Kozhikode: A section of media and political commentators were surprised when the CPI(M) decided not to field MLAs who had two or more terms in the office, no matter their stature in the party or the assembly. T.M. Thomas Isaac and G. Sudhakaran, two high-profile ministers of stellar reputation in the Pinarayi Vijayan cabinet, along with E.P. Jayarajan and speaker P. Sreeramakrishnan, did not make it to the candidate list.
Now, after the LDF’s re-election for a second term, Vijayan has once again stopped everybody in their tracks by proposing an entirely new cabinet for his second term. None except the chief minister – and two members of smaller parties in the state, A.K. Saseendran (NCP) and K. Krishnankutty (JDS) – is getting a second term, and that includes the internationally acclaimed ‘rockstar’ health minister K.K. Shailaja, fondly referred to as Shailaja teacher because of her vocation as a science teacher. Even the CPI has decided to field an all-new team for ministerial berths in the Pinarayi 2.0 government.
After the decision to drop her from the cabinet hit the headlines, there has been a lot of discussion on social media. Reacting to it, Shailaja said, ” The comments on social media protesting against me not being in the new cabinet have no substance. It’s quite normal to give the opportunity to the next generation so that they can prove their mettle, which I am sure they would. Not only me, but none of my cabinet colleagues also are continuing. That does not mean that they are abandoned.
As far as the fight against the COVID-19 is concerned, it was not done by me only, it was teamwork. It was the party that entrusted me with that responsibility and I did my best to match it. It was a coordinated effort of the chief minister and all the other ministers. I did my share as the minister for health.”
It was expected that the CPI(M) may go for new faces, but the omission of Shailaja – who had been the commander-in-chief of the state’s fight against COVID-19 – has created ripples on social media.
K.N. Balagopal, who is a designated member of the new cabinet, said, “It was a unanimous decision to field an entirely new team to the cabinet and even Shailaja teacher was a part of [the decision making process]. We cannot relax the rule for any individual.”
According to party sources, a majority of the state committee members approved the decision when the politburo member Kodiyeri Balakrishnan reported the higher body’s ‘directive’. Only a handful of leaders suggested that Shailaja should be included in the cabinet as an exception.
“The representation of women is well taken care of with the induction of Dr R. Bindu and Veena George in the cabinet. With the CPI also nominating J. Chinchurani as one of their ministers, the new government would have a record high of three women in the cabinet. Kerala has never had more than two women in the cabinet until now,” a female CPI(M) leader told The Wire.
Bindu is a JNU alumni and George is a former television journalist and a second time MLA.
But not everyone is convinced.
“If Pinarayi Vijayan can continue as the chief minister, Shailaja teacher too could have been. It is not because she secured the biggest majority in the state, but in this time of the pandemic, the health ministry deserves a continued leadership. This is a time when experience matters the most,” said Bilu C. Narayanan, noted poet and feminist.
In an interview to NDTV after she won her constituency Mattanur by a record margin of over 60,000 votes, Shailaja had very daintily refused to answer any questions on Kerala’s future strategies to tackle the pandemic. She politely said that she couldn’t answer any of these questions as she didn’t know whether she will continue as the health minister or not. Like a true communist foot soldier, she had said that her role in the future will be decided by her party.
An icon of the Kerala model
Shailaja had become an icon of Kerala’s model of health intervention in the period of the global pandemic. Right from the Nipah outbreak of 2018, which she handled quite deftly, she has been in the news, not just in the country but also internationally. Shailaja had been the face of the AIDWA, the women’s organisation backed the CPI (M) and often took a strong pro-feminist stance which at times even left her party-men redfaced.
With her at the helm, the women and children development department had been raising awareness about feminist issues and a campaign for the self-dignity of women was gaining momentum.
When The Wire asked her about the ongoing government campaign for ‘right to abortion’ during the campaign, the minister opted to distance herself from it. It is believed that she didn’t want to offend a section of Church-backed campaigners who oppose this right. “Look, I am no radical feminist. There are many who want the freedom to be topless, that’s fine. But my point of view is that we should have tops first to be topless. I consider motherhood sacred and it’s one of the best things to have as a woman,” said Shailaja.
Even though the pragmatic politician in her took this stance, she was very vocal about the rights of women in general, inside and outside the assembly. One of her assembly speeches which went viral on social media was in defence of Mamata Banerjee, her party’s arch-rival in Bengal, when the latter was the target of a sexist comment by the Indian Union Muslim League’s MLA K.M. Shaji.
It is hardly a secret that she did not enjoy the full-fledged support of her party leadership, especially from her home district, Kannur. Many of the by-the-book leaders of the party were wary about her apparently ‘overstepping the party line’ during her tenure as the health minister.
Swearing in on Thursday
With the CPI(M) and CPI announcing the ministerial nominees, team Pinarayi is all set to assume office on Thursday. The cabinet has a good number of candidates from the OBC community. Among the upper castes, Nairs have the highest representation. There would be eight members from the community, including the speaker-nominee M.B. Rajesh. It should be noted that a large section of Nairs have invariably voted against the LDF, according to various surveys and studies.
The Ezhava community will have six berths in the cabinet and there will be three Muslim ministers as well. The cabinet will only have one leader from the Dalit community, former speaker and senior CPI(M) leader K. Radhakrishnan. Meanwhile, the CPI’s Chittayam Gopakumar, a Dalit, is expected to take over as the deputy speaker.
The Indian National League, which has been a part of the LDF since its inception after the demolition of Babri Masjid, gets its first ministerial berth through Ahamed Devarkovil’s nomination. Kerala Congress (M), Democratic Kerala Congress, NCP and JDS are the other parties to be represented in the cabinet. Two other small parties, with one MLA each, may be accommodated halfway through the tenure of the government.
The swearing-in ceremony will now be be held as a low-key affair on May 20, after the state government faced flak over its earlier decision to hold the function at the central stadium at Thiruvananthapuram with the participation of 500 people amidst a lockdown. The decision was reversed and the swearing-in will now happen only in the presence of the elected legislators and ministers, officials and media persons.
Note: This article was updated at 7 pm on May 18, 2021 to reflect that two minister from smaller parties would also retain their membership of the cabinet.