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– By Abhishek Kumar

With eyes set on expanding political base in the south, north-east India, is BJP trying for an image makeover as far as food choices are concerned?

Newly inducted Union minister for tourism, Alphons Kannanthanam, has asserted that the BJP “doesn’t have a problem” with consumption of beef in his home state, Kerala.

The former IAS officer, who was a surprise entrant in Team Modi’s cabinet expansion on Sunday when he was roped in as a minister of state with independent charge, rejected all claims of the BJP being against the consumption of beef, hailing the party’s government at the Centre as “very inclusive” and insisting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s message to the people is clear – “believe whatever you want, I will protect you”.

“Kerala is a beef-eating state. It is not going to stop eating beef. It will continue to eat beef. BJP doesn’t have a problem,” Alphons told media persons on Monday, while adding that Goa, which is also a BJP-ruled state had also not banned the consumption of beef.

On the face of it, the comments by Alphons would appear as being far from reality. Over the past three years, ever since Narendra Modi led the BJP to a stunning victory in the Lok Sabha polls, the incidents of mob lynchings against those suspected of consuming beef or involved in cow slaughter have seen a sharp rise across India. Add to this are the spiteful and often threatening statements by a string of BJP leaders, including UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, party MPs Sakshi Maharaj, etc, against those who support beef consumption.

But then, can the emphatic assertion by Alphons have a greater meaning?

The former babu, who has an excellent rapport within the politically crucial Syrian Christian community of Kerala and members of the Church in the state where the Christian clergy plays in important role in elections, is the first ever minister in a BJP-led central government to belong to Kerala, a state where the party has been desperate to make inroads in.

Kiren Rijiju

The tourism minister’s comments should be viewed along with similar comments made by another Union minister, Kiren Rijiju, who is the party’s face in Arunachal Pradesh, another beef eating state. Back in 2015 when the BJP was facing sharp criticism from all quarters on its opposition to beef consumption and cow slaughter, Rijiju had publicly declared his love for beef and claimed that no one can stop him from eating the meat.

More recently, the Manohar Parrikar government in Goa refused to ban consumption of beef while Union home minister Rajnath Singh too indicated that the Centre was not for a country-wide beef ban, while he acknowledged India’s diversity, albeit without explicitly mentioning the words beef or cow slaughter.

So, if Alphons’ statement is to be viewed in light of all these comments by other BJP leaders, what does it suggest?

Modi and Shah

As BJP national president Amit Shah continues with his nationwide tour with the intent of expanding the BJP footprint across India in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, could be BJP be opening up to a dilution of its well-known stand against consumption of beef? Several parts of India – especially Kerala, the north-eastern states, parts of Karnataka (though the BJP is now a major player there), Jammu and Kashmir (where again the BJP is in a shaky coalition albeit with electoral presence only in the Hindu-dominated Jammu) – are known to be major beef consumers. In many of these states and regions, the BJP has been struggling to make political inroads and both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have been on an overdrive to expand the BJP base here.

By showing the party as being open, even if selectively, to people’s choice of what they wish to eat and letting ministers assert this in media interactions, could the BJP be eyeing an image-makeover that will ultimately make it more acceptable in areas where it currently is seen as a political pariah?

The saffron party’s national spokesperson and in charge of Meghalaya unit Nalin Kohli was among the first BJP leaders to publicly declare that the Centre wasn’t making any attempt to bring a country-wide legislation against cow slaughter, asserting that doing so was the express purview of respective state governments.

“Every state government that decides to have a law or not have a law on cow slaughter, does so keeping in mind local food habits… in the north-east too every state government will keep this in account,” Kohli had said.

Of course a large number of states – mostly BJP-ruled, like Maharashtra, MP, Gujarat, UP, etc – have banned cow slaughter. But with elections to be won and its presence to be expanded in beef-consuming states, are Modi and Shah now willing to make selective exemptions in the party’s stand against cow slaughter?

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