Church officials in India’s Christian heartland of Kerala are cautiously optimistic following the appointment of a first Christian MP to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, amid heated political debate.
Modi’s past three years at the head of a Hindu nationalist government (the BJP) have seen a rise in radical extremism and violence against those of minority religions; this has increased steadily. Last month, for instance, the state of Jharkhand became the sixth to adopt an “anti-conversion” law, though minority religious leaders have appealed that the Indian President does not sign it into law.
“We welcome the appointment of Kannanthanam, a Catholic, into the government. So far, we had no representation in the Modi government.”
Fr Varghese Vallikkat
In June, prominent social scientist Shiv Visvanathan told the Washington Post: “Modi’s development-focused government has often turned a blind eye to rising sectarian violence, and left the shaping of society and culture to the BJP’s far right.
“Under Modi, the frequency and cultural framework within which violence is taking place has increased.”
The 3 September appointment of Alphons Kannanthanam, a former bureaucrat who joined the BJP in 2014, might be as much for his track record in ‘delivery’ as for his representation of a minority community, albeit Kerala is the state with the highest proportion of Christians.
“This is a very positive and happy development for us,” Catholic bishop Mathew Arackal of Kanjirapally diocese in Kerala told World Watch Monitor. “Whatever the political message [behind the appointment], he is sure to do something good for the community. I have known him from the day he joined the government service.”
A native of Bishop Arackal’s diocese, Kannanthanam – who joined the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in 1979 – had made headlines as a bureaucrat in 1985, when, as the District Collector, he made Kottayam district in Kerala the first fully literate district in the country.
Later, as Commissioner of the Delhi Development Authority, he came to be known as “demolition man” and was even profiled by TIME magazine as a “young global leader” in 1994 after he took on the property mafia and demolished illegal constructions and recovered government land worth millions.
In 2006, Kannanthanam quit the government service and was elected to the Kerala Assembly as an “independent”, with the backing of the country’s Communist Party.
“Nobody would question his commitment to the job he is given. He can certainly be a good link between the [Modi] government and the Christian community,” said Bishop Arackal.
Father Varghese Vallikkat, deputy secretary general and spokesperson for the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, is also optimistic.
“We welcome the appointment of Kannanthanam, a Catholic, into the government,” he said. “So far, we had no representation in the Modi government.”
Asked about the heated TV debates and media headlines about the motive behind the appointment of Kannanthanam into the federal cabinet, ignoring BJP’s veteran leaders from Kerala, Fr Vallikkat said: “It certainly opens up a channel of communication between the BJP government and the Christian community.”
But he said he didn’t believe the appointment would lead to the BJP making a breakthrough with the Christian community.
“The appointment of one man is not going to change the whole political scenario,” he said. “Similar appointments had been made earlier. But it did not make much of a change.”
The BJP had tried a similar experiment during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure, when P.C. Thomas, also a Catholic, was made a federal minister in 2003. But Thomas failed to garner much support among the Christian pockets of central Kerala.
After his meetings with Kerala’s Catholic church leaders in June, Amit Shah, BJP’s national president, had remarked that it was simply impossible to win more seats in Kerala without the support of at least one of the religious minorities – Christians or Muslims, who together make up nearly half of the state’s population. In fact, Shah’s meetings, according to media reports, had been facilitated by Kannanthanam.
With Muslims accounting for 25 per cent and Christians 19 per cent of the state population of 34.8 million, the BJP has been struggling to make its presence felt in the highly literate and politically polarised state, with the mantle of power seesawing between Congress- and Communist-led coalitions for decades.
Despite a vociferous campaign by the BJP, led by Modi himself, it could not win any Kerala seats in May 2014 when it swept to power. Even in the May 2016 state election, the BJP had to be content with a single seat for the first time in the 140-member Kerala Assembly.
The surprise appointment of Kannanthanam as the first Minister from Kerala, stunning local BJP leaders and cadres, has been the focus of media reports and TV debates – all of which unanimously pointed to the BJP bid to woo the Christian community to its fold.
Soon after assuming office as Minister for Tourism, Electronics and Information Technology on 3 September, Kannanthanam himself declared that he will be a “bridge” between Prime Minister Modi and the Christian community.
The Press Trust of India reported that “experts see Alphons Kannanthanam’s elevation to PM Modi’s cabinet as nothing more than reflecting the BJP’s current focus on Kerala”.
A report in ‘The Pioneer’ daily, known for its Hindu nationalist bias, had a similar message.
“Though observers differ in their opinions on this, there seems to be a general agreement that Kannanthanam’s induction is a caress from the Centre for Kerala keeping the next general election in mind and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP president, Amit Shah, could be considering Kannanthanam as the key to the State’s Christian vote base,” said the report, ‘Can Kannanthanam be BJP’s key to Kerala’s Christian base?’
However, Bishop Arackal dismissed such expectations as a “wild dream”.
“While Christians are happy that a Christian has been made a Minister in the central [federal] government, people have their political understanding,” he said. “Here in Kerala, Hindus, Christians and Muslims have been living together in peace. It was Hindu kings who built churches and mosques welcoming them. But in some parts of the country they [the BJP] have a different approach. The people of Kerala do not share this view.”