On 18 May when the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Pinarayi Vijayan selected his cabinet, it had a shocker—KK Shailaja, former health minister was out of the picture.
While CPI(M) has justified the decision by placing on record that Shaijala’s exclusion is in keeping with the party’s move to field a new team in the cabinet, it flies in the face of a glaring fact – CM Pinarayi Vijayan is getting a second term.
Then why not Shailaja, who was, till recently, called the ‘rockstar’ health minister?
Shailaja had won Mattannur Assembly seat by a margin of 58,812 votes in 2021 election. This was higher than Pinarayi Vijayan’s winning margin of 48,051 votes in Dharmadom constituency.
Moreover, the minister’s popularity had skyrocketed in large measure, due to Shailaja's excellent handling of both, the COVID-19 and the Nipah virus outbreaks. And yet, it appears that ‘Teacher’, as she is popularly known for being a science teacher, has been discarded while still in her prime.
While the current cabinet has two women leaders from CPI(M) including Thrissur Mayor R Bindu and MLA Veena George, it begs the question – why does not Pinarayi Vijayan want to reward those of his former ministers who are popular, and have performed well in their jobs and also electorally?
The Sidelined Leaders
The answer lies in the fate of Thomas Isaac, former finance minister of Kerala and CPI(M) leader who was denied a seat this election. Isaac, who has been an articulate leader, popular among the national press, was not given a chance to contest because the CPI(M) had decided not to allow leaders who were elected twice to the cabinet to contest in Assembly elections 2021.
Here too, Pinarayi Vijayan was an exception. Vijayan who had earlier served as Electricity and Co-operatives minister between 1996 and 1998, was elected from Dharmadom in 2016 to become the 12th chief minister of Kerala.
Vijayan contested elections a third time in 2021, and won the Dharmadom seat a second consecutive time. After this, CPI(M) has nominated him as the legislature party leader and chief minister designate.
Political observers said that Isaac was sidelined because he was emerging as a popular face nationally. “Pinarayi Vijayan has been posturing himself as a figure who is antithetical to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is projecting that he is everything Modi is not — secular and efficient. But then what do you do with ministers who outshine you?” a senior political journalist of Kerala who has been covering CPI(M) for two decades said.
For Vijayan, who is criticised for his ‘Stalinist’ tactic of party governance, any competition from within the CPI(M) is to be quelled.
At least, going by his long tiff with former Chief Minister and senior CPI(M) leader VS Achuthanandan, Vijayan believes in settling scores decisively, and the CPI(M) has almost always been backing him.
When Achuthanandan, who is now 98-year-old, was the Kerala CM between 2006 and 2011, Vijayan, who was the party’s general secretary at the time, had raked up a storm. His constant dismissal of Achuthanandan’s leadership had gradually weakened the octogenarian. Vijayan won the battle when entered the Chief Minister’s office in 2016, relegating Achuthanandan and his supporters to the margin. Now, with Thomas Isaac and KK Shailaja out of the picture, Vijayan seems to have won this battle too, even before it became a war.
Other leaders who were sidelined either before the elections or after, include former Industries and Sports Minister EP Jayarajan, Public Works Minister G Sudhakaran, Law Minister AK Balan and Education Minister C Raveendranath.
However, from among all the politicians who have been sidelined, it is the denial of cabinet berth to KK Shailaja, that seems to be a step clearly in the wrong direction. Why?
CPI(M) Cuts a Sorry Figure, Nationally
On social media, a series of responses expressed the concerns of those batting for KK Shailaja. Most, including CPI(M) supporters, questioned the decision to drop her. Most likely, these opposing voices may not be able to keep up the criticism over a period of time. Time is forgetful.
But, the damage is done – Vijayan is yet again seen as someone who crushes competition for his gain. Even if it comes at the cost of his party and at the cost of good governance. Belying his efforts to project himself as a mass leader and an administrator, the CM has once again raised the question, “Will no one other than Pinarayi’s submissive favourites survive in the party?”. Pinarayi Vijayan’s son in law MLA Mohammed Riyas has made it to the cabinet this time.
Meanwhile, removal of KK Shailaja has sent out two messages. Firstly, that CM Vijayan is not really the benevolent leader he has been claiming to be.
Under the façade of the chief minister who holds daily press conferences to reassure the COVID-19 affected masses, lies a ruthless politician who can uproot even his brilliant colleagues.
Secondly, the decision reflects poorly on CPI(M), a national party which is decimated in most parts of the country, except Kerala.
Nipping Shailaja’s political future during a raging pandemic and reducing the woman minister to an MLA in the Assembly she once ruled as the health minister, could upset CPI(M)'s woman voter base. This decision may cost Vijayan the goodwill that he enjoyed from women who supported his party’s decision to follow the Supreme Court order in the Sabarimala case.
The CPI(M) government had allowed women of menstruating age to enter the hill shrine after a 2018 Supreme Court order permitted the same. This elections, a record number of women voters are believed to have supported the party.
But isn’t gender justice the casualty when a high performing woman minister is not given a second term?
This, when CPI(M) in Kerala is now a one man army, while the party stands decimated in its former stronghold of West Bengal, and is struggling to revive itself in Tripura.
Did Vijayan not think that dropping Shailaja means bad optics for the CPI(M) nationally? Is it not a bad political move? The CM seems to think that he will tide over this phase of criticism too.
But are Pinarayi Vijayan and his political priorities above those of the CPI(M)?
The constant sidelining of senior leaders of the CPI(M) which is continually happening under his leadership indicates that Pinarayi Vijayan’s say in the party now weighs heavier that that of any other leader.
Will the real CPI(M) stand up and reclaim the ground? Or is Pinarayi Vijayan now the real CPI(M)?
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