Updated: March 20, 2019 10:56 AM GMT
Members of the Janata Dal Party campaign ahead of the 2019 parliamentary elections in Patna, the capital of East India's Bihar state, on March 13. (Photo by IANS)
Christian leaders and activists are rooting for minority groups, whose rights have long been overlooked in India, as the country prepares for six weeks of polls in the world's biggest democracy.
"The coming elections are going to be very important for the country's overall future, and especially for minority groups," said Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, a spokesperson for Indian bishops.
"Every time elections are held in a democratic set-up, the marginalized and unrepresented class gets a chance to make its voice heard. That's why this is such a decisive time," he told ucanews.com.
The elections, divided into seven phases, will run from April 11 to May 19. Some 900 million eligible voters will elect 543 members of parliament.
The Election Commission announced the detailed schedule on March 10, as the five-year term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government will officially end on May 26.
While Modi and his pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are seeking a second term, the rival Indian National Congress party has vowed to oust him.
It has projected his government as being inefficient and unsympathetic to the interests of religious minorities and the poor.
Others say the party promotes a culture of violence that could mar the elections.
The votes will be counted on May 23, and whoever leads the party with the most seats will head the next government.
Five years ago, Modi's BJP won an unexpected 282 of 543 MP seats, riding on a plank of pro-Hindu hysteria, which also entailed hate speeches against religious minorities like Muslims and Christians.
Bishop Mascarenhas said the parties and candidates "must ensure hate doesn't get any space."
"We expect that whoever comes to power will ensure the protection of all citizens, irrespective of their cast, creed or religion," he said.
International rights groups have accused the government of failing to act against Hindu radicals, who took the BJP's victory as a mandate for their efforts to make India a Hindu nation while stepping up their campaigns of violence against other religions.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said minority groups are harassed, threatened and intimated by the bullying tactics of the BJP.
The government has also been blamed for plunging India into chaos by withdrawing 80 percent of the country's currency in one fell swoop, failing to address the mounting agrarian crisis, and allowing unemployment to soar.
Christian leader A.C. Michael told ucanews.com the elections are going to provide his group with an important platform as the authorities have severely curbed efforts to promote their faith in eight of the nation's 29 states.
He was referring to laws that restrict religious conversions in Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand.
Michael said if the BJP wins a second term they are expected to press ahead with their calls for a legally enforced national ban.
"The party's members increasingly defer to communal rhetoric, which has spurred a violent campaign of vigilantism against the consumption of beef," he said.
Pundits say the party will try to placate orthodox Hindus, who consider the cow a revered animal, by banning beef from being eaten nationwide if it is re-elected.
Such policies run contrary to constitutional guarantees permitting people to profess, practice, and propagate their religion.
But BJP leaders have hinted they will amend the secular character of the charter if they win a super majority, or at least one third of the vote, which would enable them to redraft parts of the constitution.
"That's why this election is so crucial, not just for Christians, but for people of all faiths who want to see democracy thrive," Michael said.
Attempts at suppression will "result in social tension, violence and chaos," he added.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a global organization that works to defend Christian rights globally, said in a report there were 219 incidents of targeted violence against Christians across India from January to October 2018.
"Of those, 192 were mob attacks in the form of threats and intimidation. Women and children were the most affected, with 160 women and 139 children reportedly injured," it said.
Christian leader Joseph Dias believes the BJP and other pro-Hindu parties aim to galvanize Hindu voters by stoking religious passions.
"Some are engaging in door-to-door campaigns seeking votes in the name of Hindu supremacy. This is a major challenge to India's secular character," Dias said, adding that most Indians reject fanaticism.
Hindus comprise 960 million or 80 percent of the population.
"Saner minds, not just Christians and Muslims, will vote for harmony and inclusiveness," he said.
The nation's 28 million Christians, who make up 2.3 percent of its 1.2-billion population, are barely represented in politics. They wield some influence in pockets of southern and northeastern India.
"There is no Christian-centric party in India," Joseph told ucanews.com. "But Christians have always put their trust in the country in light of its formerly tolerant attitude toward other religions."
Catholic bishops recently urged the authorities to change the April 18 date for the MP elections in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states as Maundy Thursday falls on that day, meaning many Catholics would be prevented from attending Holy Week services.
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