Health Minister KK Shailaja, in Thiruvananthapuram
KK Shailaja, former Health Minister of Kerala. Image Credit: ANI

An emotional earthquake of sorts erupted in Kerala after KK Shailaja the health minister, who became a rock star and a darling to the public, was dropped from the Left Democratic Front (LDF) ministry returning to power after a historic win. It was a totally unexpected move and cutting across party lines, people vented their anger and frustration on social media decrying the ‘heartless’ decision in the desperate hope that the party gods would take notice.

A first-time minister falling out of favour with her boss or party leadership (just another word for the same boss in this context) by itself is not worth the news. But many Keralites felt the decision to drop her to be squarely unjust because they knew she had as much role as Kerala Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan in securing a second term for the Left front.

Crisis manager

The 64-year-old Shailaja’s claim to fame has been through deft handling of Nipah and COVID-19 outbreaks in the outgoing ministry. She has proved her administrative abilities and is good enough to be the next chief minister, many argued. Others hoped she would at least continue as health minister as Kerala is going through a crippling lockdown to curb the second wave of COVID-19 amid floods and threats of waterborne-diseases.

For an ordinary chemistry teacher it was a magical transformation. And it was intriguing to see her influence and clout growing day by day as an able administrator - at one time pushing the CM to the sidelines in media ratings. It was only natural to expect an equal and opposite reaction from the CPI(M) leadership.

Shailaja was one of the star campaigners of this election and many even openly campaigned for her to be the Chief Minister instead of Pinaryai Vijayan. But Vijayan’s iron grip on the party continues to be unshakeable, especially after the tiny state has become the last bastion in the country where the party is in power.

She was, of course, given the post of party whip, if that is any consolation to you. But the public was understandably heartbroken and noticed this is nothing but sidelining of an efficient woman administrator and smacks of double standards and even gender discrimination. “Bring our teacher back! The people chose their leader and this sidelining puts the party in a questionable position,” wrote actress and activist Parvathy Thiruvoth.

Not sticking to the winning team

The usually cold CPI(M) defence line was that it is part of a new policy decision. Barring the Chief Minister, all the ministers from CPI(M) are new faces, a doctrine the party is adopting to give opportunities to young or new faces to create a pool of future talents lest the party vanish without trace like it did in West Bengal after 34 years of rule. Accordingly, some of the new ministers from CPI(M) are: N Balagopal, MV Govindan, P Rajeev, V Shivankutty, R Bindu (wife of CPI(M) state secretary A Vijayaraghavan), Veena George and Mohammed Riyaz, (son-in-law of Pinarayi) - all first time ministers.

Party circles are also quick to point out that KK Shailaja is not singled out for this treatment. In fact, two other ministers - MM Mani and AC Moideen - were also dropped despite excellent performances last time.

But then why is it still keeping Pinarayi Vijayan? He is not a new face - dump him too, critics quip. Everyone knows there is no answer to this. For CPI(M) in Kerala begins and ends with Pinarayi Vijayan. His stranglehold in the party is absolute now.

Backlash and after

The party and its image builders are grappling with some backlash after this decision but all is well inside the party fortress. Party ideologues have started manufacturing consensus over the revolutionary initiative of inducting all new faces in the next ministry. Any ‘displeasure’ that some central leaders reportedly had about the decision was hurriedly buried with party General Secretary Sitaram Yechury coming out and saying that the decision of Kerala leadership was unanimous.

KK Shailaja is also taking it in her stride as expected of any other CPI(M) functionary taught to toe the party line at all costs. It is understandable. She is no party heavyweight or a fighter like erstwhile CPI(M) leader Gowri Amma to lock horns with the leadership. But then even Gowri Amma was denied her rightful place in Kerala by an openly patriarchal and subtly casteist leadership of the then CPI(M). Apparently vestiges of those elements are still in the DNA of the party and continue to run deep in the current leadership too. And captain cool would continue to remain at the helm no matter what.