Alphons Kannanthanam in Cabinet: A political masterstroke by Modi-Shah in Kerala

opinion | Tuesday, September 5th, 2017
Naveen Nair

Alphons Kannanthanam might have had little effect on Kerala’s political landscape ever since the bureaucrat turned a politician a decade ago. Except for winning an assembly seat in 2006 from Kanjirappally, Delhi’s Demolition man as he is famously called for his relentless drive against illegal builders in the capital city in the mid-nineties has had little impact in Kerala. 

But his induction in the Union Cabinet could be a game changer in the state for the BJP. At least the central leadership of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi think so. Otherwise, the decision to make Kannanthanam a Union minister and that too with the independent charge of Tourism, overlooking all the names suggested by the state leadership would have had little logic.  

Hence Kannanthanam has suddenly become BJP’s big ticket to 2019 in Kerala; at least the central leadership is strategising on those lines and there is some astute political thinking behind the move. 

 With the state leadership in utter shambles over allegations of corruption charges in the medical scam and irregularities in fund collections in the name of the party with alleged counterfeit receipts, the BJP’s image in Kerala at the moment is in the gutter, to say the least. 

The party is certainly on a ventilator unlike the strong foothold that it has gained across the majority of the nation, and in Kananthanaman perhaps Shah sees an upright honest politician in line with Modi’s non-corrupt projections who could change the tide for the party in the state. 

“It is a body blow to the state leadership of the BJP, and that is where the story lies. By bringing in Kannanthananm against their will, Modi and Shah are not only telling the BJP state leaders that you are inefficient to be a part of the team in Delhi 
but also that most of you will be on your way out, if you don’t mend your ways and show results,’’ veteran journalist Sunnykutty Abraham told Asianet Newsable.
That all the names put up by the state leadership before the cabinet reshuffle was overlooked including some of the senior leaders in the side who had spent their sweat and blood to build the party in the state for someone who had joined the BJP as recently as 2011, is testimony to the huge trust deficit the central leadership has in the state unit and its leaders. 

But with this decision, Shah and Modi are undoubtedly taking a risk, which many would call as a well-calculated one though. 
Keeping away all his qualities as an administrator or an upright politician, Kannanthanam’s ascendancy to power in Delhi is clearly based on some shrewd political-caste-community equations that the BJP hopes to work out in Kerala over the next one year. 

Kannanthananam is a Catholic Christian from Manimala in Kottayam district and holds a considerable sway among the hardcore Christian vote bank in the district. In 2006 when the LDF came to power under the stewardship of VS Achuthananthan, Kannanthanam won an assembly seat at Kanjirappally, a Christian majority constituency. 

That Kannanthanam won with a majority of more than ten thousand votes with LDF support at a UDF sitting seat speaks volumes about his personal influence among the voters, the fact that the BJP knows too well. 

Kannanthanam before becoming famous in Delhi for razing down illegal buildings at Sarojini Nagar market and other areas has been a very successful district collector at Kottayam under whose leadership the district was declared the first fully literate one in the country in 1989. It is this track record of the leader along with his influence among the Christians in the central part of the state that the BJP hopes to cash. 

“Kanananthanam certainly has the clout to enable some strong networking between the party and the Church which will, in the long run, send out a signal that the Church is not anti-BJP anymore which will be more than enough for the party to gain an upper hand among the community. That is the game plan,’’ noted political analyst CR Neelakandan told Asianet Newsable. 

For the BJP to gain a stronghold over the 18 percentage strong Christian community or at least break into the vote bank with considerable gains, Kannathanam would be a crucial factor. 
This along with the fact that the victory of PC Thomas in 2004 Lok Sabha polls as an ally of the NDA from neighbouring Muvattupuzha gives the BJP the confidence of pulling it through if Kannanthanam were to contest from Kottayam in 2019, especially when a major part of Thomas’s constituency now falls under Kottayam.  

Can Kannanthanam get the Church on BJP’s side? 

