Will of the people and decision of the party:
The LDF government in Kerala has garnered much appreciation for the way the state’s healthcare system has been functioning, especially during the nipah virus outbreak in 2018, and subsequently, containing the spread of coronavirus in the ongoing pandemic. Kerala’s well-performing system and the effective management of the crises are particularly credited to its outgoing health minister and senior leader K K Shailaja. In a turn of events following the state assembly elections which resulted in a second consecutive term of the LDF government after a historic mandate, the incumbent Chief Minister has decided to instate a fresh cabinet altogether. The surprise is the exclusion of K K Shailaja.
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Notwithstanding public sentiments for the popular leader who was expected to continue helming the health ministry, the party professed its decision to not give a second term to any minister from the outgoing LDF government—Pinarayi Vijayan being the single exception who will continue to reign as Chief Minister. In the recent elections, Vijayan had not given tickets for any sitting legislator who has completed two consecutive terms, leading to the exclusion of several ministers and second-rung leaders from the election fray. The results of the elections disproved the fear that prevailed about this decision bringing a setback for the party in traditional strongholds.
While Shailaja’s exclusion has become the talk of the town, this decision indicates that LDF relies on the performance of the government as a unit and not on individual achievements or image of any particular minister, meaning that policy and party transcend individual leaders. Although credit is due to KK Shailaja for her remarkable performance at a very critical time, a matter of debate that surfaces is about the method of a functioning democracy: whether it should be party/policy-led or individual-led. In terms of effectiveness, it is the result that affirms or invalidates any method of functioning. But going by the spirit of democracy, the people ought to be represented by a person of their choosing. Although with a record 60,000 margin win, Shailaja represents Mattannur in the legislative assembly, she was the face of leadership for healthcare in all of Kerala and beyond.
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In India’s parliamentary system of democracy, the people elect individuals locally but are represented by a party that gains a majority in the larger domain. Hence, a party is systemically greater than any individual. Given that, it is the ruling party’s prerogative to decide the mechanism of functioning. But for Kerala, that comes with its set of challenges for the Chief Minister. Media and civil society will keep a constant watch on the government’s performance in the healthcare sector after the precedent set by the popular Shailaja Teacher. The onus of appointing an equally competent health minister lies heavy on Vijayan who must prove that his decision is not wrong. This event in Kerala also serves as a test for bold alternate approaches in our democracy.