The undercurrents within the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church could play a crucial role in the Thrikkakara Assembly bypoll in Kerala, though neither the community nor the contesting political parties want to acknowledge it.
The Church was mired in a political controversy right at the beginning of the campaign for the May 31 bypoll and since then, it made all attempts to downplay the issue.
The selection of Dr Jo Joseph, a cardiologist at the Lissie Hospital, Ernakulam, run by the church, as the CPM's candidate triggered a controversy with political opponents alleging he was a nominee of the Church.
The church leadership itself sought to quell the charges, but sources within the clergy and the laity confirm the controversy is far from dying down.
What makes crunching the Christian votes in Thrikkakara intriguing is the fact that the constituency falls under the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, which is home to the alleged land scam that rocked the church in the state. The cases over some land deals facilitated by Mar George Cardinal Alencherry, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, are still on.
The issue has left the archdiocese a divided house with both the clergy and the laity turning into two factions supporting and opposing the top priest.
This rivalry between the two factions is reflected in the Thrikkakara bypoll too.
Unofficial estimates put the Christian votes in the constituency at 38 per cent.
Among them, around 25 per cent belong to the Roman Catholic Church while the rest are from other denominations including the Latin, Catholics and the Jacobites.
These figures are not verified by the election commission.
Cardinal Alencherry himself had clarified the Church does not back any candidate in the bypoll but the opposing faction says Dr Joseph has the blessings of the top rung of the clergy.
“Though the Cardinal says in the open that the Church does not endorse a particular candidate, we believe that Dr Joseph is the candidate in his mind. There was a plan to issue a pastoral letter favouring the LDF candidate but it was scuttled as some of us exposed the move at the beginning itself,” a laity leader belonging to the anti-Cardinal faction told Onmanorama.
The reasoning stems from the LDF government's overt support to the Cardinal on the issue of the introduction of the uniform format of Mass in churches.
He also linked the candidature of Dr Joseph with the acquittal of Bishop Franco Mulakkal in the nun rape case. “We have reasons to believe that there were some political deals behind the acquittal of Franco,” the source said.
A priest in the archdiocese echoed the laity leader's remarks about the bypoll.
“It's not clear how much was the involvement of Cardinal Alencherry in the selection of the CPM candidate, but there's something. The impression that Dr Joseph is a candidate of the Cardinal turns him against a section of believers who are angry at the clergy,” the priest said.
He also confirmed some priests in the constituency have been carrying out a silent campaign for Congress candidate Uma Thomas.
There are 24 parishes in the constituency and the vicars in 22 of them are against the Cardinal. “They can influence the parishioners,” he said.
Kennedy Karimpinkala, who heads the pro-Cardinal World Christian Council (WCC), rubbished the charge. “It's true that the priests are against the Cardinal. They have proven it many times in the past. But a vicar is not the entire parish,” he said.
Karimpinkala's WCC has extended support to the LDF candidate saying the CPM-led government has been more supportive of the farmers in the hilly regions.
“I want to make it clear that we are also supporting Dr Joseph because he is a baptised Christian,” he said.
He went on to say that the community felt betrayed by the Congress' stances on the issues of 'love jihad' and 'narcotic jihad' raised by Church leaders.
Karimpinkala had recently joined the Kerala Congress (M), an ally of the LDF.
Karimpinkala's rivals consider WCC as a fringe group with no support base. However, they said his soft corner to the LDF signals Alencherry's stance.
The Catholic Congress, a third group which calls for more involvement of the Church in politics, has not taken any open stance.
However, a leader of the organisation said its members were equally miffed with the LDF and UDF.
“There are many Christian voters who want to vote against both the fronts in Thrikkakara,” he said.
Asked about the BJP's claim that there could be a shift in Christian voters into its side in Thrikkakara, he said that was a possibility.