With the induction of Alphons Kannanthanam, a bureaucrat-turned politician from Kerala, in the Union Council of Ministers on Sunday, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah has taken a big step forward in his plan to win over the state’s Christian minority ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and Assembly polls in 2021.

Kannanthanam is the first minister from Kerala in the three-and-a-half-year-old Narendra Modi cabinet. He has been appointed minister of state (independent charge) in the Ministry of Tourism, with additional responsibility as minister of state in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

Party members, who did not wish to be identified, said Kannanthanam – a Christian from Kottayam district – was Shah’s choice and state BJP leaders were not privy to his selection.

The saffron party has of late made an effort to reach out to Christians, who constitute 18% of Kerala’s population, as it realises that it cannot make electoral gains in the state only by consolidating Hindu votes. Hindus account for 55% of the state’s population, followed by Muslims (27%). During his visit to Kerala in June, Shah had met top Christian religious leaders – two cardinals and four bishops – in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram.

The onus is now on Kannanthanam to bring the state’s Christians closer to the BJP. The community has traditionally been wary of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, suspecting their involvement in attacks on churches and missionary workers in Kerala and elsewhere in the country.

The former Indian Administrative Service officer said he would be happy if he could act as a bridge between the Church and the BJP. “Our party is not against Christians,” he told reporters in Delhi on Sunday. “Their voices should be heard all over the country. I am committed to help the party grow in Kerala.”

The Church, too, reciprocated positively by calling Kannanthanam’s cabinet berth an Onam gift for Kerala. “It is is a reward for his abilities,” said Fr Mathew Chandrankunnel, spokesperson for the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council Conference. “We expect the new minister will stand for Christians and other minority communities.”

Asked how the church would reward the BJP, he said: “Let’s wait and see.”

No state celebrations

Kannanthanam’s appointment, however, does not seem to have gone down well with BJP leaders and workers in Kerala. Prominent leaders were conspicuously absent from the BJP state committee office in Thiruvananthapuram as television channels beamed the swearing-in ceremony from Rashtrapati Bhavan. The state unit also did not organise any programmes to mark Kannanthanam’s big day – unlike the massive celebrations across Kerala when O Rajagopal was inducted into the Atal Behari Vajpayee cabinet in 1999.

Kannanthanam, however, said he had the full support of his party colleagues in Kerala. “Almost all state leaders congratulated me,” he said. “Celebration doesn’t mean blocking the roads and distributing sweets.”

According to political observer Sunnykutty Abraham, senior leaders may have found it difficult to celebrate the achievement of a new entrant to the party. “Kannanthanam is an intelligent politician,” he said. “He earned the support of the LDF [Left Democratic Front] to win the Kanjirappally Assembly seat in 2006 as an independent candidate. He moved to the BJP in 2011 looking for greener pastures. Now, he has been rewarded with a Union minister’s post. Such a turn of events might have irritated many senior leaders.”

Amit Shah’s warning

The muted response also revealed the internal rift that plagues the Kerala BJP. Commentators said that Kannanthanam’s appointment was, in fact, Shah’s warning to the Kummanam Rajasekharan-led state unit, which is riven by infighting and also under a cloud of corruption charges.

The factional feud came to a head in July after an internal inquiry indicting senior leaders for accepting bribes was leaked to the media. The inquiry looked into allegations that party leaders had taken crores of rupees to get Medical Council of India recognition for two private medical colleges. Rajasekharan is being investigated by vigilance officers in connection with the charges.

Last week, the internal fighting prompted the BJP’s central leadership to postpone the state unit’s Jana Raksha Yatra – aimed at highlighting the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s alleged attacks on Sangh Parivar workers – from Kannur to Thiruvanathapuram scheduled for September 7. Amit Shah was to flag off the yatra.

Shah had picked Rajasekharan to head the state unit in 2015, to curb factionalism and propel the party’s growth. While the internal fighting did not stop after his appointment, Rajasekharan also failed to reach out to the Christian community, against whom he had led an agitation over the construction of a church in Nilakkal in Pathanamthitta district in 1983.

Kerala BJP chief Kummanam Rajasekharan with Baselios Cleemis, head of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, in December 2015. (Credit: HT)

Kannanthanam’s move to the Centre is not the first time Shah has bypassed the Kerala leadership to take a crucial decision. Ahead of the Assembly elections in 2016, he had directly negotiated with popular Ezhava leader Vellappally Natesan and convinced him to form a new party, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena. The Ezhavas constitute 23% of Kerala’s population. Later, the party was inducted into the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

Future of NDA

Kannanthanam’s appointment has, however, angered the BJP’s alliance partners. Both the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena and Janadhipatya Rashtriya Sabha complained about not being consulted on such a big decision.

“It has set a bad precedent,” said Thushar Vellappally of the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, who is also the National Democratic Alliance’s convener in Kerala. “I will raise this issue in my next meeting with Shah.”

Before joining the BJP-led alliance, the party had demanded a cabinet berth among others. “We have been promised many things, including a cabinet berth and positions in different government-run corporations,” Thushar Vellappally said. “But we haven’t gotten anything so far.”

Asked about his father Vellappally Natesan’s suggestion last week that the party should leave the National Democratic Alliance and join the ruling Left Democratic Front, he said it was his personal opinion. But he added that the party was open to all options. “We will take a decision at an appropriate time,” he said.

Prominent Adivasi leader and chairperson of the Janadhipatya Rashtriya Sabha, CK Janu, too said, “We were given many promises before we came to the NDA fold but nothing has materialised so far.” She added, “The BJP central leadership should understand that we cannot wait indefinitely.”