In an interview to The Wire, Kerala’s minister of health and social welfare K.K. Shailaja talks about her popular fight against COVID-19, her participation in politics and the Left Democratic Front’s elections campaign for the upcoming polls in the state.
Discussing the new rise in COVID-19 cases in India and how the government of Kerala has been tackling the situation, Shailaja says that the policy of containing the virus, which was adopted in the early days of the pandemic, continues to remain the same.
“When we heard the potential virus is spreading in Wuhan, China, at that time itself, we began preparing,” she says.
Making rapid response teams, state-level control rooms and conducting mock drill exercises were all part of a strategy which was established even before the first case of the virus was discovered in India. “Our strategy is to trace first, quarantine, test, treat and isolate,” she adds.
Instead of a quarantine requirement of 14 days, which is the standard for COVID-19 now, Shailaja says her administration implemented a 28-day quarantine period for those who were tested positive.
Taking stock of the election, Shailaja expressed confidence of an LDF victory, saying that over the last five years, a number of social welfare schemes, particularly for the poor, had been established. On the subject of whether the tackling of the virus is the centrepiece of the LDF’s campaign, Shailaja says that it was their duty to help the people at a crucial time. “The marks for this,” she says, “must go to our government itself and our honourable chief minister.”
Shailaja highlighted that the chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, was the first to declare a package towards the containment of the virus, allotting Rs 20,000 crore for it.
She denies that these were populist measures designed to garner votes in the upcoming elections. “It was to prepare against the hardships,” she says, recounting the unemployment that the lockdown had caused. But even the widely acclaimed management of the pandemic is only ‘one of the activities’ conducted by the LDF government in Kerala, according to Shailaja. She says that in 2016, when the LDF government came to power, it had to resolve an 18-month distribution stagnation in the social welfare pension. She adds that her government also went on to increase the pension from the earlier Rs 600 to Rs 1,600 per month and ensured that the pensions were given directly at the homes of the elderly.
On the subject of BJP’s rising role in Kerala’s politics, Shailaja says, “We are afraid of their politics.” She says that anyone who wishes to protect the constitution of India is afraid of the BJP’s politics. “If you want to protect secularism, democracy and socialism, we have to oppose the ideology of the BJP-RSS etc.”
Shailaja describes the LDF as against all forms of religious fundamentalism and says that the alliance has established a form of governance that can function on a grassroots level.
On the Congress’s attempt at facing the BJP as a principle opponent and whether the LDF should work to strengthen the national party, Shailaja expresses disappointment. “The Congress is not the old Congress,” she says, highlighting that the party has failed to stand up for secularism and participated in the campaign against minorities.
Shailaja also points out that the recognition of individual identities in the midst of diversity is central to opposing the BJP. Describing the reasons for the BJP’s consistent victories, she points out a number of political pressures on the citizens of living in the north of India including fundamentalism, propaganda and an influence of local leaders especially in villages.
When asked about whether the LDF has diluted its stance on the subject of women entering the Sabarimala temple, Shailaja that her government is only following the orders of the court on the matter. However, she adds, “We are not for having a women’s march to Sabarimala. That situation has changed.” She highlights that a number of other places of worship, open to women, exist. Displaying muscle power to enter Sabarimala is not needed, she adds. Instead, her government’s focus now lies in women’s entry into politics and entrepreneurship, she says.
On the subject of her being a communist, Shailaja expresses happiness, recounting the experiences of her grandmother who fought against untouchability and for land ownership rights. She recounts that when she was a child, her grandmother would take her to meetings of the communist party where she would listen to speeches by eminent leaders like A.K. Gopalan and N.E. Balaram. She describes how her grandmother and granduncles joined the communist party to fight for their rights “to get a piece of land, to walk through the common path and to take a bath in a pond”.