“Ningalkku ee partiye kurichu oru chukkum ariyilla,” Pinarayi Vijayan had thundered to the press in Kerala once upon a time, meaning, “You don’t know a damn thing about this party.”
The dropping of KK Shailaja as minister after securing a historic mandate in 2021 came as a bombshell for the cadres, leaders and even the media in Kerala. However, the systematic transformation of the Communist Party of India Marxist in Kerala into a party increasingly being fashioned to cater to the cult of Pinarayi Vijayan has been evident to some and ensured that not a single leader in the party hierarchy would raise a voice of protest against this unjustified sidelining of a performing health minister in the middle of a raging pandemic.
In the CPIM scheme of things today, Vijayan towers head and shoulders above the party and would not share the limelight with anyone else.
It is important to note that it was Shailaja who would address the daily press briefings on Covid in the initial days. Soon, she was sidelined and the daily press briefing on Covid became a public relations exercise with Shailaja seated beside the chief minister not even allowed to field questions. The chief minister would brief the press and preside over the meeting. The press briefings worked to Vijayan’s advantage in winning a historic second term but Shailaja nevertheless earned praise through her good work and pleasant demeanour (not least of Vijayan’s strengths) as she began to get featured regularly in national and international press.
Apart from Vijayan’s own sense of insecurity and the routine charge of patriarchy invoked against the CPIM, there is one more dimension to the ouster. Shailaja would have been the second-in-command to Vijayan in the cabinet and that may not have been a welcome scenario for party veterans. Says A Jayasankar, Kerala’s foremost political commentator, “In CPIM, the hierarchy in the cabinet would be dependent on their position in the party hierarchy. Although both MV Govindan and K Radhakrishnan are Central Committee members of CPIM like Shailaja, they became part of the CC after Shailaja and her presence would have made her the ‘number 2’ in the cabinet.”
It also did not help that Shailaja had gained admirers from outside the party rank and file. A second term as health minister for Shailaja would have meant that she would be the overwhelming favourite to emerge as the chief ministerial candidate for CPIM in 2026, with Vijayan turning 80 then. The yardstick adopted by the party to sideline Shailaja and other senior ministers like Thomas Isaac and G Sudhakaran could well be forgotten at that point to demand a third term for Vijayan – the fact that Vijayan covets a third term was amply evident when a question regarding his future in 2026 was parried by him with a non-committal reply: “We’ll cross that bridge when it comes.”
“Today, Pinarayi’s wish is the party’s command and that is what the CPIM has reduced itself to,” opined KC Umesh Babu, a former Left fellow-traveller from Kannur. This would not be an overstatement if one were to examine the process adopted by CPIM to sideline Shailaja. The decision was apparently taken at the “available Politburo meeting” in Thiruvananthapuram last week where Vijayan, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, S Ramachandran Pillai, and MA Baby came to a consensus that no exemption should be granted to Shailaja. However, this remained a secret and the mystery would only be revealed at the party’s State Secretariat and State Committee meetings on May 18.
“This is virtually a repetition of what happened when the names of party Rajya Sabha nominees V Sivadasan and [media advisor] John Brittas were announced in the State Committee last month. These are basically decisions taken by one man and ratified by the committees in a farcical exercise,” said a senior journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram who did not want to be identified.
Appukuttan Vallikkunnu, a former CPIM State Committee member who had also been the officiating editor of party mouthpiece Deshabhimani, went one step further. “I would say that political reporting is dead in Kerala. Even dailies like Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi aren't able to bring out stuff that goes on behind the scenes. Did you know that Vijayan’s original candidate to replace Shailaja was Dr PK Jameela, wife of minister AK Balan, who had retired as director of the health department? The move was thwarted only because of the local resentment against PK Jameela’s candidature. Vijayan would have zeroed in on his Cabinet during the candidate selection itself,” he claimed.
The decision on Shailaja’s future was merely a formality in the 21-member State Secretariat, according to the press. Speaking to Newslaundry on the condition of anonymity, a member of the 88-member CPIM State Committee revealed that a few members – P Jayarajan, P Satheedevi and MV Jayarajan from Kannur, U Ananthagopan, Susan Kodi, CS Sujatha, KK Jayachandran, P Rajendran, and KP Mary – had supported the inclusion of Shailaja in the cabinet. But once A Vijayaraghavan and Kodiyeri Balakrishnan intervened, the matter ended.
Jayasankar had a different take. “If you want to figure out how Pinarayi Vijayan got the backing of the party, just look who benefitted from Shailaja’s ouster from the cabinet,” he said, pointing out how first-time legislator R Bindu, whose husband is Vijayaraghavan, got the nod in Shailaja’s stead.
As with Bindu, the decision to promote first-time legislator and DYFI president PA Mohammed Riyas as minister has also raised charges of nepotism – he is married to Veena T, daughter of Pinarayi Vijayan. “Whatever happened to propriety?” asked Vallikkunnu.
Veteran journalist NP Chekkutty added, “Nepotism aside, Riyas has his own credentials. But then, look at the contrasting fortunes of Riyas and his predecessor [as DYFI president] MB Rajesh: while Rajesh has been pinned down as Speaker of the legislative assembly, the younger Riyas will be in charge of glamorous ministries and his stock in the party will rise dramatically in the coming years. This kind of grooming of a family member to leadership positions is unheard of in Indian Communist parties.”
While the two-term norm was brought about before the election to deny tickets to veterans like finance minister Thomas Isaac and G Sudhakaran, the dropping of Shailaja after the election when everyone expected her to continue as health minister during this health emergency of sorts hasn’t gone down well even in the Left circles.
Meanwhile, Asianet News had reported that Politburo member Brinda Karat (and to a lesser extent Sitaram Yechury) had a divergent view on Shailaja’s exclusion. On being contacted by Newslaundry for comment, Karat said: “It has been the tradition in the party to let a particular State Committee take such decisions, so I wouldn’t really want to say anything more as a decision has been arrived at.” Another Politburo member, Subhashini Ali, too did not want to comment on the matter when Newslaundry got in touch with her.
But more than central leaders, the lack of a single contrarian voice from within the party in Kerala on the matter goes on to show the kind of control exerted by Vijayan. In fact, MA Baby was on an uncharacteristic justification spree to explain the decision.
Post Shailaja’s axing, the CPIM would find it very difficult to wriggle out of the charges of misogyny, as the possibility of her emerging as a chief ministerial candidate has been effectively throttled. Social critic MN Karassery contended that the charges of misogyny being cast on CPIM are justified in the light of Shailaja’s ouster. Even the timing of it – shortly after the passing away of the legendary communist leader KR Gouri, – did not deter Vijayan.