KK Shailaja won the 2021 Kerala elections with the highest margin of victory in the history of Assembly polls in the state – a whopping 61,035 votes. She won 10,000 votes more than even the sitting Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan — making her arguably the most popular leader in the elections.
It is not every day that a woman health minister is voted back to power, with a historic mandate nonetheless, that too in the middle of a raging wave of coronavirus pandemic.
By voting in large numbers for Shailaja, the Mattannur constituency in Kannur district spoke for people across the state – they rewarded her with a thumping victory for her work.
But not by her party. Was 'teacher', as she is often called, 'taught' a lesson when the LDF-led by Vijayan dropped her from the next Cabinet? Does it hint not only at reeking sexism but also insecurity over her competency?
She will, however, function as the party whip in the new Assembly.
Meanwhile, two women have found a place in the new Cabinet – Veena George and R Bindu.
'No Former Minister Repeated': An Un-defendable Excuse
That none of the former ministers were included in the new Cabinet is simply an un-defendable excuse for excluding Shailaja, since Vijayan has made himself an exception to the rule. Not only is he returning as the Chief Minister but is also likely to hold the reins of the Home Ministry.
So, if Vijayan can be an exception to the rule, why not Shailaja?
While people have credited LDF's historic return to power to many factors, it is undeniable that the former Health Minister's handling of the two major public health crises played a crucial role — making one question the petty intent behind the decision. The outrage over her exclusion from the Cabinet, even by those who are traditionally Left supporters, only adds to the fact that the mandate was not just for Vijayan's leadership but also her work at the grassroots level.
However, Shailaja herself says it is a policy decision, calling the outpouring support an ‘emotional’ reaction.
"It is a policy decision of our party. So according to that decision, I also decided to quit. Everyone...when they get a new responsibility they are freshers and newcomers. We have to give others a chance too. Here are so many workers in our party, if they get the opportunity, they will also work hard," she told NDTV on 18 May, after her exclusion was announced.
Shailaja's Political Journey
Chemistry teacher-turned-politician made her Assembly debut 25 years ago, the last five years has put her on the national map — after she led the fight against Nipah virus outbreak in the state in 2018 and 2019.
The 64-year-old has often credited her experience as a school teacher and Left activism, in realising the need for scientific temper and reasoning in fighting public health crises.
“I strictly followed scientists and experts [rather] than those who eulogise on the imagined benefits of cow dung and cow urine,” said Shailaja, in an interview with HuffingtonPost.
Not only did she receive international acclaim for her leadership during the first wave of the pandemic, Kerala also set an example for putting into place a model 'test, track, trace' process.
“What I want to highlight is that we faced many challenges during our tenure. We had a devastating hurricane, floods, the Nipah virus, and COVID-19 pandemic, but we rose to the occasion each time. The people saw this and were happy with the model of governance in Kerala and hence, we have been voted to power again for the work we have done,” she told NDTV, after her massive victory on 2 May.
During her her term as Health Minister, she strengthened the public health system, across districts, further helped Kerala fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Generation's Gouri Amma?
That this happens the same week KR Gouri Amma, one of Left's tallest leaders in the state, passed away, is ironic. That a woman leader is shunted out of a cabinet with a weak excuse of Cabinet overhaul resembles history repeating itself.
In 1987, Gouri Amma was projected to be the next CM, with elections being fought in her name. The rallies reverberated with 'Keram thingum Kerala naadu, KR Gouri bharikkatte' (Let KR Gouri rule Kerala — the land of coconut trees).
The Left won the elections. But not only did she not become the Chief Minister, she was also later expelled from the party. The tributes that poured in described her as one of the state’s ‘finest ministers’ and the ‘best chief minister Kerala never had.’
Twenty seven years after her expulsion, she is no more. Neither did she get a response on why she was expelled.
And Kerala is yet to get its first woman chief minister.
The state which prides itself in high literacy, long life expectancy, and political awareness fails miserably when it comes to representation of women in state Assembly and Parliament.
The number of women MLAs in the state has never crossed double digits until the 2021 polls, when 11 MLAs were elected. Only nine women have represented the state in both Houses of Parliament since the formation of the state.
In an ideal world, the mandate of the people would have been respected, the resounding victory rewarded. In an ideal world, KK Shailaja would have been encouraged to head the state next. In an ideal world, she too would have been an exception to the rule – just like Vijayan.