“Why was one of the best health ministers, KK Shailaja, excluded from the Pinarayi Vijayan 2.0 cabinet?” — This is a question that has come as a surprise to many in and outside Kerala. While most CPI(M) members have been dishing out the standard response — “it’s the party decision” — Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has come under severe criticism for not giving an able woman leader like KK Shailaja a second term as a minister. Her exclusion means that KK Shailaja will not be the Health Minister at a time when Kerala is grappling with the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is facing a vaccine and bed shortage.
As the Kerala Health Minister between 2016 and 2021, Shailaja teacher (as she is fondly called) proved her mettle as an able leader through various crises — the Nipah virus outbreak, the COVID-19 pandemic. She also put Kerala’s health policies on the global map and won worldwide appreciation. Shailaja Teacher, in fact, is the only woman politician who has won a record margin in the state Assembly election so far. In the Kerala Assembly election 2021, she won with a record 60,000 margin.
Yet, what explains why she did not make it as a minister for a second term and is instead handed the post of party whip? Was it a voluntary decision? “That was a party decision and I will accept it. The fight against COVID-19 was teamwork. I did my responsibility as a Health Minister. The party made me a Minister once, and I am happy that I fulfilled my duty. I believe the new leaders will fulfil their duty,” Shailaja, the Mattannur MLA-designate, told the media.
According to various media reports, contrary to the earlier indications, only seven members of the party were in favour of giving Shailaja a second term, while others favoured giving ministerial berths to new faces, including senior leaders. And that was the final decision, which was announced on May 18 — all ministers will be new faces, except Pinarayi Vijayan.
Speaking to TNM, Brinda Karat, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member, said, "In our party, decisions regarding the state cabinet are taken by the state leadership. All questions about the decisions taken have to be directed to them. Please ask those who have taken the decision about the reason."
According to reports, CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechurcy has expressed discontent with the decision not to give ministership to KK Shailaja.
Meanwhile, many CPI(M) leaders in the state defended the decision, stating that the decision to allow fresh faces in ministership posts was unanimous. Many even justified that “the party whip is an important post.” However, the role of a party whip is limited within the party (to ensure party discipline in the Assembly) and does not extend to the decisions and policies of the state.
“Shailaja teacher is talented and popular, so were Thomas Isaac and G Sudhakaran, but they did not contest. These are not individual decisions, it’s the party’s stand and this was a unanimous decision,” said Senior CPI(M) leader Elamaram Kareem. While outgoing Finance Minister Thomas Isaac and Public Works Department (PWD) Minister G Sudakaran were not allowed to contest due to the party policy, KK Shailaja contested and won by a huge margin.
When asked why Pinarayi Vijayan got a second term as the Chief Minister, Elamaram Kareem said that the CPI(M) had earlier announced that it would contest the 2021 Assembly election under the leadership of Pinarayi Vijayan.
According to MLA-designate AN Shamseer, only CPI(M) can take such “a brave decision” on allowing new faces to be ministers.
MLA-designate VN Vasavan, who has been chosen as one of the ministers in the new Cabinet, also said this was ‘a common stand’. “If one is given a leniency, then there will be questions from others on why they are not given a chance,” he said.
Former Minister and CPI(M) leader PK Sreemathi also reacted, saying that the party took the stand to allow fresh faces “for a better government than the previous one.”
Meanwhile, opposition leaders, like many citizens, are surprised to learn that KK Shailaja has been dropped from the cabinet. Many leaders recognised Shailaja’s contribution as a Health Minister.
Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha MP and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said he was sorry to see KK Shailaja leave the Kerala cabinet. Expressing his appreciation for her work, the MP wrote, “Aside from her reputed competence and efficiency, I always found her helpful, responsive and accessible as Health Minister, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. She will be missed.”
In a Facebook post, Congress MP from Ernakulam Hibi Eden wrote, “Is this called a Kitchen cabinet?” Kitchen Cabinet is a reference that originated in the United States to refer to a circle of informal advisors to the President.
Speaking to TNM, Hibi Eden said that the decision was most unfortunate. “The past government did PR work showcasing the (Shailaja) teacher’s leadership on Nipah and the COVID-19’s first wave. She had major public support, across all party lines. It was expected that she would continue to be a minister,” said the MP. He also added that an experienced leader like KK Shailaja shouldn’t have been ignored.
(With input from Geetika Mantri)