Marx or Ram, for whom the Church bell tolls

Fr Kuriakose Mattam is welcomed by KS Aji, president of BJP's Idukki district unit. Photo: Manorama News

In a four part series, Onmanorama decodes how BJP befriends clergy to win the electoral race in Kerala. Read Part 1: Bindi and Bible, why BJP hails this sermon in Kerala, Part 3: Love jihad and other fears: Common BJP, Part 4: Modi proposes, Church disposes?

In 2023, Kerala witnessed two Christian priests formally joining the BJP. It looked like the party's outreach programme was yielding positive results. In October, Fr Kuriakose Mattam of St Thomas’ Church in Mankuva, a village in Idukki district, joined the BJP in a first of its kind instance in Kerala. The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church was swift to respond. He was removed from his parish responsibilities and said he violated the Church norms. In December, Fr Shyju Kurien, who was the secretary of the Nilakkal Diocese of the Orthodox Church, joined the BJP along with 47 families. He was also removed from Church posts in a few days. 

Around 50 Christian families, including Fr Shaiju Kurien, Secretary of the Orthodox Church Nilakkal Bhadrasanam in Pathanamthitta district in southern Kerala, joined the BJP in the presence of Union Minister V Muraleedharan on Saturday. Photo: BJP Keralam/ Facebook

The denominations see the two instances only as aberrations, but they cement the fact that the perceived untouchability between the parish and the party is a thing of the past. In March 2023, Thalassery Arch Bishop Mar Joseph Pamplany made a statement which sent ripples through the political circles.

He publicly stated that Christians will vote for BJP if the Central government raised the procurement price of rubber to Rs 300 per kg. “You announce the price of rubber at Rs 300 and buy rubber from farmers at that price... We will vote for you...This migrant community  (Christians who migrated to the northern districts) can take away the worry that you don't have an MP from here,” he announced at a gathering of the Catholic Farmers Conference at Thalassery in Kannur. With his speech becoming controversial, Bishop Pamplany explained that the church would stand by those who help the rubber farmers.

Pamplany wonders if there is a situation where the church cannot talk to the BJP.

Thalassery Archbishop Mar Joseph Pamplani with BJP leaders.
Thalassery Archbishop Mar Joseph Pamplani with BJP leaders. Photo: Manorama

"The church or its leadership has no qualms about talking to a party that is ruling the country. I have talked to them about many things. Such discussions are ongoing in all sectors. There is no need to portray this as a position of the Catholic Church. What I expressed at that conference was the sentiments of the farmers from the high range. There is no need to misinterpret it as an alliance between the church and the BJP," Pamplany said.

It is learned that the BJP soon sent a top functionary of the Rubber Board, a statutory body under the central government, to the bishop. There has been no major announcement regarding the rubber price by the centre, though. 

A senior Catholic priest, who is also a diocese office-bearer said that the church had a sense of untouchability towards BJP initially, but not any more. “There was a time when the church kept Communists at a distance. Now, the situation has changed and you can see bishops and priests sharing a close relation with the Communist parties. Similarly, the church had a sense of untouchability towards BJP initially. It’s no more there," he  said, sitting at his office in central Kerala. 

He listed out reasons why he thinks Christians will have to align with BJP sooner than later. He was quite impressed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s performance in two consecutive terms and equally dismayed over the lack of leadership in Congress. 

“I don’t have anything to oppose the way the current regime runs the country. They are running the country in a strong manner. The Congress was supposed to do that, but that party is now struggling even to sustain its history. It has become a party with a draining vote base,” the senior priest said. He particularly appreciated Modi government’s foreign policy. “There they don’t have any difference like Christians or Muslims. They are friendly with all nations,” the priest reasoned. 

But, what about incidents of attacks on Christians by Hindutva groups which are reported from north India? To this, the priest’s answer should be music to the BJP. “Such attacks are not being carried out by the BJP. Certain fringe groups are responsible for that,” he said. 

The veteran priest then made a remark which sounded more pragmatic than what any politician would say. “Everybody is expecting a third term for BJP now. How long can or should we stay away from those who wield power or has the potential to be in power? What should be our fate if the Christians are kept out of power continuously. Isn’t it wiser to stay closer to the powerful and protect the community’s interests.” The priest made it clear that he was sharing only his personal views and many in his denomination, both clergy and laity, do not subscribe to his views. 

His pragmatic approach, however, is shared by many among the clergy across denominations, even though the churches always maintain that they don’t have political interests favouring one party over another. 

PM Modi meets bishops during his visit to Kerala. Photo: X/ BJP4KLMinority

A priest in the Orthodox denomination’s leadership echoed the Catholic priest’s views when he expressed doubts over the veracity of the reported attacks on churches and prayer groups in north India. “Are they all true?,” the priest was puzzled.

He was also impressed by the way Prime Minister Modi looked upon his church. “During a meeting with our church heads, the PM said he knew that our church doesn’t engage in mass conversions,” the priest said.

If it’s rubber price and other farmers’ issues for the Roman Catholic church, the Latin Catholics want the BJP to address a number of issues that have been troubling the coastal community for long. “The BJP leaders who have visited our church leaders have promised to address such issues. There has been no serious interference from the Centre in the sector in the past 10 years though,” a Latin Catholic priest in Alappuzha said. 

Talks behind the curtain
Though the churches maintain political neutrality in the open, the BJP leaders who have spoken to church leaders are confident that they have the blessings of the clergy. 

“Recently some of us met a clergyman who heads a denomination. He told us when he was in North India, he had come across several instances of BJP helping the church,” a BJP leader, who is actively involved in the Christian outreach programme, said. 

A BJP leader from Thrissur claimed that a bishop in the district had confided to party leaders that even though he knew the truth about Manipur violence, he cannot say that openly as there is a Congress dominance in the church. Another BJP state leader sounded empathetic towards the church leadership when he said: “We understand the limitations of the church leadership. We know they cannot make any open statement in favour of us at the moment. But we are confident the community will come to our side sooner than later.”

(Part 3 : Love jihad and other fears: Common BJP-Christian bonding ground)

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.