Ahead of the general elections in India in April, Church officials have issued pastoral guidelines asking Catholics to reject candidates who espouse certain ideologies and vote for guardians of secularism and democracy. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, joined other regional bishops in issuing a set of guidelines.
The latest comes from the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, a regional forum of bishops in southern India, favoring candidates who respect the country’s secular constitution and related institutions. It was read out in all Catholic parishes in Kerala on March 31. While it offers guidance and advice, it also stresses that the Church does not favor any specific political party or ideology.
The circular, printed in the local Malayalam language, entreats parishioners to support candidates who are committed “to the values of secularism and democracy” and who will work for the “integral development and unity of the nation.”
The message comes as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is seeking a second term by placating Hindu voters and sensibilities. Critics say the BJP leaders plan to amend India’s secular constitution to align it with Hindu nationalism and create a Hindu nation if voted into power, even though the party fielded two former Christian pastors for the state elections in November.
However, the Kerala bishops are promoting the view that India should be governed by leaders who will protect its rich heritage of religious and cultural diversity. They oppose all forms of religious fanaticism. Cardinal Gracias in his pastoral letter asked Catholics across the country to “pray and to discern in prayer what is best for our country. We have to vote judiciously.”
The Church hopes the six-week election that starts on April 11 “will give us leaders who listen to the people, understand our anxieties and their needs, and respond positively,” the cardinal wrote in the letter dated March 14.
He urged voters to elect leaders who “understand authority is service,” and who would work for the benefit of the economically poor, socially oppressed Dalit and tribal people while also focusing on communal harmony, national integration, and environmental conservation.
In the Christian stronghold of Goa, a former Portuguese colony north of Kerala, the Church’s’ Council for Social Justice and Peace issued a statement on March 26 imploring voters to reject the “terror of pseudo-nationalism.”
Political and rights activists have been complaining about a growing atmosphere of intolerance after the BJP rose to power in 2014. They claim any individual or institution that fails to conform to the BJP’s ideology is branded unpatriotic.
The statement from the council’s executive secretary, Father Savio Fernandes, also warned voters to avoid siding with “corrupt defectors” who move from party to party, their only concern being the pursuit of victory and power.
“These people are actually cheating the voters,” Father Fernandes told ucanews.om. “People vote for them based on a party and its ideology … but they easily change their views without any consideration for voters.”
His small state on India’s western coast can elect two members of the 543-seat parliament. However, it must also fill three state legislative seats after two Congress party legislators quit and joined the BJP last year. Roughly a quarter of the state’s 1.4 million people are Christians, mostly Catholics.
“Another evil is the blatant engineering of defections in violation of the people’s mandate. Moreover, persons who deceive and betray people’s trust should have no (place) in a democracy,” the statement said. The BJP has been criticized for poaching rivals and dabbling in horse-trading to unseat Congress governments, particularly in Goa and several predominantly Christian northeastern states.
Father Fernandes said the guidelines were not devised to shape people’s thinking but are meant to help Catholics make a wiser and more well informed choice when they cast their ballots. “It’s part of Church’s social responsibility” to issue such pastoral letters, the priest said.
Catholics account for nearly 26 per cent of the state’s population.
Urging the electorate to reject the “terror of pseudo-nationalism”, the Council for Social Justice and Peace, the social wing of the influential Goa Church, urged voters on Tuesday to take on “corrupt defectors” and political opportunists.
The statement by Fr. Savio Fernandes, Executive Secretary of the Council, which functions as a Church-backed NGO, comes at a time when the state gears up Lok Sabha elections. “Let us also give corrupt defectors and opportunists the due electoral response. Let us not be carried away by petty and trivial issues but think of the overall interest of the nation and of our state,” Fernandes said in a statement issued here.
The statement, which severely critiques the BJP-led coalition governments both in Goa as well as at the Centre, without naming them, comes a few days after Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrao in a condolence message following the death of Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar paid glowing tributes to governments-led by the BJP leader while also praising his spirit of secularism.
The All India Catholic Union, India’s oldest laity organization, has expressed concern at the communal polarization that is peaking on the eve of the general elections in the country. Many communities including Muslims and Dalits are victims of targeted violence, said a statement issued at the end of the working committee meeting of the union.
Of particular concern is the sudden and sustained violence against the Christian community in the Jaunpur district of Uttar Pradesh, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party strongman, chief minister Yogi Adityanath, said the statement from AICU president Lancy D’Cunha and spokesperson John Dayal. It was issued after group’s meeting in Varanasi on March 24.
Christian leaders from Jaunpur gave a graphic account of the situation when they addressed the Working committee of the AICU at Navsadhana, the noted Catholic mass media centre in Varanasi. Uttar Pradesh had, in the brief period between September and December 2018, seen as many as 109 cases of violence against Christian pastors, small house churches, and women and men faithful at worship in small towns and villages.
This was the highest in the country. More than 40 cases had taken place in Jaunpur alone. In the first months of 2019, the region recorded 15 more cases. The AICU noted a Catholic petty farmer and labor in Jharkhand was among those killed by cow-protector lynch mobs.
The AICU endorsed the Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on the general elections. The AICU also, just as the bishops, made no preference for any party but left it to the conscience and good sense of the electorate.
However, it wanted the electors to choose political leaders who respect India’s cultural plurality who commit themselves to the service of the poor, to communal harmony and to development.