Minister of State for Tourism and Rajya Sabha MP KJ Alphons has been fielded by the BJP in the Ernakulam constituency in central Kerala. Up against two formidable candidates of the CPM and the Congress, the 65-year-old is seen to have been handpicked by the party to make inroads into the Latin Catholic community, which form a big chunk of voters in the constituency. In sweltering Kerala summer, the Indian Express caught up with him to discuss his election prospects, the fallout of the Sabarimala agitation and the future of post-floods Kerala.
It’s scorching weather in Kochi and other parts of Kerala right now. How do you feel campaigning in such humid weather?
Yes, it’s hot and humid. See the heat is not a problem for me because as Delhi Development Authority commissioner, I was out in 45 degrees celsius weather for five years. But here the problem is the weather is sultry. You perspire like crazy. All your body fluids just disappear. You need to drink a lot of water but I can’t drink a lot because otherwise, I’d be looking for a toilet all the time. So during my campaign, I don’t drink water.
The IMD predicts heat wave conditions for the next couple of days. So how do you plan to campaign?
I don’t think there is anything that can be done about it. We have to just go out and campaign. Don’t think about the heat. I have a simple policy: if there’s anything unpleasant happening, I don’t think about it.
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Now, you’re up against two formidable candidates in Ernakulam: P Rajeev of the CPM who’s a former Rajya Sabha MP and former CPM district secretary and Hibi Eden of the Congress, a current MLA from Ernakulam and former NSUI president. How do you plan to take them on?
Yeah I agree they are formidable leaders but they belong to two fronts which have destroyed Kerala. Look at what the LDF and UDF have done. Every able-bodied, young educated person has gone out of Kerala. All that they have done is make promises and speeches, where have they delivered? Of course, there is the literacy movement and the healthcare system is comparatively better. Other than that, where are the opportunities for young people to live here? They have destroyed the place. Now, I agree they are not bad candidates. The question is very simple, this election is about a mandate for Modi government. Has Modi government delivered in the last five years?
The answer is very simple. In the last four and a half years, the Modi government has done more than what has been done in 60 years of independent India. 6.5 crore toilets, 34 crore bank accounts, Rs 6.10 lakh crore transferred directly into these bank accounts, 6.5 crore LPG connections distributed, 2.6 crore free electricity connections and by the 31st of March, every household in the country will be electrified. By 2022, we are going to provide a house for everyone, accident insurance for Rs 2 lakhs which costs just Rs 12 and for Rs 300, you get Rs 2 lakh life insurance. And the latest, you can go to any hospital for treatment under Rs 5 lakhs and the government will pay for it. Tell me, which government in which country has done so much? So the Modi government needs another tenure to build on it’s foundation.
Now, people of Kochi are very smart. Who’s going to be good for them? Kochi is incredibly beautiful, the potential for tourism is amazing and as per the latest ranking of world travel and tourism council, India is at number 3. So do they want me as tourism minister in India so that we can do dramatic things here? Secondly, I’ve been in public life for 40 years, as district collector, IAS officer, DDA commissioner in Delhi where I have demolished illegal buildings. As district collector in Kottayam, I pioneered the literacy movement. I was in the Time magazine and I have won the award for best MLA when I was one. Now, as minister, we have done incredibly well. But what’s my background? I have studied under the light of a kerosene lamp in a non-electrified village. My father was a school-teacher. We were 9 children. I got only 42% in my board examination. From there, I became one of the toppers in the IAS. If you have the will to do it, anyone can do what I did and better than me. I can be a motivational story for anybody else.
Kerala, with a large share of minority voters, has not been favourable for the growth of the BJP. As one of the prominent Christian faces of the party and fighting in a seat with a large Christian voter base, how do you plan to win them over?
In 2013-14, when Modi ji was campaigning for prime-ministership, one of the stories planted was if he comes to power, Christians will get beaten up and churches will be burned. Now, you tell me, has any Christian been beaten up anywhere in India? Has one church been burned? So all these are fake stories. Look at what Modi ji has done. When nurses from Kerala, most of them from minority community, were stuck in Iraq, he brought them back. When Fr Alex was kidnapped by the Taliban, he brought him back. When Fr Uzhunnalil was kidnapped by terrorists, he was brought back. Look what we have done in the Swadesh darshan scheme under which we have given funds to 133 religious institutions, out of which 42 are Christian churches. We have given them Rs 32.5 crores. Has any Congress government done that? We have given money to 20 Muslim mosques, about Rs 10 crores. So in this government, Modi ji says he’s here to protect everybody. This government has done the best for minorities.
