NEW DELHI — Caution has become the watchword among Christians and secular groups in India in the wake of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party’s victory in the country’s 17th national election.
When the votes for the protracted election were counted May 23, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) improved its majority — winning 303 seats along with BJP allies securing another 46 seats in the 542-member Indian Parliament, the “Lok Sabha” (People’s House).
Although the Hindu nationalist party’s resounding victory raised apprehensions among minority Christians and secular-minded citizens, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Mumbai, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and key adviser to Pope Francis, remained optimistic.
“We pray that everything goes well. We are encouraged by what the prime minister has assured,” Cardinal Gracias told the Register May 24.
Part of that assurance comes from Modi’s emphasis during his victory speech on maintaining the rule of law in India, as the first principle of governance.
“Whatever happened during the election is behind me. We have to move forward; we have to take everyone along for the good of the country. We must remember the Constitution is supreme,” Modi told euphoric BJP workers who had thronged the party office on the evening of May 23 following its victory.
“When the government assures us that it will uphold the Constitution, we have reasons to be relieved,” said Cardinal Gracias.
However, outspoken Indian Catholic leader and human rights activist John Dayal said the return of the Modi regime resonates with “the global shift to extreme right-wing leaders” and calls for caution “in the complex demography of India.”
While nearly 80% of India’s 1.3 billion people are Hindus, the remaining 20% include Muslims (14%), Christians (2.3%), Sikhs (1.7%) and 2% of other faiths, including Buddhists, Jains and Zoroastrians.
Both Christianity and Islam, branded as foreign religions by Hindu nationalists because of their Semitic roots, have been targeted victims of steadily worsening violence at the hands of belligerent Hindu nationalist groups. This violence has coincided with the BJP’s increased political power around the country. The latest election has allowed BJP to widen its footprints beyond central and northern India.
The Saffron Surge
In as many as 226 seats, the BJP garnered more than 50% of the votes cast. This victory soundly defeated secular opposition parties and reflected an effective election campaign focused on a Hindu nationalist agenda.
The Saffron surge (as India’s nationalist movement has been coined) made further inroads except in the country’s southern peninsula and eastern fringe.
The latest victories fuel the fear that religious minorities and secular groups have experienced since the Modi regime took power in 2014.
The secular media in the country have also expressed their concerns about Modi’s re-election. As the 2019 election drew to a close, Time magazine’s cover story, published two weeks before the election, portrayed Modi as “India’s Divider in Chief.”
And despite strong BJP rebuttals and friendly Indian media, one of India’s leading secular English dailies, The Hindu, affirmed this concern. The editorial, “For a rediscovery of India: on Modi's return to power,” urged Modi to add a third tenet —“the trust of all” — to his “with all” development for all” catchphrase, to make his political sloganeering more meaningful.
“These tenets must be felt in the daily lives of the marginalized sections of the population, and The Hindu hopes that Mr. Modi’s second term will be more inclusive than the first, which was marred by arrogant pride and hateful prejudice,” the editorial stated.
Concerns In Kerala
Meanwhile, three southern states in the country — Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh — rejected the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda. Modi’s party could not win a single Parliamentary seat of the 81 at stake in these three states.
Even the non-Hindus from the south who allied themselves with Modi made a poor showing in the election. Alphons Kannanthanam is a Catholic politician who had been inducted into the Modi cabinet in 2017 as its Christian face, following a series of attacks on Christians after Modi assumed office in 2014. As the BJP candidate in the Ernakulam precinct of Kerala, Kannanthanam was able to register only one-third of the nearly half a million votes that sent the winning Catholic candidate, Hibi Eden, to Parliament.
Kerala is the Indian state with the highest percentage of Christians, who comprise 19% of the total population there.
“We hope the new government will ensure the progress and welfare of all sections of the people,” the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council said in a May 24 press statement, echoing Cardinal Gracias’ concerns.
A.C. Michael, a former Catholic member of the Minorities Commission of Delhi state, similarly commented: “As law abiding citizens, we are obliged to respect the mandate and extend full support to the elected government. I hope, now that (BJP) has got a thumping majority it will not falter as it did in the last five years.”
But Michael takes a less-than-hopeful view of this second Modi regime, especially in regard to its relationship with India’s Christians.
“I do not think there will be much difference in their approach toward minorities,” Michael said. “Christians will continue to be viewed as master proselytizers [seeking to convert Hindus in the country], despite census figures [for religious affiliation] remaining stagnant since [India’s] independence.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.