While the ruling Hindutva Party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues to engage in a war against the minority Christian community across India, falsely accusing Christians of converting Hindus and arresting and punishing several Christian leaders on trumped up charges, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken upon himself to win the Christian vote bank in Kerala by wooing the Christian leadership in the southern state.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi met the top leaders of various church leaders in Kerala, giving a push to the BJP’s efforts to reach out to the influential minority community in the southern state ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, sources said.
It is learned that Modi, who arrived in Kerala on a two-day visit on Monday, April 24, 2023, met eight top Church leaders including Syro-Malabar Catholic Church head Cardinal George Alencherry, Syro-Malankara Catholic Church head Cardinal Mar Baselios Cleemis, Syrian Orthodox Church head Baselios Marthoma Mathews III and Metropolitan Trustee of the Jacobite Church Joseph Mor Gregorios.
The Prime Minister also met the senior leaders of the Latin Catholic Church Archbishop
Joseph Kalathiparambil, Archbishop of Knanaya Church Mathew Moolakkatt, Archbishop of the Knanaya Jacobite Archdiocese Kuriakose Mar Severios, and Metropolitan of the Chaldean Syrian Church Mar Awgin Kuriakose, reports said.
The meeting, a part of the BJP’s outreach campaign ‘Sneha Yatra’, took place at Hotel Taj Malabar in Kochi after the Prime Minister attended a massive road show and a youth conclave, Yuvam 2023, at the Sacred Hearts College ground here.
Jacobite Church bishop Joseph Mar Gregorius said Modi highlighted the Christian community’s pro-BJP stand in Goa and the states in the Northeast but expressed doubt whether the Prime Minister’s meeting with the bishops would fetch the party votes in Kerala. “People do not vote as per the directive of bishops. People evaluate the performance of a government before casting their vote. People are enlightened. However, at the meeting we could raise (many) issues,’’ he said.
Among issues that figured in the meeting are the farm sector crisis, rights of Dalit Christians and livelihood issues of the coastal fishermen community, sources said. People privy to details said Modi did not give any assurance on the issues the bishops raised. “When the issue of rubber farmers was raised, Modi said he was aware of it, but he did not react on the issues of Dalit Christians and woes of fishermen, especially against the backdrop of the draft of the blue economy policy that fishermen were opposing,’’ media reports said.
As part of the party’s minority outreach, BJP leaders in Kerala had visited Christian and Muslim leaders and the homes of people belonging to these communities on the festive occasions of Easter and Eid, respectively.
Cardinal George Alencherry, head of Syro-Malabar Church, said the meeting went off “very well”, and that people of Kerala are “appreciative of the Modi government (and) are looking for further development in Kerala under the Centre’s initiative”.
Alencherry told the media: “We shared the needs of the Christian community, as also the needs we are visualising for people of Kerala. We presented before him the woes of farmers, problems of fishermen, the rights of Dalit Christians. He spoke about what he had done for Kerala and Christians. He mentioned 10% reservation for the poor without any consideration of religion. We also shared our anxieties about (Christian) missionary work in North India, which are hindered by religious fundamentalism.”
He said the Prime Minister assured them that there would be “protection for all the faithful in the country. He also mentioned the visit of Pope Francis to India in near future.”
The BJP is looking for support from the community in Kerala, the state with their largest population in the country, as it works to make a fresh headway there after tasting little success in previous elections. Anil Antony, son of senior Kerala Congress leader A K Antony, a Christian, joined the BJP recently.
Ahead of the last assembly elections in Kerala in 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had met similarly with Catholic bishops as part of what was construed as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) efforts to reach out to the Christian community ahead of the assembly elections in Kerala. Modi met Cardinal Oswald Gracias of the Latin-rite Church, Mumbai, Cardinal George Alencherry, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, and Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Church — both Kerala — in his office in 2021.
In the same year, Pope Francis received at the Vatican, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the first-ever meeting between the two leaders. After holding talks with the Pope, Modi was received by Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher.
Keralites were not impressed with such meetings and the BJP did not win any seat in the state assembly elections.
On Easter Sunday this year, Modi visited the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Delhi, where he joined the Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi Archdiocese and the Christian community at a prayer service and planting a tree at the Cathedral premises.
After the visit, PM Modi tweeted, “Today, on the very special occasion of Easter, I had the opportunity to visit the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Delhi. I also met spiritual leaders from the Christian community.” The prime minister’s rare visit to the church is imbued with political significance as well, as the ruling BJP has been actively wooing Christians.
Two years later in 2023, buoyed by the BJP’s performance in polls in three Northeastern states including Christian-dominated Nagaland and Meghalaya last month, the Prime Minister had announced that the party-led alliance would form a government in Kerala too in the coming years.
“It is a matter of fact that incidents of violence against Christians have increased from little over 100 in 2014 to 600 by the end of 2022 according to UCF toll free helpline (No: 1800-208-4545) service. This year, 2023, has already witnessed 200 incidents in the first 100 days,” pointed out A C Michael, a former member of the Minority Commision, Delhi Government. “It is also another matter of fact that the Supreme Court of India since 1st September 2022 repeatedly has been asking for details of violence against Christians across India and the Modi government has already sought three extensions as they are unable to find incidents of forceful conversions which are the pretext to target Christians.” Michael disagreed with the claims of Rev Father Francis Swaminathan, the pastor of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Delhi, who claimed that the visit of the prime minister shows his support for minorities.
It may be too early to say if the BJP’s strategy will deliver electoral dividends. What has been apparent so far is that at least some of the Christian church leaders are either not averse to the BJP’s political ideology or to BJP continuing in power, ignoring the atrocities unleashed in many other parts of India by the BJP and its supporters.
But, will the visits and meetings by the Hindutva party leader win Christian votes in Kerala and in other parts of the country? Maybe not. As a Christian leader summarized: “Mercifully, Catholic Bishops have almost zero impact on non-Catholics. And among Catholics, among Latinos, it is much less than imagined by the PMO or even presumed by the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI).”