Earlier this week, when Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan recommended to the governor the list of cabinet ministers for his second term in power in Kerala after a thumping victory in the recent Assembly polls, social media exploded with criticism.

Many from Kerala were appalled by the decision to drop KK Shailaja, the health minister who had been praised widely for her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only was she seen as an able administrator, she is also a very popular leader, exhibited by the fact that she won her seat in the April election by a record margin.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has defended the move to drop all sitting ministers in the Cabinet as a decision made keeping in mind the future of the party. Not only has there been no opposition from the Kerala unit of the CPI(M) on cabinet selection, even the central leadership of the party has been careful not to make any statements or interventions that could upset Vijayan.

The developments have led to a big question: Was Vijayan’s decision really about strengthening the party or his own position as the leader?

Victory and after

The question of whether Vijayan is now the tallest leader in Kerala has become a rhetorical one. The Left Democratic Front victory in Kerala in the recent polls was historic given that this was the first time since 1977 that a coalition has come back to power after completing a five-year term. Justifiably, the credit for this victory has gone largely to Vijayan, who also remains one of the most strident critics of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Given the scale and significance of the victory, it was clear from the beginning that Vijayan would call the shots when it came to selecting the ministers and the party could take the back seat. In fact, the media reported that the meeting of the CPI (M) state committee that made the decision to drop all sitting ministers from the cabinet went on for just two hours, indicating that there was hardly any opposition to the decision.

Even before the elections, Vijayan had his way when the party decided that MLAs who have been elected twice to the Assembly will not be given tickets. This rule meant even some senior ministers did not get tickets. While the party was indeed taken aback by the scale of disappointment expressed by people at Shailaja’s exclusion, it stuck to the decision, with the new ministers taking oath on Thursday.

Vijayan and party

Many on social media painted the decision to induct a cabinet of newcomers as Vijayan’s way of ensuring no challenge emerged to his leadership from within the party. However, this process of Vijayan growing bigger than the CPI (M) itself is not something that happened suddenly, political observers said.

According to KP Sethunath, a Kochi-based journalist and political commentator, Vijayan was the Kerala CPI (M)’s longest-serving state secretary. “Starting in the late 1990s, he served in that position for 17 years,” he said.

Vijayan’s first decade in that position was marked by his famous rivalry with former Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthananthan. In fact, matters got so bad in 2007 that the Polit Bureau of the party central leadership had to suspend them from the forum after they exchanged barbs at each other in public.

However, with Achuthananthan slowly moving out of active politics, Vijayan’s control over the party tightened. “All important points in the party were filled with people of Vijayan’s choice,” Sethunath pointed out. “So this argument that Vijayan has turned bigger than the party itself is not new. This has a history to it.”

What is however a recent phenomenon is the erosion of the central leadership’s stature. With the CPI(M) losing power in West Bengal in 2011 and its presence dwindling in Parliament, Kerala became the only significant hold for the party. And when this process was underway, it was Vijayan who was at the helm of the party in Kerala.

Excluding Shailaja

Sethunath added that he did not see the exclusion of Shailaja from the cabinet as a decision prompted by fear of a new power centre emerging in the party. But the new cabinet has other problems. “It will take some time for the new ministers to understand the art of governance. Till then, they will be dependent on Vijayan, who is the only one with administrative experience,” he said.

Feminist scholar and academic J Devika said she does not believe that Vijayan’s cabinet selection was whimsical as it has elements such as representation for MLAs from regions where the Left Democratic Front was seen as weaker and where winning was very crucial this time. However, such logic by no means allows Vijayan to exclude Shailaja.

Devika said Shailaja’s great strength was her ability to attract a lot of votes from outside the party’s traditional base. She said that even on Thursday morning, she had conversations with members of economically-weaker upper caste families in Thiruvananthapuram who were appalled by Vijayan’s decision to drop Shailaja from the cabinet as they had voted the CPI(M) for her. “This is important because the BJP looks at such sections as a possible support base and Shailaja was able to attract them,” she added.

What was more disturbing, she said, was the fact that some of these people attributed Shailaja’s exclusion as a decision made to make way for Vijayan’s son-in-law PA Mohammad Riyas in the ministry and insinuated his religious background was a factor.

While the CPI(M) has countered Shailaja’s exclusion by citing that three women – R Bindu, Chinchu Rani and Veena George – have been inducted into the new cabinet, Devika said one cannot answer a question about the glass ceiling by pointing to some advance in women’s representation. “Shailaja is a victim of the glass ceiling for sure given that none of the official reasons given for her exclusion are reasons at all but are merely excuses. The question why the glass ceiling remains cannot be answered by pointing to the three women in the cabinet.”

If the party had inducted the three women along with Shailaja, they could have formed a powerful bloc within the party structure, she said. “The new women ministers are junior leaders and are pretty powerless in the party structure.”