A Look at the Indian Elections: Church on the Edge

Catholic leaders are wary of the consequences of a possible victory by the coalition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Narendra Modi, chief minister of India's Gujarat state and one of the leaders of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in the current national election campaign.
Narendra Modi, chief minister of India's Gujarat state and one of the leaders of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in the current national election campaign. (photo: narendramodi.in)

NEW DELHI — The tiny Christian community in India is receiving major media attention during the month-long election season, after the head of the Jesuit-run St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai encouraged the student body to support political parties that stand for inclusive economic growth.

In an email to the students, which called for support of parties that support “inclusive development,” principal Jesuit Father Frazer Mascarenhas also cautioned the students against supporting the “Gujarat model of development” — in apparent reference to the stance of Narendra Modi, one of the leaders of the Hindu nationalist and socially conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian Peoples’ Party).

Two major coalitions, the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the Congress Party that has ruled the nation for two terms, and the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, are major players in the electoral arena.

Apart from these two alliances, two dozen regional parties make the competition more strenuous for each of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (House of People), the lower house of the Indian Parliament, which will decide who will rule India for the next five years.

Modi, chief minister of the western Gujarat state for 13 years, has been the poster boy for the Hindu nationalists in the polls to choose India’s 14th parliament.

But as the election drew closer, national media outlets started highlighting faults in Modi’s Gujarat model of development. Several national magazines and dailies have carried cover stories questioning Modi’s neglect of social development and the poor in favor of advancing major industrial interests, in the pursuit of economic progress.

The Indian Express English daily newspaper, in an April 3 article entitled “Gujarat’s growth for growth’s sake,” pointed out the contradiction in Gujarat’s economic growth. “The state is high on growth, low on development,” according to the newspaper, which cited low rates of state improvement in alleviation of poverty, malnutrition and farmer’s health.

The article noted that while Gujarat has undeniably outperformed the national rate of economic growth in recent years, this has not translated into commensurate improvements in indices that measure social development. In areas such as the reduction of poverty and the rate of female literacy, for example the state ranked only 14th and 15th, respectively, among India’s 28 states over the 2001-2011 period.

And despite its robust economic growth over the decade, the state showed little or no improvement in key areas such as education, health, and the level of household amenities.


Father Mascarenhas Criticized

However, when Father Mascarenhas pointed out this anomaly in the Modi model of development, Modi’s student supporters promptly denounced the principal’s advisory on social media, followed by the BJP national leadership demanding action against Father Mascarenhas.

But while BJP spokeswoman Nirmala Sitaraman criticized the Jesuit principal for the “biased” message on the eve of the polls opening on April 24, there were supporters of the priest’s action.

“Kudos to Father Frazer, principal of my alma mater, St. Xavier’s College,” said Joseph Dias, founder and director of the Catholic Secular Forum, in a press statement. “He has been forthright — naming none, sparing none and urging students to make an informed choice while voting.”

“This election is very crucial to the future of the nation, and Father Frazer has shown the guts to speak out to the students who will be voting for the first time. We stand by him,” Dias told the Register April 25 from his organization’s headquarters in Mumbai.

John Dayal, an outspoken Catholic activist, told the Register that the Christian community is very worried by the “stranglehold” the Hindu nationalist groups have over the BJP.

“If the [Hindu] fundamentalists come to power, they will have a free hand and will surely interfere in governance, policy planning and programs. This is dangerous for democracy,” cautioned Dayal, a member of the federal National Integration Council, chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“This calls for long-term strategic planning and advocacy by the Christian community,” Dayal cautioned.

It is estimated that 814 million voters are eligible to vote. Of that number, 28 million are Christian, and more than two-thirds of that number are Catholic.


Guidelines and Prayers

The fear and concern of the Christian community is writ large in the voter guidelines and statements the Churches have made in the run-up to the elections.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) held its biennial general assembly in February, which drew 189 prelates. Out of that meeting, the bishops issued voter guidelines for the upcoming elections. And, on the eve of the elections, on April 6, the CBCI called for special prayers and Holy Hours in churches across the nation for the success of the elections.

The Indian bishops’ call for the day of prayer, noted the guidelines, is “for divine assistance for all the citizens of India, so that we may elect the best persons … uphold the democratic and secular character of our great nation and selflessly work for the peace and prosperity of all the people of India.”

“There is a strong fear among the minorities about the prospects of the BJP-led government,” acknowledged Dias. Several opinion polls and poll forecasts have projected the BJP-led NDA coalition to win or come close to a majority from the polls.

Apart from that, Dias noted, “secular-minded and peace-loving people are wary of Modi for his role in the Gujarat carnage,” referring to the mob violence of 2002, in which more than 1,200 Muslims in the western Indian state were killed following the torching of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. The perceived corruption and inaction of the police under Modi’s command and his persistent refusal to express regret for the carnage have made Modi the target of criticism from minority groups, including Christians.

Aware of the Christian antipathy, the BJP has sought to dialogue with the Christians, although party officials were unable to arrange a meeting between Modi and Church leaders when the CBCI had its general assembly in Kerala in February.

But the BJP has been successful in getting the support of a handful of Christians, like India-born, U.S.-based evangelist K.A. Paul, who has been addressing BJP rallies. However, the evangelist has reiterated that he does not agree with BJP policies 100%.


Scholarly Concerns

Meanwhile, the concerns expressed by the Church and Christian activists were endorsed in an open letter written by prominent Indian academics in Britain’s top universities, like the London School of Economics, Cambridge and Oxford, opposing Modi. 

“The idea of Modi in power fills us with dread,” said the letter, released on April 22, by more than 70 Indian intellectuals. They warned that a Modi victory would “likely mean greater moral policing, especially of women, increased censorship and vigilantism and more tensions with India’s neighbors.” 

For his part, Dias suggested that the Modi hype is a “media creation built on money power,” and he expressed optimism that the Hindu nationalists’ campaign would fall flat as in 2004, when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance lost to the Indian National Congress.

Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.