Thiruvananthapuram: In his first response to K K Shailaja's absence in his new cabinet, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan refused to view the outgoing health minister's achievements as independent of the LDF government's performance.
Even the roar of disappointment that was heard after Shailaja's name was not found in the new list of ministers was seen by the chief minister as yet another expression of appreciation of people's admiration for his government. "This was nothing but the sign of how deeply they valued our governance," the chief minister said when asked about the widespread criticism that CPM's decision to keep out Shailaja from the Cabinet has generated.
He was responding to media queries during his customary sunset briefing on Wednesday. Pinarayi was matter-of-fact and calm, looked beyond provocation.
The chief minister said that the fight against COVID-19 would not suffer in Shailaja's absence. "I don't see it that way," he said when asked whether COVID-19 efforts would be affected. "This is collective work. There will be no deficiencies. These activities will be carried out with even greater efficiency," he said.
The chief minister also suggested that an exemption for Shailaja alone would have been unfair. “All the ministers had done equally good work. So we took the decision that there was no need to grant exemption to any one of these ministers who had done sterling work,” he said and added: “If exemptions had to be given, many would have been eligible."
To repeated questions, the Chief Minister kept insisting that Shailaja was not the only performer in his first Cabinet. "There were many who deserved an exemption. There were many who did sterling work. But we took a considered decision to pick new faces. We had taken such a decision even at the point of candidate selection. Didn't we not avoid ministers who had achieved global repute? It is not that we were blind to their abilities,” he said.
The reference to “ministers of global repute” was clearly a response to a journalist's comment that it was Shailaja who brought Kerala global repute.
Pinarayi said even the party's pre-election move to keep out many popular faces had triggered an equally intense debate. “Keeping performing ministers out of the contest was risky. We had to present this new approach to the people. But the results demonstrated that the people had fully endorsed the party's approach,” he said.
It was also clear that Pinarayi was tuned into the charge that Shailaja was sidelined because she had become uncomfortably popular. “People have by now realised that such decisions were not taken with any bad intention,” he said. He also rejected reports that the CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury had opposed the State Committee's move to keep Shailaja out of the Cabinet. “There is no truth to such reports as far as I know” he said.
Even the most provocative question was met by a smile. When asked why the chief minister was not removed if the party was so keen about new faces, Pinarayi said: "Such a criticism is natural. But this is what the party decided."
Then he gave a soft, slightly lost smile that for a fleeting moment gave the impression that even he was a bit surprised by the party's decision to retain him as chief minister.