directly. But one must always remain alert. I have always been careful to follow the rules myself and so no one has yet got a chance to attack me personally. Now, recently, I had been abroad for 14 days. I took permission from the government through proper channels but did not hand over charge to the vice-chairman, because I was coming back within 15 days (and there is no rule that I should do this unless I exceeded the 15-day limit). Now, some of the hostile press caught hold of this and kicked up a fuss – that I had left for a long period without handing over charge to the vice-chairman. They apparently asked him, who told them that I was away – but he did not bother to tell them that I would be back really soon. Now, that is the kind of hidden missile aimed at a successful woman! It looks minor but can damage our moral authority to take to task the shirkers and rule-breakers in the municipal offi ce! I took it in my stride, though. As soon as I came back I clarifi ed my position, but when asked why the vice-chairman did not reveal this, I did not take the bait! They, of course, wanted to probe whether there is a hidden power struggle in the municipality. But I wanted to convey a message to this vice-chairman, someone from my own side, that I did see his game only too well and that I knew how to put him in his place. And so I responded, ‘the vice-chairman is on the best terms with me; if your intention is to provoke us, it will not work. He committed a mistake perhaps, and that is probably because he is not very familiar with rules generally, and the Municipal Act….’


1 Our research involved semi-structured, open-ended interviews with 75 village panchayat presidents, 12 block panchayat presidents, and two district panchayat presidents, besides the leaders of urban bodies discussed in this paper – all women. We also interviewed more than 58 women politicians of different parties. We sought to record and interpret these rich narratives, in their emergent and historical contexts and also read them along with quantifiable data from the field, which told us much about how this new generation perceived of “politics” and “welfare”. This paper draws upon our book New Lamps for Old? Gender Paradoxes in Political Decentralisation in Kerala (New Delhi: Zubaan, forthcoming).

2 See, for example, the discussion on the blog Kochi Now!, accessed 15 November 2010.

3 This was not so a few decades back. The organised working class, into which many political societies had been integrated, was a powerful presence in

april 28, 2012 vol xlviI no 17

cities like Kochi and Kozhikode, which is now in decline. See, Noronha 2006 (pp 1-22).

4 See Thomas (2006); GoK (2009). GoK (2009) notes that in urban bodies, the chances of beneficiary lists being transparent look slimmer: “… [in] the absence of city/town level data bank, ad hoc lists are prepared in several cases for every scheme often in a partisan manner favouring those who line up behind the ward councilor/member or those who are with the ruling party” (p 146).

5 This refers to the approximately $1,000 million loan from the Asian Development Bank routed through the Government of India to be repaid in 25 years, aimed at modernising government programmes, fiscal reform, power sector reforms, and the Kerala Sustainable Urban Development, Environmental Improvement and Poverty Reduction Programme (Raman 2010: 140).

6 See Suchitra and Venugopal (2009). The former mayor, C M Dinesh Mani, had been severely reprimanded by the ombudsman for inefficient waste disposal in Kochi (The Hindu, “Corporation Offi cials Non-Committal about the Next Move”, 13 February 2004, Kochi edition).

7 It may be interesting to compare the political biography of Mercy William, the mayor of Kochi in the last term, with that of C Jayan Babu, her counterpart in Thiruvananthapuram. Williams was the Head of the Department of Sociology at St Theresa’s College, Ernakulam, and head of the Board of Postgraduate Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University. Her husband is a businessman and her parents were government employees. She did not have prior experience in politics. In contrast, Jayan Babu is a full-time politician with local roots, a high-level functionary of the CPI(M). He fi rst contested and served as a councillor in 1988 and was the mayor during 1988-89 and chairman of the Trivandrum Development Authority in 2000. The lags in road construction as part of the KSUDP did generate accusations of ineffi ciency against him, but the discourse was strikingly non-gendered.

8 It has been argued that urban poverty in Kerala has been grossly underestimated in the offi cial urban poverty ratios (Patnaik 2010: 42-53).

9 T Devi, a senior CPI(M) leader, spoke to us about her work as the only woman among 50 members in the Kozhikode urban body in 1979. She spoke of how she organised the urban poor deprived of basic services, led militant protest for water and other amenities, and organised squatting on government land (despite the opposition of local leaders) to build a strong base, especially among poor women there. Such a possibility is rare now with urban politics being fragmented and the political priorities of all parties now shifting mostly away from the issues of the urban poor.

10 The 2011 move to separate urban and rural local governance in Kerala generated considerable protests from the LDF and their supporters (Nair 2011: 4). Whatever the reasons it is clear that there is a perceptible difference between the ways in which leaders of urban and rural governance comprehend the notion of development.


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