Why has Pinarayi Vijayan dropped ‘rockstar’ health minister KK Shailaja?

She threatened the chief minister’s position or because the party is supreme?

ByRejimon Kuttappan
Why has Pinarayi Vijayan dropped ‘rockstar’ health minister KK Shailaja?
KK Shailaja, left, with the late communist stalwart KR Gouri.
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In the 1987 Kerala assembly election, communist leader KR Gouri, who died this month aged 101, was projected as the Left Front’s candidate for chief minister. “Let KR Gouri rule Kerala, land of the coconut tree,” went one popular slogan.

PK Vasudevan Nair, a communist stalwart, told a campaign rally in Gouri’s Aroor constituency that “the candidate you select will be Kerala’s chief minister”. Speaking after him, VS Achuthanandan, then the CPIM’s state secretary, went a step further and declared that the election would see Kerala elect its first woman chief minister.

The Left Front won the election, but Gouri didn't become the chief minister. EK Nayanar did.

In an interview several years later, Gouri would allege that EMS Namboodiripad, India’s first communist chief minister, had sidelined her in favour of Nayanar.

Cut to 1996. Susheela Gopalan, wife of the late CPIM leader AK Gopalan, was about to become the Kerala chief minister. Again, the chief ministership went to Nayanar.

Today, KK Shailaja, fondly known as Shailaja Teacher, has been denied a berth in Pinarayi Vijayan’s second ministry in spite of excelling as health minister, containing the Nipah virus outbreak in 2018 and the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic last year, and winning the recent assembly election by the widest margin of any candidate.

Shailaja has not been singled out, however. All but one CPIM leaders who will join the new Pinarayi ministry on May 20 are going to serve for the first time. The sole exception is K Radhakrishnan, a minister under Nayanar in 1996 and speaker from 2006 to 2011.

CPIM allies K Krishnankutty of the Janata Dal Secular and AK Saseendran of the Nationalist Congress Party will keep their ministerial berths.

The incumbent CPIM ministers will go back to working for the party. Shailaja will serve as the party whip in the assembly.

Speaking to TV reporters about her exit as health minister, Shailaja merely said she “goes with the party decision” and that “the new minister and government will do a good job”.

‘Immature decision’

Roy Mathew, a seasoned journalist who reported on Gouri's chief ministership candidature, argued that Shailaja’s case is “somewhat similar” to that of the late leader. "In Gouri's case, she had attained a stature much bigger than EMS which was irritating him. Additionally, there was a caste angle. EMS was Brahmin and Gouri belonged to the Ezhava community, which falls under the Other Backward Class. So, even though Gouri's name was announced and 'decided' as the chief minister, EMS played his cards well and sidelined her," Roy recalled. “In Shailaja's case, caste isn’t an angle. But she had acquired more name and fame as minister and leader than Pinarayi in the first term, even though it was all through systematic PR work. So, Pinarayi struck down her name in his second term.”

NM Pearson, a political observer who keenly follows the Left Front, said, "It is not a surprising decision because the CPIM has become a leader-oriented party without any democracy. Pinarayi has the final say in the Kerala CPIM. But we shouldn't forget that Shailaja was seen as a leader on par with Pinarayi owing to her excellence in governance. Pinarayi would have seen her as a threat. That might be the reason she has been denied a ministership."

Pearson argued that in spite of being embroiled in several corruption scandals, the Pinarayi government returned to power by making Keralities believe they were tackling the pandemic better than other states under Shailaja’s leadership.

Pearson described it as an “immature and avoidable decision”. “Kerala is struggling to fight the second wave of Covid, it’s an immature decision to deny Shailaja continuation. This Pinarayi government has cut the connection with the medical team heading the Covid fight and Shailaja,” he remarked. “At this juncture, it could have been avoided.”

Kerala reported 31,337 fresh Covid cases on Tuesday and at least 97 deaths. The government this week imposed a strict lockdown in the four worst-hit districts which account for over half of its 440,652 active Covid cases.

‘We learned a lesson in Bengal’

Rubbishing the many theories being propounded in the press to explain Shailaja’s exit, several CPIM leaders said she wasn’t retained because the party had decided to have fresh faces.

“Before the election, CPIM decided not to give tickets to party members who had been MLAs for 10 years continuously. When that was implemented, many senior leaders were denied seats, including two ministers,” Anathalavattom Anandan, a senior state CPIM leader, said. “Another decision was to have fresh ministers if the CPIM-led front returned to power. People voted for the CPM-led front. So, we are going to have fresh faces. People voted for the government, not for ministers. It was the media which created a buzz that Shailaja would remain a minister in Pinarayi’s second team. The party had already decided to have a new team.”

He added, “This party is not like the Congress to have MLAs for 50 years straight. In Bengal, we had certain party leaders as ministers continuously. We learned a lesson that it’s bad. So, we made these changes.”

The party did not field as many as 31 legislators who had been in the assembly for 10 consecutive years. Five of them were ministers, including such grandees as EP Jayarajan, Thomas Issac, and AK Balan.

Why was the chief minister alone exempted from this policy? “It was decided earlier,” said Elamaram Kareem, Rajya Sabha MP from the CPIM leader.

Among the new ministers are three women – Chinchu Rani, R Bindu, Veena George – and a youth leader who happens to be the chief minister’s son-in-law.

Chinchu is from the ally CPI and will be the party’s first woman minister since 1964. Bindhu is a former mayor of Thrissur and is married to CPIM state secretary K Vijayraghavan. Veena is a former television journalist. This is her second term as MLA. The previous Pinarayi ministry had only two women, Shailaja and J Mercykutty, who lost the election.

Bottom corner

Most of Kerala’s newspapers featured Shailaja’s story on their front pages, but CPIM mouthpiece Deshabhimani only carried her comments on the left bottom side of Page 5.

“I didn’t fight the Covid alone. It was the government that did. The new generation coming forward is a welcome thing,” the party paper quoted the outgoing minister as saying.

Just above the report about Shailaja, Deshabhimani ran a story about Radhakrishnan’s meeting with EMS in 1996. He had just been elected MLA for the first time and was set to be made a minister. Radhakrishnan told EMS, the party patriarch, that he was worried he didn’t have enough experience to do well as a minister. EMS replied that as a farmer union leader, Radhakrishnan was well equipped to handle the job.

Seemingly, by recounting a story from a quarter century ago, Deshabhimani wanted to convey that the lack of experience in government wasn’t a handicap for a party leader to do well as a minister.

Rejimon Kuttappan is an independent journalist in Kerala.

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