Minority Morcha state president Jiji Joseph (third from right) and other BJP leaders with Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil when they visited the church head as part of 'Feel Good Yatra' in Kochi. Photo: Special arrangement

Bindi and Bible; Why BJP hails this sermon in Kerala

In a four part series, Onmanorama decodes how BJP befriends clergy to win the electoral race in Kerala. Read Part 2: Marx or Ram, for whom the Church bell tolls. Part 3: Love jihad and other fears: Common BJP-Christian bonding ground, Part 4: Modi proposes, Church disposes?
It was a Christmas post the blood-curdling Godhra riots in 2002. In a residential colony in Ahmedabad near the Manav Mandir in Memnagar, a Christian family from Kerala put up a five pointed red star with glowing lights in front of their rented house. In a colony lined with houses displaying Hindu motifs, the star was an outlier. An association member couldn't help asking " Why the star?". The Keralite replied. "It's Christmas". The guy walked away, nodding. Nothing followed, but an uneasy tension lingered.

Cut to Kerala, in December 2023, in front of a wall with an engraved cross, BJP State president K Surendran, his forehead adorned with a vermillion spot, posed for a picture perfect frame with the former Major Arch Bishop of Syro Malabar Church Cardinal George Alencherry, at Mount St Thomas in Ernakulam. He handed over a basket of goodies, draped in red; a greeting card with a prominent picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, dangled by the thread of the gift knot. It was the beginning of BJP's Sneha Yatra, (Journey of Love), an outreach programme launched earlier during Easter.

The cadre took the cue. They moved around homes of the Christian community, distributed cards with picture of a smiling Modi and spread Christmas wishes. The gesture surprised many, but was received with respect, but not everywhere. At a home in Iritty, a hillside town in Kerala’s northern Kannur district, the BJP group was confronted by a young woman. She gave the group, which included a long-term acquaintance, a lecture on “Modi’s double standards to Christians” and the Manipur violence, and even refused to accept the greeting card. The snub didn't end there. She posted the incident on social media and garnished it with a meme. The image featured a woman, marked as BJP, playing with a little girl (Kerala Christians) in a pool, unmindful of a toddler drowning next to her. The toddler was captioned as North Indian Christians while the image showed Manipur Christians as a skeleton deep under the water, tied to a chair.

“They tried to convince me that I was wrong about Manipur and Modi’s policies. However, their arguments were not convincing enough,” the young woman, a post-graduate from a central university, told this correspondent over phone. Well aware of BJP’s attempts to make inroads into the Christian community in Kerala, she was just curious to find out if there was any change in the attitude of people in her close circles towards BJP. “A few elderly people who are staunch Congress supporters told me they will not vote for BJP at any cost. But there were youngsters who found no serious fault with the party. They, like some priests I know, are heavily influenced by the campaigns run by CASA,” the Left-leaning woman shared the findings of her informal survey. CASA – Christian Association and Alliance for Social Action – is a group of Christians who believe that their existence is under threat from Muslim extremist groups.

A meme widely circulated on social media during the Manipur violence.

In a state where electoral success has been evasive for BJP like rain in a cruel summer, the woman's words encapsulate the doubts and uncertainties clouding over the party's ambition to reach out to the Christians. Kerala has elected only one MLA from BJP in its history while the party is running an aggressive campaign to open its account in the Lok Sabha from the state.

The state’s distinct demography, with nearly 55 per cent of Hindus and an almost equal number of minority communities, is often cited as the major factor that prevents the Hindutva party from consolidating adequate vote share for winning elections. Of the minority communities, Muslims make 27 per cent and Christians 18 per cent. It is obvious that if the BJP wants to emerge as an electorally dominant force, it not only has to widen its base among the Hindus; it has to cut into the minority communities too.

With the anti-Muslim tag attached to it historically and ideologically, the party does not fancy any chance of winning over the community in a state like Kerala where voters are highly politically aware and organised. But in Christians, despite their traditional allegiance to the Congress mostly and then the Left parties, the BJP sees a potential partner. To the sceptics, BJP has success to flaunt in Goa and North-East where Christians have a sizeable presence. No wonder, BJP or Modi’s proclaimed minority outreach mission means largely Christian outreach in Kerala. The strategy is to facilitate as many interactions as possible and find common grounds.

Meet, talk, repeat
Though there have been attempts by the BJP to reach out to the leadership of various church denominations in the past, such attempts became more aggressive and evident in the past few years, especially after 2019 when Modi retained power at the Centre with a bloated majority.

