KJ Alphons, one of the new faces in the BJP's union cabinet from Kerala with a Christian name, is a carefully chosen profile. It carries two strategic purposes for the Modi government - one, to give a secular colour to the cabinet and two, to woo the influential Christian vote bank in his home state.
But with his overenthusiastic beef statement on Friday, Alphons has started on the wrong foot because for the people of Kerala, particularly for his community of the Syrian Christians, beef is not just food, but a socio-cultural emotion.
When asked by a reporter on Friday if cow vigilantism and beef-restriction were affecting the tourism industry in the country, he said "they can eat beef in their own country and come here". Although the tourism minister's boorish response wasn't surprising and was completely in line with his cabinet colleagues' official views on serious subjects such as economics and science and technology, it was unbecoming of a Syrian Catholic from Kerala.
Alphons has committed cultural sacrilege -- for generations, an alternative name for the famous Kerala beef dish called "beef ularthiyathu" in many Indian cities was "Syrian Christian beef fry".
He has committed cultural sacrilege -- for generations, an alternative name for the famous Kerala beef dish called "beef ularthiyathu" in many Indian cities was "Syrian Christian beef fry". Had there been a Geographic Indication (GI) awarded to this dish, it would have been held by central Travancore which is the stronghold of Syrian Christians.
It remains to be seen how the powerful Syrian Christian clergy, representing multiple denominations, responds to Alphons's neo-conversional zeal. The BJP seems to have succeeded in getting a foot in the door in the Christian stranglehold when various heads of the Syrian denominations welcomed his ministership. Obviously, that was the entry point that BJP was looking for to work its way up; but will this dismissive gaffe nip in the bud its early chances?
Christians account for about 18% of Kerala's population. Along with the Muslims who constitute 27%, they make communal polarisation in the state rather impossible because only half the population is Hindu. Both the Muslims and the Christians are traditional vote banks of the Congress-led UDF (United Democratic Front) and they have been steadfast despite some dalliances of the latter with the rival LDF (Left Democratic Front).
The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) represents the Muslim vote-bank and the Kerala Congress (KC) , which is in a permanent state of split-reunite-split mode, the Christian vote bank. Both have been historically an ally of the Congress, but for the last two years the Kerala Congress has remained unattached and has made a few attempts to defect to the CPM-led LDF. The party first sulked and then left the Congress-fold because its leader KM Mani was allegedly involved in a major corruption scandal and he felt that the Congress didn't do enough to protect him. Speculations were rife that he would migrate to the LDF, but of late the indications were that he was now trying to get into the BJP bandwagon. Some media reports even suggested that his son would get a birth in the Modi cabinet in the recent shuffle and that his party would officially join the NDA.
Alphons, who incidentally is also the BJP's best trophy defector from the CPM, is its latest bait.
Given Mani's influence with the clergy, there was a high level of probability for this because electorally BJP cannot move an inch in Kerala now without the support of the Christian vote bank. At present, the BJP has about 10-15% vote-share and it's likely to stagnate because of the political polarisation of the electorate between the LDF and the UDF. If the party has to make any headway, let alone win assembly or parliament seats, it needs the support from the non-Hindu vote bank. The only catchment is the Syrian Christians, who the RSS had always applauded for its Indianised socio-cultural practices.
Interestingly, Syrian Christians, of whom the majority are Catholics such as Alphons, are the most sought after political block in the state. Both the CPM and the BJP want them -- the former for dismantling the UDF and to be permanently in power, and the latter for reaching the electoral threshold that it's looking for. Unsurprisingly, both cavort to the clergy from time to time, but the latter play hard to get. That's when they target individuals who they think can be their interlocutor.
Alphons, who incidentally is also the BJP's best trophy defector from the CPM, is its latest bait. Earlier, it had made an attempt through another Syrian Christian leader, PC Thomas, who was also a minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's cabinet. But he had turned out to be a bad investment (although he is still an NDA executive council member), and the party is now starting all over again. On its part, the clergy has also been receptive to the BJP's overtures. When Amit Shah recently visited Kerala, many of them met him. Neither the BJP nor Narendra Modi is a political untouchable for them, for they are driven by the community's socio-economic interests.
The CPM too has been trying very hard to appease the Christians. Veteran communist leader and former CPM general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet had openly admitted that not getting the Catholics on their side was a mistake. For ideological reasons, the Syrian Christians had been historically opposed to communists and even had a role in toppling the first communist government in the state in 1959. With the BJP, they don't have an ideological baggage.
However, Alphons's beef statement might trigger some unease. If he is to play the cow and beef card, instead of the faux-secular card in Kerala, it will backfire. If the bait of Alphons has to work in the state, which seems to be his sole utility, he has to downplay the Hindutva-brand of politics and brandish its "secular" claims. Otherwise, it will end up as another failed attempt and he might become another PC Thomas. The way he has begun, he doesn't look promising for the party. Anyway, he can alway have his "ghar-wapsi" to the CPM if things don't work out.