ON GOOD FRIDAY, which fell on April 7 this year, Kerala BJP vice president A.N. Radhakrishnan embarked on a pilgrimage to the Malayattoor Kurishumudy, a Christian pilgrimage centre in Ernakulam district, situated atop a hill. The pilgrimage involves a gruelling 3km trek with 14 halts marking the ‘way of the cross’. Radhakrishnan’s expedition, however, did not even reach the first halt.
Despite the setback, the BJP appears undaunted in its mission to woo the Christian community in Kerala. On Easter day, prominent BJP leaders made much-publicised visits to various bishop’s houses in Kerala, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Delhi. Three days before Easter, Anil K. Antony, son of former defence minister and veteran Congress leader A.K. Antony, joined the BJP. The BJP knows that Anil does not enjoy much clout, but his entry was used to convey the message that the BJP welcomes Christians, who form around 18 per cent of Kerala’s population.
“The LDF (Left Democratic Front) and the UDF (United Democratic Front) are wooing religious minorities in Kerala by spreading misinformation and creating fear about the BJP and the sangh parivar. Our aim is to clear such fears,” said M.T. Ramesh, BJP state general secretary. The BJP’s Easter outreach was largely focused on the Syro-Malabar church, the biggest Christian group in the state, with around 24 lakh members. Not just the BJP, even other members of the sangh parivar are now actively wooing the minorities. “In the last four or five months, I have spoken to many bishops and Islamic scholars. Our idea is that we should reach out to everyone and that there should be a consensus,” said Viji Thampy, state president of the Vishva Hindu Parishad. “But we have always resisted extremism and forced religious conversions.”
On Easter day, BJP leaders met Archbishop Thomas J. Netto, head of the Thiruvananthapuram archdiocese of the Latin Catholic church, which has significant influence in the coastal belt. The church was at the forefront of the recent fishermen’s protest against the Adani port in Vizhinjam. “The visuals of the bishop welcoming [Union Minister] V. Muraleedharan did stoke much discussion among the coastal community,” said Sindhu Napoleon, a researcher at IIT Madras who hails from a village near the port. “The saffron party has never been able to make an impact here. So, we all know why the BJP is showing this sudden love for Christians…. The Vizhinjam protests were directed not only against the Adani group. We also asked the Union government to withdraw from the project.”
The CPI(M) and the Congress called the BJP’s Easter moves a drama. But what is promising for the BJP is that several bishops, especially those from the Catholic church, are responding positively to the outreach efforts. In March, Thalassery archbishop Joseph Pamplany said that if the Union government raised rubber procurement price to 0300 a kilo, the BJP might be able to open its account in Kerala in the upcoming general elections. As his comment triggered a furore, his fellow prelate, Remigiose Inchananiyil of Thamarassery, said he would support any party addressing the issues of farmers. BJP state president K. Surendran visited Inchananiyil on Easter day. The bishop, however, said it was just a casual visit.
Political observers said the growing Christian-Muslim friction in Kerala was one of the reasons behind the Christians shedding their traditional aversion towards the BJP. The paranoia about the dwindling Christian population―primarily because of migration to the west and slumping birth rates―also adds to the crisis. There are rumours about the formation of a new political party to ensure adequate representation to Christians. A former Congress legislator, George J. Mathew, is the main figure behind the move. Mathew, however, said the new party had nothing to do with the BJP.
Sources said church leaders were in favour of a close relationship with the BJP, as they felt it was crucial for the community’s existence and interests. Several churches in Kerala face cases related to land and assets. There is also the issue of strict control from the Union government over the activities of church-run organisations, especially with the amendments made to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act.
Most political observers agree that the Catholic church―which traditionally backs the Congress and the UDF―is disillusioned with the way things are progressing within India’s grand old party. This became apparent in a recent interview given by Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar church. When asked about the reasons behind Christians moving away from Congress, he said: “It happened because of their own doings… and their wrong policies. People started thinking, why not vote for someone else?”
Alencherry also said that Christians did not feel insecure in today’s India. But the statement did not go down well with many from the Christian community itself. “When churches were attacked across the country, the BJP did not condemn that. It led to the suspicion that the party silently backed those attacks,” said Baselios Marthoma Mathews III, head of the Malankara Orthodox Church.
Alencherry’s statements came as a shock to Kerala missionaries working outside the state, too. Augustine Aprem Alencherry, a missionary who hails from the same family as the cardinal, said he had warned church authorities that the BJP would first use Christians to sideline Muslims, and later turn against them. “In many places in north India and even in Karnataka, churches and houses [of Christians] are being attacked,” said Aprem, who serves as principal of a school in Champa in Maharashtra’s Nagpur district. “Here in Hasansur near Champa, a church was destroyed. Just a fortnight ago, I was threatened by the Bajrang Dal. Things have become so worse recently.”
Paul Thelakkatt, a senior priest and former spokesperson for the Syro-Malabar church, said Alenchery was right in saying that Christians votes were not given to any party as a vote bank. “There is no harm in saying that Modi is a good person or that he has great administrative acumen. However, I don’t know why the cardinal said that all Christians were happy and did not face any issues. It is not factually correct.”