Days after leading the ruling Left Democratic Front to a stupendous electoral victory, Communist Party of India-Marxist veteran Pinarayi Vijayan was on Tuesday elected its Parliamentary Party Leader for a second term as Chief Minister but the omission of 'rockstar' health minister KK Shailaja from the new cabinet sparked a debate.
Having won international accolades for her deft handling of the first wave of Covid-19 in Kerala after it reported India's first case in 2020, Shailaja's surprise omission drew instant comparisons with the late KR Gowri Amma, the firebrand Marxist who was once tipped to head the state but never did.
However, Shailaja, described as a "rockstar health minister" by section of international media, said she was not disappointed at being denied berth in the new cabinet.
"There is no need to be emotional.. I became the minister earlier because of the party's decision. I have absolute satisfaction in what I have done. I am confident that the new team can perform better than me," she said.
"Not the individual but the system is showcasing the fight against the pandemic. I am happy that I could lead the team," the leader added.
She was, however, entrusted with the position of party whip, a CPI-M statement said, even as the party took the position that all members except the Chief Minister should be fresh faces in the new cabinet.
Among the fresh faces is Vijayan's son-in-law P A Mohammed Riyas.
The state committee of the Marxist party nominated 11 freshers including two women as its ministers in the new government which would be sworn-in on May 20 at the Central Stadium here in adherence to Covid-19 protocol.
The state committee, which met at its headquarters AKG Centre, elected Vijayan to lead the party, the statement said.
Vijayan had scripted history in the April 6 assembly polls by leading the ruling Left front to a consecutive term, bucking the over four-decade-old trend in the state of the people choosing between the Communists and Congress-led governments alternatively.
Though it was almost sure that no ministers in the previous VIjayan government would find a place in his new cabinet, Shailaja was expected to be given an exemption by the party, as the state is reeling under the second wave of the pandemic.
She had won the polls with the highest margin of 60,963 votes from Mattannur in Kannur.
The media, during the election, had even projected her as the first woman chief minister of the state in future.
Belying all expectations, Shailaja was not included in the new ministry.
Hailed as 'rockstar health minister' by the global media for her able leadership, effective crisis management and matured intervention in arresting the first wave of Covid-19 in the state, Shailaja's non-inclusion raised many eyebrows cutting across party lines.
A retired school teacher, she had done a commendable job in containing the covid surge in the state last year and also during the Nipah virus outbreak in 2018 and 2019.
Social media users responded sharply to the omission of the 64-year-old leader, popularly known as "Shailaja Teacher" or "Teacher Amma" among her admirers.
They pointed out that it would not be good to change the minister as Kerala was witnessing an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases.
There were many who put up her photos as their WhatsApp status, in an apparent act of extending solidarity with her.
Some compared Shailaja being dropped from the cabinet with the manner in which late Gowri Amma was allegedly denied chief ministership in the last minute in 1987.
Though projected as a CM candidate during the then elections, Gowri Amma was allegedly sidelined by the party which preferred E K Nayanar for the top post.
Though critics and media alleged that Shailaja was sidelined, CPI-M took the position that all ministers except the Chief Minister should be fresh faces in the new cabinet.
So had been the case with T M Thomas Isaac, Finance Minister in the outgoing cabinet, among others who had not been given a chance as they were elected twice consecutively, party sources said.
The dropping of Isaac, a known Left intellectual and a finance management expert, had also come as a shock for many including grassroot level party workers.
Sources said the party wanted to evolve a second generation of leaders in parliamentary politics and give them more serious opportunities.
They also claimed that the new cabinet would be a right blend of experienced seniors and youngsters.
Party central committee member M V Govindan, former Rajya Sabha MPs P Rajeev and K N Balagopal, senior leaders K Radhakrishnan, V N Vasavan, Saji Cheriyan and V Sivankutty are among those inducted in Vijayan's second cabinet.
Veena George and R Bindhu, wife of CPI-M acting secretary A Vijayaraghavan, would be the women members in the new ministry.
Riyas, Vijayan's son-in-law and national president of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, also managed to find a cabinet berth.
The state committee meeting, chaired by senior leader Elamaram Kareem, picked M B Rajesh, who wrested the Thirthala seat from Congress's V T Balaram, as the party nominee for the post of speaker.
The meeting, attended by polit bureau members S Ramachandran Pillai, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, M A Baby besides Vijayan, also electedsenior leader and former minister T P Ramakrishnan as the parliamentary party secretary.
Meanwhile, taking a cue from the CPI-M, ally CPI alsonominated fresh faces to the cabinet.
Newly elected MLAs K Rajan, P Prasad, J Chinchu Rani and G R Anil were its pick in the coalition government.
Senior party leader and Adoor MLA Chittayam Gopakumar has been nominated to the post of deputy speaker, the party said.