At the moment it is a very tricky question to answer although it is inevitable that the presence of someone like Kannanthanam as a minister in Delhi would certainly do a lot of bridging between the party and the Church. 

That Kannanthanam has a mandate on hand was much evident by the first statements that he made post swearing in. As if to send out a signal clear and loud to the Church across denominations and to the community in Kerala at large, he said that beef eating will continue in Kerala as there is no ban on beef in the state and that the Modi government was well aware of it. 

That such a strong statement in the cause of beef eating has never been made by any central or state leader of the BJP in such clear terms would have been possible only with the blessings of the top brass of the party. Kannathanam was letting the Church know that he is here to stay and drive their cause too and would look forward to the community for an electoral support in response. 

If Amit Shah’s visit a few months ago was unprecedented in terms of meeting the heads of the entire denominations of the Church across one table in Kochi, it was fully managed by Kannanthanam himself. Perhaps it was one visit that really set up Kannanthanam’s entry into the Union cabinet after the party president himself having had the opportunity to assess the situation in Kerala. 

Kannanthanam while talking to this reporter exhibited supreme confidence regarding bridging the gap between the party and the community. 

“Beef was not even discussed at the meeting. See all the bishops who came today are well informed of the situation and how the news has been misinterpreted to sound as if it was ban on beef. We had more serious things to discuss,’’ Kannanthanam told this reporter in June this year. 

He went on then describe how there had been a change in the mindset among the Christians in Kerala who now look up to Narendra Modi as a pro development leader with whom they can aspire big. 

“There was a time when the Christians would never vote for the communists. If that could change why should this not happen. After the BJP is a pro development party, an agenda which connects well with the Christian community in the state,’’ added Kannanthanam. 

This is exactly where the BJP now hopes to break into. It is certainly the elite Christian business community to which the party hopes to gain proximity in the coming days and through it get closer to the church. 

“I doubt even the BJP thinks it can consolidate the Christian vote bank overnight. But this is a well-crafted strategy by which the party hopes to do away with all differences the Church has had with it over the years, build new bridges of friendship and then slowly change the tide. People like Kannanthanam could be crucial for this,’’ added Neelakandan. 

Kerala Congress the big loser 

Apart from the UDF and the LDF which could suffer serious leak in its Christian vote share come 2019, if there is a certain loser in this political game then its Kerala Congress (M) and its leader KM Mani. 

Mani who had left the UDF a year ago had been sending out feelers to the BJP hoping to be a part of the NDA. 

It was always an open secret that Mani had been nursing the dreams of a union ministerial berth for his son Jose K Mani. It is this dream that had been shattered with Kannanthanam’s entry. The situation gives Kannanthanam not only the first mover advantage as the community’s powerful representative at the Centre but also the BJP affording one more Christian Union Minister from Kerala is very unlikely. 

But Mani has only himself to blame because apart from warming up to the BJP, Mani hardly showed any interest in a formal association with the alliance. 

Many political pundits say that Mani certainly had reasons for the same and any formal alliance with the BJP would have hit Mani back at this stage. 

“Pinarayi has certainly been holding Mani by the neck with vigilance cases still pending against him. Any move to join the NDA will have the Left going in for the kill. Also within his party, not everyone was ready to go with the BJP. Many still want to return to UDF. So a split was imminent. But Kannanthanam’s entry has literally killed all ‘Delhi dreams’ of Mani and his son,’’ noted political analyst Advocate A Jayashankar told Asianet Newsable. 

Still many say that Mani warming up to the BJP again once again cannot be ruled out especially when the Church is seen to be getting close to the party. If that happens and Mani decides to take the plunge by joining the NDA in 2019, it would make victory certain for the BJP in at least one or two Lok Sabha seats in central Kerala, a situation that solely rests on how political developments take shape in Kerala in the coming months. 

But for that to happen, the BJP in the state leadership too which is today a totally disillusioned lot post the elevation of Kannanthanam will have to keep their difference away and work as one unit, something which is easier said than done. 

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