BJP candidata Anil Antony gifts the model of an Aranmula snake boat to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the election campaign at Pathanamthitta. Photo: Nikhilraj/Manorama

Modi proposes, Church disposes?

This is the final and fourth part of the series 'When BJP chants Hallelujah' where 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 2: Marx or Ram, for whom the Church bell tolls, Part 3: Love jihad and other fears: Common BJP-Christian bonding ground.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent Lok Sabha election campaign speech in Pathanamthitta, a district with a significant Christian population of around 38 per cent (Census 2011), was a clear attempt to connect with this vital voter base.

Modi highlighted his close connection with the laity and the clergy alike. Highlighting his party's proactive actions for the community, Modi talked about his meeting with Pope Francis, the evacuation of a Catholic priest from IS captivity, and nurses from war-torn Iraq.

“It is regrettable that even priests in Kerala are not spared from violent attacks,” Modi said in reference to an incident in Poonjar in February. The police had then booked 27 students, including 10 minors, after a parish priest was knocked down by a car at St Mary’s Forane Church, Poonjar. The priest had confronted the students who were doing a drag race on the church property.

The incident soon took a communal turn. The religious identity of the students involved in the case was cited to portray it as an attack on Christians. The police had ruled out any communal motives. However, the Prime Minister quickly brought back this narrative as he referred to the incident.

Poonjar is part of the Pathanamthitta constituency where the BJP has fielded Anil Antony, son of veteran Congress leader A K Antony. Poonjar is also the home turf of PC George, former MLA, who recently joined the BJP. George was reportedly hopeful of getting a BJP ticket to contest from Pathanamthitta. Observers see George’s role in giving a communal hue to the church incident.

BJP leaders had also visited the injured priest and the whole case soon became a hot topic in BJP’s campaign across the state. In a way, Modi’s Pathanamthitta speech reignited this discourse.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at the audience during the Pathanamthitta election campaign. Union Minister V Muraleedharan, NDA candidate Anil Antony and BJP State President K Surendran seen beside Prime Minister. Photo: Nikhilraj/Manorama

Reverberations in Thrissur
The reverberations in Pathanamthitta are felt in BJP’s ‘star constituency’ of Thrissur. “The Poonjar incident has been widely discussed in the Thrissur constituency,” BJP’s Thrissur general secretary Justin Jacob told Onmanorama. Justin exuded confidence that the BJP’s influence has been growing among Christians in Thrissur where the party is expecting nothing short of a win this time through their candidate Suresh Gopi. (The Christian population in Thrissur is 24.27 per cent as per the 2011 census).

Justin said over 1,000 Christians had joined the BJP in Thrissur in the past three months. Bijoy Thomas, the BJP’s Palakkad zonal vice-president, echoed Justin’s views. “The church has taken BJP into confidence,” he said.

The BJP’s assessment is that it has been finding good traction among Christians in areas like Thrissur city, Pavaratty, Cherppu, Ollur, and Puthukad. It would be too early to sense political undercurrents, but Fr Babu Appadan, the vicar of St Sebastian Church, Valappad, had made it a point to welcome Modi personally when the latter went to Thriprayar Sree Ramaswamy Temple in January. The PM's visit was ahead of the consecration ceremony at Ayodhya Ram temple.

BJP supporters gather to hear PM Modi's address in Pathanamthitta. Photo: Nikhilraj/Manorama

The influence the BJP has been able to garner among Christians in Thrissur, mostly Catholics, is evident from the party’s organisational structure in the district. There are at least 12 Christian leaders who are in attendance at the party’s district committee meetings. This includes mandalam presidents and general secretaries. Leaders like Justin and Bijoy have been part of the BJP and the RSS for at least three decades. Also, the party has been taking proactive steps to accommodate new joinees from minority communities in committees. “At present, we have around 6,500 Christian office-bearers in Kerala right from booths to the state level,” a state-level BJP leader told Onmanorama. He said it was only a few hundreds before 2019. Onmanorama could not independently verify the numbers.

Resistance within
However, the BJP’s swing towards Christians is facing resistance from within the church. The pastoral councils and laity organisations of the Catholic church do not seem to be keen on getting any closer to the saffron party.

“It is true that the Christians’ objection to the BJP has mellowed down. That is mainly because the party has been able to create an impression that it has done something,” a laity leader from Idukki said, claiming that the BJP’s door-to-door campaign will not yield much result in the hill district. A Catholic priest, who is part of the administration of the Idukki diocese, echoed this sentiment. “The BJP is resorting to photo-ops with church leaders to create an impression that they are very close to the Christians,” he said.

Anti-BJP editorials
Various church publications have also flayed the policies of the BJP. Recently, Sathyadeepam, the mouthpiece of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, published an editorial stating this: “We should be able to say out louder that there is no space in Kerala’s secular mind for those who spread sparks of hatred. These can be a full-blown fire anytime.” The article further said that the Sangh Parivar had constantly engaged in deconstruction of history. Sathyadeepam was edited by senior priest Dr Paul Thelakkatt, a staunch critic of the right-wing leaning tendencies within the church, until recently.

Catholicasabha, the mouthpiece of the Thrissur archdiocese of the Syro Malabar Church, published an article in November titled ‘Manipur will not be forgotten.’ The publication repeated its criticism of the Modi government in a recent edition too. “When communal extremists persecute Christians and destroy their places of worship and institutions in various parts of India, chanting ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Sarkar, Sabka Prayas’ is just not enough to stop it,” the editorial stated.

A screenshot of the beginning of the editorial published by Catholicasabha, a publication of the Archdiocese of Trichur. Photo: Special arrangement

Geevarghese Mar Coorilose, former metropolitan of the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church, is among those who try to see the BJP’s attempts to woo the Christians from a sociological perspective. He said the BJP was trying to exploit a sense of upper caste mentality prevalent among a large section of Syrian Christians.

“The BJP could influence the leadership of certain churches but it remains limited to some pockets. I don’t think it is strong enough to influence the equations of electoral politics in Kerala,” Mar Coorilose said.

He went on to say that the BJP had been weaponising corruption in churches and targeting church leaders involved in financial irregularities. He said it would not be easy for the BJP to make a dent in Kerala’s secular social fabric.

Pentecostal churches, which had lakhs of believers in Kerala, are also cautious of BJP’s attempts to get closer to the Christians. “Nobody from the BJP has approached us. Even if someone comes, we are sceptical of the influence they can cast on us. Pentecost believers are mostly facing persecution in North India and it is a matter of concern for us,” a senior church functionary said.

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.