Exclusion of former health minister KK Shailaja from new Kerala Cabinet sparks controversy

The chorus from govt and Left ideologues is that new Cabinet will have new faces, but that point of view has not been bought by most citizens especially when Pinarayi Vijayan will continue to be CM

Former Health Minister of Kerala, KK Shailaja
Former Health Minister of Kerala, KK Shailaja
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Ashlin Mathew

Ever since it became evident that former health minister KK Shailaja would not be reprising her role during the second term of the Left Democratic Front, there has been indignant outrage on social media platforms with several hashtags in her name trending.

Shailaja, fondly known as Shailaja teacher, was the minister for Health, Social Justice and Woman and Child Development in the first Pinarayi Vijayan government. She had ably handled the Nipah outbreak and to a certain extent the spread of COVID-19 in Kerala.

In the recent Assembly elections, she had won from Mattannur by a whopping margin of nearly 61,000 votes. She will be the CPI(M)’s party whip in the Kerala legislative Assembly.

However, before becoming acceptable as a successful minister, she had courted controversy for purchasing a pair of spectacles for Rs 28,000 and then getting it reimbursed from the government exchequer.

The chorus from the government and the Left ideologues has been that the new Cabinet will have only new faces, but that point of view has not been bought by most citizens especially when Pinarayi Vijayan will continue to be the Chief Minister.

The rule ostensibly cited is that that no minister from the last Cabinet has been reappointed.

“That looks fair on paper. But then the rule should have been applied across the board and should include the Chief Minister as well. If the argument is that the elections were fought under Pinarayi Vijayan's leadership, and therefore, he could not be changed, then this criterion of popular acceptability should apply to KK Shailaja's case as well. After all, people had an expectation that she would continue as a minister, and she also got the highest victory margin in election history,” said Dr Nissim Mannathukkaren, professor with the department of International Development Studies at Dalhousie University.

“This is nothing but the vicious sidelining of one of the most popular women leaders. What has happened to her is gross injustice,” asserted Dr J Devika, historian and professor at the Centre for Development Studies. “Women in politics in Kerala think that if you shrink beyond visibility, you will survive, but that doesn’t happen. You only get trampled,” she added.

“Even though one cannot compare the two women leaders, when KR Gowriamma walked out of CPI(M), it was as if the ground shook, like a huge tree collapsing. Memories of that crashing will remain vivid. No leader should be like the grass which sways in the wind. It gets plastered on the ground during heavy rains, but when there is sunshine, it is back up. It will survive, but the point is to thrive. Shailaja was someone who looked like she would go places and was popular. People in Kerala are far more ready to accept a woman as the Chief Minister,” pointed out Devika.

Shailaja has been known for her readiness and ability to listen and take decisions, said Devika, and that is why they want her out. “If you look at all the contenders for a CM post after Pinarayi Vijayan, they are all male. They don’t want a dark horse to enter the race,” contended Devika.

It would have been much better to have four women ministers in the current government. “Veena George could have been made a junior minister in the health ministry and she could have been made to work under Shailaja. She would have learnt the ropes of governance. Neither Veena nor R Bindu are high up in the party hierarchy, but Shailaja is part of the Central Committee. She can’t be pushed around like the new entrants. The new entrants will sign the dotted line,” Devika said.

With four of them, they would have been powerful within the Cabinet, both in terms of influence and experience. “Even though there is an increase in women representation in the Cabinet, it could have been four, including KK Shailaja. While bringing new faces and younger members to the Cabinet is a great idea, there is also a place for experience and administrative knowledge. The downside of ‘all new members’ is that the only person with experience is the Chief Minister. This can lead to a dependence on the Chief Minister and his office, which would be a worrying tendency,” asserted Mannathukkaren.

However, gender studies historian Dr Meera Velayudhan, who is also the former President of Indian Association For Women’s Studies (IAWS), opined that there is no comparison between KR Gowriamma and Shailaja.

“There is no doubt that there should be more representation of women in political leadership. However, I think Shailaja got played up too much on social media. I don’t think she would have liked being pitched against the CM. The Kerala Health model involves frontline workers, scientists, panchayats, Kudumbasree members. It is not only Shailaja who has contributed to the COVID-19 response,” said Velayudhan.

“Shailaja teacher did become the public face of Kerala’s public health model and its gains but in the Covid context, many institutions were involved, not all under her ministries. If gender lens is the approach, then one has to look at the two ministries (social justice and health) and one women and child development department which were all clubbed under one minister, KK Shailaja. There are critical gaps in gender issues that need to be addressed,” underscored Velayudhan.

She underscored that it is a positive development that newer people have been included in the Cabinet. “This is the first time that a Left front government has come back a second term, so it is good to make changes. The CM played a definite leadership role,” added Velayudhan.

The gender studies historian stressed that Shailaja was also the minister of social justice and women and child department. “Have we checked her performance in these departments? In the pandemic, sexual abuse also heightened. One should not look at it partially. The minister did not follow up the Walayar case, where two minor Dalit girls were raped. What has happened to that case?” asked Velayudhan.

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