In dropping all his experienced ministers, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has taken a major gamble in the midst of a full-blown pandemic. Vijayan, who recently won a historic second term in a state that traditionally changes its government every five years, has denied berths to all who held ministerial positions in his previous administration. Outgoing health minister KK Shailaja, who earned plaudits for her handling of the Covid-19 crisis, has been relegated to the chief whip of the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). Her removal has raised many eyebrows, especially in the backdrop of a stringent “triple lockdown” that is in place in several districts.
“This was a collective decision. KK Shailaja was removed as part of our decision to drop all ministers in the first cabinet,” newly designated minister MV Govindan told News18.
But there are apprehensions that the move could impact the state’s fight against Covid-19, as the new Kerala cabinet is devoid of any experience in handling health crises — that too of the present scale.
Shailaja shot to limelight due to her handling of the Nipah virus outbreak in 2018. And in January 2020, when India’s first Covid-19 cases were detected in Kerala, she was responsible for managing the outbreak quickly; she almost contained it before a national lockdown was announced on March 24.
When contacted, CPI-M functionaries continued to defend the decision to drop Shailaja. Party leader AN Shamseer called it “a conscious move to provide adequate representation to all communities and give opportunity to new faces”.
Questions are also being raised on why the Chief Minister chose to induct his son-in-law, PA Mohammed Riyas, into the cabinet. Riyas is the president of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), the CPI-M’s youth wing. He spearheaded the party’s protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA. His rise up the ranks has been a matter of much controversy, with the Sangh Parivar alleging that the CPI-M was being hijacked by Islamists. At the same time, the move to allot a cabinet berth to the Indian National League, a CPI-M ally, has also raised eyebrows.
A controversial figure who seems to have been rewarded is former MP and the party’s TV face, MB Rajesh, who has been elected the speaker in the new assembly. The move comes at a time when the dust is yet to settle over the row over his wife’s appointment as an assistant professor at the Sri Sankaracharya University. It was alleged that R Ninitha was given the job in violation of norms.
So far, every effort has been made to attribute the massive election win of the CPI-M to Vijayan. The adulation has been so overwhelming that even party mouthpiece People’s Democracy, published from Delhi, recently ran an editorial, warning against the tendency to bestow the entire credit on Vijayan.
But the message is clear: Vijayan has an iron grip over the only state where the Left is in power. And it is unlikely that this grip would loosen any time soon.
Experienced leaders such as Thomas Isaac, G Sudhakaran and AK Balan were denied tickets to contest the polls in the first place, citing a precedent in the party. And now there will be no leader in the Kerala cabinet who could come close to rivalling Vijayan’s popularity.
The state unit of the CPI-M has been under Vijayan’s control for some time, even during the tenure of former party state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, a leader in his own right. Balakrishnan is now on leave due to ill health and alleged links between his son and drug peddlers. A Vijayaraghavan has temporary charge of the party unit.
It would be interesting to see who is asked to step up to the position of the party secretary to assist Vijayan. There are chances that it could be EP Jayarajan, the former No 2 in the Kerala cabinet and the industries minister. Jayarajan is a long-term confidante of the Chief Minister and a fellow Kannur native.
By picking relatively inexperienced ministers in his new team, Vijayan is hedging his bets. He has insulated his new cabinet from controversies (such as the gold smuggling case) that are sure to be raked up by his political rivals once they pick up the pieces of their electoral loss. The financial mess that Kerala finds itself in can also be blamed on the previous ministers.
The message that Vijayan is trying to give is that it’s a new day, a new dawn, and a new government in Kerala. But the problem with sunlight is that it illuminates even the darkest corners. And gambles often backfire.