M B Rajesh, the newly elected Speaker of the second Pinarayi Vijayan government spoke to Outlook about the challenges, the party’s decision to drop KK Shailaja, and more. The new speaker designate spoke to Outlook a day before the swearing-in ceremony. Excerpts:
Q) From a vocal political leader to the Speaker of Kerala Assembly. What are the challenges ahead?
It’s a challenging responsibility. I have been representing the party on TV channels, even in public meetings. Now there are certain restrictions. But at the same time, I don't think that speaker should be above politics, but the Speaker should be above party politics. As a disciplined party member, I will discharge the responsibility to the best of my ability.
Q) CPM is facing widespread criticism for dropping former Health Minister KK Shailaja, who was the face of the state in fighting the pandemic. There is an outpouring of emotions from the public.
Number one, many of these responses are emotional. Party cannot take decisions based on emotional considerations. It takes decisions based on objective reality. The party has set a norm not to field party members in elections after two consecutive terms. This norm was implemented irrespective of the stature of leaders. In the Communist Party, every member is subject to party discipline. No party member or leader is exempted from the norms. That is why we decided to bench ministers like Dr. Thomas Isaac, G Sudhakaran, and Prof Raveendra Nath, who have excellent track records.
In the case of the new cabinet, the party decided that there should be a new team except for the chief minister. This norm applied to senior leaders like M M Mani, TP Ramakrishnan, and Kadakampally Surendran.
Q) There is a feeling that Shailaja could have been exempted from party policy considering her stellar performance and the severe Covid situation...
Party has taken such a decision given our previous experiences and also keeping in mind the future of our party. When we decided that we are going to replace all the existing ministers with new faces, how can an exception be given to Shailaja? The norm applies to all including her. She has done a wonderful job as Health Minister and the party has appreciated it. At the same time, this time, three women ministers are inducted into the new LDF cabinet, two from the CPI (M) and one from CPI. The number of women ministers in the cabinet has been increased. Those critics are undermining this fact. The work done by the government in the Covid fight was teamwork. It was led by both Chief Minister and the Health Minister. If we give a chance to a new person, they can also perform. Unless we give them a chance, how can they perform and prove?
Q) Why isn’t the norm applicable to the CM?
Pinarayi himself has said that the two-term norm applies to him. The party decided that except the Chief Minister, this would be a new team. At least one experienced leader should be there be to lead.
Q) Many are drawing comparisons of Shailaja with other women leaders such as K R Gouri and Susheela Gopalan.
K R Gouriyamma was the first woman minister in Kerala. Communist Party made her a minister and she was one of the longest-serving ministers with six terms to her credit. Out of the six terms, she served four terms in LDF governments.
Q) Don’t you think three is a small number in a 21 member cabinet?
If you're talking about gender justice, we have increased the number of women ministers. It is the highest ever in the history of Kerala. I agree that women's representation should be increased, but that can be done in a phased manner. No other ministries had this many ministers. Last time it was two. The party wants more women ministers and more women MLA s and MPs too.
Q) Is there a disquiet in the party ranks regarding the decision? Are the central committee leaders on the same page?
I don’t think there are disagreements within the party. Members have accepted the party's decision to field a new team. How can there be a decision without taking central leaders into confidence? Sitaram Yechury has commented that this is a unanimous decision taken at the state level. It's not the question of exclusion of an individual. We have implemented a party norm and that norm was made applicable to all leaders irrespective of their stature. Thomas Isaac was a central committee member and a well-known Finance Minister. Likewise, G Sudhakaran was a state committee member, but the norm was made applicable to both.
Q) What is the logic behind not giving second chance to such ministers?
If we continue with the old team, then we will be asked why the communist parties are reluctant to induct fresh blood in the Cabinet?
Q) Questions were also raised about the induction of CM’s son- in law in the new ministry.
It is very unfortunate to reduce an individual as a son-in-law or wife of a leader. Mohammad Riyaz became a state committee member much before he became the son-in-law of the CM. He has a track record of at least two decades in the party. How can someone reduce his contributions to the party like this? He replaced me as the president of DYFI. He became CM’s son-in-law only a year back.
Q) Is there a stamp of authority of Pinarayi in deciding the new Cabinet? Can the members express their opinion freely at the party?
No one is above norms and discipline In our party, everyone is subject to party discipline, including Politburo members, General Secretary whoever it is.
In the Communist Party, unlike any other party, a single individual cannot make a decision and implement it. All decisions are collective and in implementing those decisions, every member has an individual responsibility. We have a healthy, inner-party democracy. We can express our views within the party committee meetings. You can raise any criticism within the party forum.
Q) Do you think the controversies will cast a shadow on the new government?
Those who are trying to portray the new government in a bad light will be disappointed soon. Once all the ministers get an opportunity to perform, the critics will be silenced.