Now, there are large sections of voters in Kerala who have been severely affected by policies like demonetisation and GST. Don’t you think your government could have handled it better?
Look at the other side of demonetisation. India had a very low tax base. When we demonetised, we had only 2.5 crore tax-payers, today, we have 6.5 crore tax-payers. Now, that’s a dramatic change. The amount of tax collected has also gone up. That’s a positive side of demonetisation. You take any programme, in hindsight, it could have been done better. We don’t disagree, everybody is in a learning process. But there has been a dramatic positive effect. In GST, earlier when you were going from one municipal town to another, from one state to another, we had to stop our vehicles for days together and pay taxes. Today, India is one country, one tax. These are dramatic reforms. Yes, all these reforms would have teething problems. We got through that. Now, it’s for the state and the Centre to sit together and rectify these things. We have been doing it. Of course, we need greater cooperation from the GST council which comprises of all state finance ministers. But look at the fundamentals of the economy, the fiscal deficit is hugely under control, inflation is at the lowest in the history of the country, current account deficit is under control. The macro-economic fundamentals of the country are fantastic.
But there’s also the NSSO jobs survey that the government has not released. It shows that thousands of jobs have been lost over the last five years.
Let me take my ministry which I know very well. The tourism sector is providing jobs to 81.2 million people, it’s one of the biggest providers of employment. Of the total jobs, our contribution is about 12.38%. In the past four years, we have created 13.92 million jobs in the tourism sector. That’s a big number. As per the latest WTTC report, India is at number 3 with incredible potential for tourism. Earlier, we were nowhere, but today, India is at centre-stage.
One month back, you had told reporters that you have time left in your Rajya Sabha tenure and were not looking to take an electoral plunge. There’s a feeling that you are a reluctant candidate this time, is it true?
The party decides what we do and I have always said I’m a karyakarta of the party. But I said I have 3.5 years left in the Rajya Sabha, it’s good to give another opportunity to younger candidates. I’m already grey. That’s why I said I don’t need to be considered. I’m a karyakarta so I will do what the party says.
But if the decision were left to you, you would not want to contest?
Yes, I would say opportunities should be given to younger people. But I think it’s a great time for me to get back to people because it’s a huge mandate for the Modi government. For me to put across what the Modi government has done, it’s a great opportunity. I love being with people. As a district collector, I was always out in the sun and meeting people. I’m a warm person and I’d like to see a smile on the face of another person.
In the wake of the terrible floods in Kerala last year, what does Ernakulam as one of the worst-affected districts and Kerala in general have to do to get back on feet?
In the post flood scenario, the state government has handled it very badly. The livelihoods of millions of people have been lost. Small businesses, dairy farming, agriculture and fisheries have been wiped out. That livelihood has not been created and the government has failed on that. Why are these ministers going to the Gulf and holding meetings there on rebuilding Kerala? Come on, you’re wasting money. That money should go here. The money that was sent for rebuilding post Ockhi cyclone, have they spent it? Half the money is still there. These fishermen need help. Post floods, we have given Rs 3000 crores to Kerala. Have they spent it? They are going abroad and having regional consultations. I always told them that I don’t make promises. I go to the people, will hold consultation with them here in the villages, not in the Gulf or in America. Listen to the people, they have the ideas. I was fortunate to do the mass contact programme (as Kottayam district collector) for which we got the highest award of the UN. That idea came from an 80-year-old woman who came up to me and said, “I’ve been here twice and couldn’t meet you, where were you? This government has given you a car, why can’t you come see me in my village.” That triggered the idea for the biggest revolution in the government. So the ideas are not mine, they come from the people. So government of Kerala should get back to people and listen to them and rebuild Kerala.
On the question of the Sabarimala agitation becoming a hot-button topic in the election campaign, how do you see the issue?
I think the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has been behaving like Stalin, trying to destroy religion because that’s fundamental to the Marxist belief. See, Ayyappan is everyone’s favourite God. Everybody loves him. I am a practicing Christian and I have climbed Sabarimala three times. It is a question of our sentiment and our belief. Pinarayi Vijayan thinks he can destroy our belief, sorry no. It’s not going to happen. Keralites will resist.
How do you gauge the chances of the BJP candidates in the other constituencies in Kerala?
I think we are going to do extremely well in many constituencies. There’s overwhelming support for Modi ji and what he’s done. He should get another tenure and we have good candidates. We need to win. I can’t make predictions on how many seats we will win but I’m very sure the Modi government will come back.