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Why has Alphons Kannanthanam been made a minister in Modi’s cabinet?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-09-2017 Nidheesh M.K.

Bengaluru: In 1979, having given his Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exams, a 26-year-old man from Kerala couldn’t be bothered to look for his name in the list of successful candidates in the newspapers. Instead, he tucked the paper under his pillow and went back to sleep.

“I call it confidence, some would say arrogance; to each his own. I was confident that my name would be there, somewhere on the first paragraph of the results, which usually has the toppers,” he later wrote in his best selling autobiography in Malayalam ‘India Mattathinte Muzhakkam’.

On Sunday, Alphonse Kannanthanam—he stood eighth in the UPSC exam —was inducted into the cabinet as its first Malayali minister.

Kannanthanam earned a reputation for being an earnest civil servant after making Kottayam the first fully literate town in the country as part of the literacy campaign launched by the communist government in 1989.

He later hogged headlines as an unrelenting officer in Delhi, going after illegal constructions, that earned him the moniker ‘demolition man’. He also figured in Time magazine’s 1994 list of “100 young global leaders” -- Mukesh Ambani who was only other Indian on it.

Kannanthanam quit the civil service in 2006 and joined politics, served as an independent Kottayam legislator backed by the communists. In a massive change, he moved to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during 2014 Lok Sabha polls and was made a member of its national executive council soon after joining. However, he was never appointed to a top post.

As a result, experts see Kannanthanam’s elevation as nothing more than reflecting the BJP’s current focus on Kerala. The party has been long been desperate to make a dent in Kerala’s traditional two-party politics dominated by the Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist). Last year it won its first assembly seat. But its hardships are far from over.

BJP president Amit Shah gave a clear message to the state unit in June that it is simply impossible to win more seats in Kerala without the support of at least one of the minorities—Christians and Muslims —who together make up half of the state’s population.

“No doubt at all, the Christian community will be willing to respond (to Kannanthanam’s elevation). That kind of statement is already coming from senior Bishops,” said BRP Bhaskar, a political commentator and veteran journalist.

Although a relative outsider, Kannanthanam is a practicing Syrian Catholic, a good orator, has a track record of bureaucratic efficiency, a political mind, and now has the blessings of Shah and Modi.

“He always had a political mind. When he was a bureaucrat he launched a non profit (Janshakti). He had a knack to negotiate his candidacy with the communists. His personal ambition was to grow nationally so he joined BJP, although he has been very critical of BJP’s Hindutva politics in the past,” said Bhaskar.

Mint could not immediately get a comment from Kannanthanam for this story. But when asked if would be the face of BJP in Kerala in an interview with India Today after the swearing in on Sunday, he said, “Kerala has to be part of the PM’s agenda, otherwise Kerala is going to miss out.”

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