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'I'm an Insider...': Rajeev Chandrasekhar Who's Up Against Tharoor in Trivandrum

MoS Chandrasekhar has a massive task ahead of him as the BJP has been desperate to make electoral inroads in Kerala.

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Union Minister of State Rajeev Chandrasekhar is throwing his hat in the ring of electoral politics for the first time – and his maiden contest is in the prestigious Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency, where Congress leader Shashi Tharoor has been MP for three terms. He is taking on incumbent Tharoor and the Left's Pannyan Raveendran, who is a former MP.

Chandrasekhar has a massive task ahead of him as the BJP has been desperate to make electoral inroads in Kerala as part of its 'Mission South'.

As the battle heats up, the Union MoS speaks to The Quint about his plans for Thiruvananthapuram, the controversial Adani-led Vizhinjam seaport project which invited protests from the fishing community in the region, and the BJP's 'Christian outreach' in Kerala, among other things.

Read the edited excerpts below.

This is your maiden Lok Sabha election. How do you plan to overcome the perception among the people of Thiruvananthapuram that you are an 'unfamiliar face' here, in comparison to the other two candidates?

This is not my first Lok Sabha election. It may be my first Lok Sabha election as a candidate, but I have been involved in many Lok Sabha elections for the party and my friends for many years.

In terms of being an 'outsider', that is as bizarre a characterisation of me as possible. I am as much a Malayali and an insider as anybody else – if not more than the other two gentlemen in the fray. That is a meaningless issue.

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How do feel about contesting against a three-time MP like Shashi Tharoor?

Shashi Tharoor is an incumbent MP. He's been an MP for three terms. When I came here on the 4th of March, I looked at it as a three-way fight between him, Pannyan Raveendran, and myself. After 20-25 days, seeing the neglect and the decline, it is no longer an electoral contest for me – this is a mission to transform Thiruvananthapuram, to take Thiruvananthapuram forward.

Adani's Vizhinjam port project had invited massive protests from the fishing community in Thiruvananthapuram in 2022. Will the BJP's support of the project hinder your prospects in the coastal belt?

I want to be very clear that the BJP is in support of an inclusive Vizhinjam port development. We are not in support of development at any cost. We are not in support of development that excludes the local community.

But the issue of coastal Kerala and coastal Thiruvananthapuram is more than just about Vizhinjam. It starts all the way from Neyyatinkara up to Thiruvananthapuram West. The issues include erosion of the coastline, loss of livelihood of fishermen as a consequence of the erosion, the loss of any replacement jobs or the skilling of those who have lost jobs, and the lack of an overall multi-year strategic plan to protect the coastline.

All of those problems are problems that didn't start yesterday; it started 10 years ago. But nobody paid attention to it.

The current MP's defence is: 'I wrote a letter, and they said it's central government; I wrote a letter to the central government, and they said it's the state government.'

This football between two partners of the INDI alliance has caused the problem that was manageable 8 years ago.

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The CPI(M)-led government in Kerala and the BJP had collectively staged a protest against the anti-Vizhinjam agitation led by the fishing community back then. How do you comment on that?

I can speak for myself. My view as a candidate is very clear. My view is very different from the Congress' view and the current MP's view – which is welcoming the project at any cost. My view is different from that of the CPI(MP), which is that they will arrest people who are protesting and put them in jail.

My view is that a port-led development is critical for Thiruvananthapuram.

Singapore is a port-led development city. Vizhinjam can really be a force multiplier for Thiruvananthapuram. It can be a catalyst for the electronics manufacturing industry. However, the people displaced by the port and impacted by the port must be given justice. They must be given jobs, they must be given skills to get jobs, they must be given rehabilitation ability. This project has to become a beacon of inclusive and sustainable development.

In light of the Archbishop of Thiruvananthapuram recently condemning the Manipur violence and the attacks of Christians in north India, what do you have to say about the BJP's 'Christian outreach' in Kerala, particularly Thiruvananthapuram?

He didn't say condemn the attack on Christians. He said condemn the violence in Manipur.

Let me say two things on this: there is no question of the BJP reaching out only to Christians. I'll tell you about me. I speak to every citizen of Thiruvananthapuram as if he or she is the same as any other citizen. Whether he/she is a Christian, Muslim, or Hindu – or any other community – for me, he/she is a stakeholder in the future of Thiruvananthapuram.

It is true that certain communities are poisoned in the head by the propaganda that we are anti-some community. It is true.

The Congress does it. Even in this election – when the election is a referendum on the performance of an MP – that MP only talks about CAA, beef, and Manipur. As if the people of Kerala and the people of Thiruvananthapuram are going to vote on the basis of those three issues after spending 15 years in Parliament.

Polarising voters and making people afraid of the BJP has been an old strategy of the Congress and the Left for many years. To that extent, we go out to Christians and clarify.

Take Manipur, for instance. For a long time, they said Manipur was about Hindus and Christians. And this is a campaign propagated and piloted by the Congress, including this incumbent MP who is much-read author and intellectual who should know what the facts are.

He perpetuated the lie. Today, we go and tell people that it's between Meiteis and Kukis, that the violence is more ethnic and tribal – Meiteis have Christians and Kukis have Christians, Meiteis have had their churches burned and Kukis have had their churches burned.

When the truth is put out there, people understand that it's a deeper problem, rather than simply characterising it lazily as a religious fight.

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Meiteis are a majority in Manipur and Kukis are a minority. Kukis are 98% Christian and Meiteis are 83% Hindu and 1% Christian. Can we fully ignore the communal asepct of the violence?

What does that even mean? Nobody told me that there's a balance of Christians. You are making it up. This is all a narrative – Kukis have more Christians so they're more Christian than Meiteis. So Meiteis Christians are not Christians?

This is the bizarre absurdity of this argument. When there are Meitei churches that are being burnt by Kukis and Kuki churches being burnt by Meiteis, and it is clear that the violence is more ethnic than religious, what do I say? I don't want to enter into the debate of the absurd.

You say you wish to create more jobs in Thiruvananthapuram. How do you look at the high unemployment rate among the youth in India as shown by the recent International Labour Organization report, which states that 65% educated youth are unemployed in India?

Let me explain. First of all, such reports are a bit dubious. I don't know who does these reports. I am in the skill ministry and we tract what is called the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS).

Reporter: This report is based on an analysis of the Periodic Labour Force Survey.

The Periodic Labour Force Survey shows a steady decline from 2017 in unemployment. As a matter of fact, not only is there a steady decline in unemployment, but higher and higher women labour force participation. Those are published data, you can Google and find it.

Unemployment is the average of state-wise employment. It is very clear, for example, that Kerala has very high unemployment. Rajasthan, under the Congress, had very high unemployment. Madhya Pradesh had very high unemployment for a number of years.

Unemployment is not a number at an all-India stage; it is an average of multiple states and economic activity.

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The same report also finds that 3 out of 4 Indian youth couldn't send an email with an attached file. As the MoS for Skill Development, where are we in digital literacy in India?

We have a huge programme for digital literacy that has been going on for several years. It has covered almost 29-30 crore Indians – I don't have the exact number. It's called PM Disha.

We have 90 crore Indians using the internet. A lot of them are not using it for Instagram and YouTube, they're using it for their subsidies and benefits.

I would argue – I don't have any published data – that digital literacy in India over the last 7-8 years has sharply risen. If you ask me, is India 100 percent digitally literate? Of course, not. We are 140 crore Indians and it is physically impossible for all of them to be digitally literate in 8-10 years.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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