In Kerala, Sneha Yatra was launched during Easter 2023. Party leaders met church leaders, one by one during the occasion while the workers were sent to Christian homes. The party effectively followed it up as PM Modi interacted with heads of eight major church denominations on April 24 when he was in Kochi to attend the Yuvam event.

BJP state president K Surendran with a Christian family on Easter. Photo: Facebook/@BJP4keralam

“Each church head who attended the meeting got an opportunity to speak to the prime minister. That meeting had a great impact. With that the church heads realised Modi was far different from what they believed him to be,” Dr K S Radhakrishnan, BJP state vice-president, told Onmanorama. Dr Radhakrishnan, a former Congress leader and vice chancellor, is part of a committee the BJP has constituted to take forward the Christian outreach mission. The party hopes to make use of his long-term relationship with various church heads and priests in the state.

During the time of Christmas, Manipur was burning and the path of the journey of love was thorny. “Of course, Manipur created a block for our outreach to Christians. But we have been able to convince the church leaders that it was not a Hindu vs Christian riot. Archbishop of Bombay Cardinal Oswald Gracias’ statement that it was not a religious conflict also helped,” a BJP spokesperson told Onmanorama.

A priest hand over a memento to PM Modi on Easter Day. Photo: Manorama Online

The Church leaders and priests Onmanorama spoke to have, however, shared the concern that the Prime Minister did not interfere to stop the violence, no matter what triggered and escalated it. Amid the Manipur concerns, Modi, however, managed to bring together a good number of top priests around him as he hosted a special Christmas party at his residence. Top clergymen from Kerala were obviously in attendance.

Informal interactions
Of late, BJP’s top leadership has been meeting Church heads informally too. In June 2023, Home Minister Amit Shah met with the Archbishop of Thrissur Andrews Thazhath at a hotel in Kochi when the former came to Kerala to attend a function. Though Shah announced the news of the brief meeting on X, he did not say what it was all about. “We only know that the meeting took place during the Manipur issue,” a BJP leader from Thrissur told Onmanorama.

Union Home Minister with Mar Andrews Thazhath, Metropolitan Archbishop of Thrissur (left) in Kochi on Sunday. Photo: Twitter/@AmitShah

Another BJP leader said a governor of a north Indian state has made several visits to the Divine Retreat Centre, a Catholic institution at Muringoor, in recent times, indicating possibilities of some political discussions.

“Meetings are happening formally and informally. There are also many intermediaries who facilitate such meetings,” a senior priest of the Latin Catholic denomination told Onmanorama. He did not drop any name, but said this: “If a learned person comes to me, I will have to receive him.”

Feel Good Yatra
BJP has not stopped its journey in search of Christian love. The party’s Minority Morcha has initiated what it calls the Feel Good Yatra, covering the state. State Minority Morcha president Jiji Joseph has met nearly 100 parish vicars as part of the yatra. The programme was initiated as part of the feeling within the party that the interactions should not be limited to church heads alone.

“The aim of the yatra is to interact with vicars and leaders of prominent parishes and create awareness about Modi government’s schemes for minority communities. For instance, there is this Padho Pardeshi scheme which gives subsidy on educational loans for overseas studies. The applicants for this scheme from Kerala are less. That’s because there is a general feeling that the BJP government is not doing anything for minorities,” Jiji said.

During other house visits also, BJP leaders make it a point to create awareness about Modi government’s achievements.

Goa to NE to Kerala?
Putting his party’s Christian outreach attempts in a historical perspective, BJP state general secretary George Kurien said the party was confident about its impact as it could be seen from Goa and North-East states.

“BJP initiated its outreach to Christians in Goa in the 1990s and it showed results by 2000s. When we started getting closer to Christians, the Congress tried to disrupt it by distributing copies of Vicharadhara to Christian homes. However, it did not affect us at all. I say the Christians here should also read Vicharadhara (by RSS ideologue M S Golwalkar). The more you read it, you will understand the main argument in the book is that India will collapse the day Hindus become a minority here,” Kurien, a prominent Christian face of the BJP in Kerala, said.

In fact, in Kerala, the CPM had invoked Vicharadhara to counter the BJP’s Christian outreach attempts. The Communist party, in a statement, had highlighted that the text treats minorities as an internal threat.

“The BJP’s hidden agenda which is to make India a Hindu nation is of course a matter of concern. But can’t we delay it if more people from other religions become part of it,” the senior priest from the Latin denomination asked, after listing out reasons he found enough not to oppose the PM’s party.

Part 2: Marx or Ram, for whom the Church bell tolls.

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