The LDF-led Kerala Government’s Cabinet formation has been both historic and surprising. Historic in the fact that this is the first time an incumbent Government has returned to power in Kerala, in 40 years. The LDF, aided by its pro-people strategies and efficient handling of the pandemic, so far, saw a resounding victory during the Assembly elections, as Kerala voted for continuity. This is the first time the alternate rule between LDF and UDF in Kerala has been broken.
While P Vijayan continues as the Chief Minister, what is conspicuous, however, is the absence of KK Shailaja, or Shailaja Teacher as she is lovingly called, in the 21-member cabinet. The exclusion of the former Health Minister has left many shocked and dismayed – both from within the party and from outside.
In fact, the public disappointment against the move is so great that #BringBackShailajaTeacher has been doing the rounds on social media. The hashtag has also found support from within the film circles of Kerala, with vocal female actors such as Rima Kallingal, Parvathy, Anupama Parameswaran and filmmaker Anjali Menon expressing their shock over the exclusion and joining in the call to bring Shailaja Teacher back.
The Rockstar Health Minister
Shailaja Teacher hails from a political family – she calls her grandmother, MK Kalyani, her inspiration - a staunch Communist who fought against untouchability and helped Communist workers during the British era. Shailaja Teacher's uncles, who fought against the zamindari system and farmers struggles, were arrested and severely tortured in custody.
KK Shailaja was a member of CPIM’s Student Federation of India and the youth wing, the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) during her youth. She worked as a Physics teacher in Kannur for 23 years, before retiring in 2004 to become a full-time politician.
However, it was her stint as the Health Minister, during the Kerala floods, the Nipah virus that struck the state in 2018 killing 17 people, and during the Covid pandemic, that brought her recognition.
Throughout the Nipah outbreak, Shailaja camped at Kozhikode, the epicentre, taking charge, coordinating with the medical teams and ensuring that the virus was contained before it could spread to the rest of the state. Her quiet and efficient handling of the Nipah virus even became the subject of a Malayalam film – Virus directed by Aashiq Abu and featuring actor Revathy as Shailaja.
Last year, KK Shailaja’s Health Ministry sprang into action as soon as news about the coronavirus started coming in. After meeting with the rapid response team, she set up a control room and ensured that similar setups were up and running in the state’s 14 districts.
Hence, by the time the first case was reported in January, last year, via a nursing student who had returned from the Wuhan University, Shailaja already had her teams working as per the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) protocol of testing, tracing, isolating and supporting.
Under her guidance, Kerala implemented home quarantining of travellers in February, much before the central government issued quarantine guidelines in March. The state also set up isolation wards with 40 beds in 21 hospitals, with each district given a helpline number.
As cases progressed and the country went into a lockdown, Kerala ensured that no one went hungry in the state. The State Government provided food kits, welfare and pension, ensuring that the most vulnerable had access to the basic necessities of life.
International recognition, local love
Shailaja Teacher’s fame has even crossed borders with the international media calling her the Coronavirus Slayer, Kerala’s Covid Rockstar and Covid champion. In June 2020, Shailaja was one of the panellists at the UN Public Service Day. While the UK’s Prospect Magazine named her ‘top thinker’ of the Covid-19 age, the former Health Minister was also recognised by the Financial Times as among the 12 most influential women of 2020. SHailaja Teacher even graced the cover of Vogue India under the Women of the Year 2020 category.
Her popularity and support base in her own state has grown leaps and bounds. During the recent Kerala assembly elections, people wore T-shirts with Shailaja Teacher’s face on it, and youngsters swarmed her for autographs and selfies. She won from the Mattannur assembly seat by a huge and historic margin of 60,000 votes. At one point, KK Shailaja was even touted as a possible successor to Vijayan.
But, she has also been the target of criticism by the opposition. The Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee President, Mulappally Ramachandran called her a Covid Queen and NIPAH princess and accused her of using the media to gain popularity.
Party above all
KK Shailaja’s exclusion from the Ministry has raised accusations of misogyny and of party patriarchs protecting their fiefdom, drawing parallels to two former exalted women leaders of the party – KR Gouri Amma, who passed away recently, and Susheela Gopalan, one of the founding members of the CPI(M) - both of whom were not given the Chief Ministerial post. Some commentators also see this step as Vijayan’s dominance in the party and his way of nipping in the bud anybody who could be a potential threat.
KK Shailaja has denied being disappointed by the exclusion and has said that it is a policy decision of their party that all Ministers should be newcomers.
The CPM, on its part, maintains that the decision to not bring back KK Shailaja in the new Cabinet is part of its strategy to have a completely new Cabinet and not give a second term to any of the previous Ministers. According to commentators, the decision is also the party’s way of putting itself above any individual.
Kerala’s new Cabinet, which has PA Mohammad Riyas, Beypore MLA, DYFI national president and the son-in-law of Vijayan, as the Minister for Public Works Department and Tourism, also sees a shift away from senior politicians to younger Ministers.
With no plans of bringing Shailaja Teacher back, all eyes are now on Veena George, a former journalist and MLA from Aranmula, who has stepped into Shailaja Teacher’s place as the new Health Minister of Kerala. How George is able to handle the current wave, which is deadlier than the first one, will decide whether critics are right in their criticism of the exclusion.