MORE THAN two weeks after leading the Left Front to a historic repeat win in Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stamped his authority on the new government by standing firm on his pre-election line and picking an all-new Cabinet — even if it meant keeping out previous Health Minister K K Shailaja, who was praised globally for her handling of the Covid crisis.
Shailaja was among five CPI(M) ministers from the previous government who won in the Assembly elections but were kept out of Vijayan’s 21-member Cabinet. The decision raised eyebrows within party circles, especially among the central leadership, since it was widely believed in the run-up to government formation that she would be exempted from the newcomers norm.
There was also some disquiet over Vijayan granting a ministerial berth to his son-in-law and first-time legislator P A Mohammed Riyas, who is emerging as the Muslim face of the CPI(M) in north Kerala. Riyas is the national president of DYFI, the party’s youth wing.
Also in the Cabinet is R Bindu, who is the wife of CPI(M) state secretary and Left Democratic Front (LDF) convenor A Vijayaraghavan.
Apart from Shailaja, who was elected from Mattannur with over 60,000 votes — the highest margin this election — former CPI(M) ministers T P Ramakrishnan, M M Mani, Kadakampally Surendran and A C Moideen did not find a place in the new government.
Speaking to reporters, Shailaja, who is now chief whip of the CPI (M) parliamentary party, said she had fulfilled the responsibility given to her by the party. “The new team will go ahead very well. What is important is not the person, but the system,’’ she said.
Asked about the backlash on social media, including from Left sympathisers, on her ouster, Shailaja said: “There is no need to be emotional about these things.” The new Cabinet has three women, including CPI(M)’s Veena George, a former journalist.
Before the elections, Vijayan had decided not to give tickets to sitting legislators who had completed two consecutive terms. This led to the exclusion of several ministers, including second-rung leaders, from the fray.
Vijayan is the first Chief Minister in Kerala to get a second consecutive term, bucking the trend of incumbent governments getting unseated every five years.
In Delhi, however, sources told The Indian Express that some of the party’s central leaders were not happy about Shailaja’s omission, and that the state leadership did not consult the central leadership on the selection of ministers.
The party’s general secretary Sitaram Yechury and politburo member Brinda Karat are said to be among those who were disappointed with the decision.
However, sources said, with the party having drawn a blank in West Bengal, and Vijayan powering the Left back to power in an unprecedented manner, the central leadership would not want to assert itself at this point.
Still, they said, the issue may come up during the next meeting of the party’s Central Committee. “I am sure members will raise the issue. We have a robust inner party democratic set-up,” a senior leader said.
When contacted, Yechury told The Indian Express: “The matters concerning CPI(M)’s elected MLAs joining as ministers in a state government are matters in the domain of the party state committee to decide upon. The party state committee discussed that issue and unanimously decided on this.”
The CPI leadership, too, believes that Shailaja’s omission will create problems of perception at the state and national level. Yechury’s CPI counterpart D Raja, whose party is a constituent of the Left Front, said it was the prerogative of the CPi(M) to decide its ministers. “It will explain its decision,” he said.
The CPI in Kerala, meanwhile, has also opted for new faces, three of them first-time legislators, with the junior coalition ally getting four Cabinet berths. However, the JD(S) and the NCP, which are also part of the alliance, renominated K Krishnankutty and A K Saseendran, respectively, for another term.
Another key ally, Kerala Congress (M) led by Jose K Mani, which had joined hands with LDF before the Assembly elections, was allotted one berth. But with Jose losing the elections, his close aide Roshi Augustine is the party’s minister.
The second Vijayan government is also marked by the debut of Indian National League, an IUML splinter group, with its lone legislator and first-timer Ahamed Devarkovil getting a berth. Another single-legislator ally, Janadhipathya Kerala Congress, got a Cabinet berth for Antony Raju, a former lawyer.
Prominent among the new CPI(M) ministers are: central committee member M V Govindan, and party state secretariat members and former Rajya Sabha MPs P Rajeev and K N Balagopal. Apart from Vijayan, the only minister from the party with experience in the Cabinet is its central committee member and Dalit face, K Radhakrishan, who served as Speaker from 1996-2001 and minister from 2006-2011.
Vijayan also ensured a Cabinet berth for V Sivankutty, who defeated BJP’s Kummanam Rajasekharan in a high-profile tussle in its lone sitting seat of Nemom. K T Jaleel, the Left-backed independent who had resigned from the Cabinet last month after the state Lokayukta found him guilty of “favouritism and nepotism”, was not considered for a slot despite managing a narrow win.
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