In India, elections are the best time for the poor and religious minorities such as Christians. They are very much in demand and treated with dignity by all political parties. Every political leader who dreams of a big victory makes an all-out attempt to woo them with tempting offers.
Poor people are wanted because they constitute more than 70 percent of voters in India. Religious minorities have become the target of political appeasement because their votes can decide the winner. After all, India has some 150 million Muslims and 25 million Christians spread across the nation, constituting a deciding voting pocket, at least in some areas.
One such area is Kerala state in southern India, where the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has never previously won a seat in parliament.
Last week saw the party stepping up moves to woo Christians to win at least one of the state’s 29 parliamentary seats in the 2014 national elections. Christians, who comprise some 7 million of Kerala's 33 million people, are certainly prime poaching material.
The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was in Kerala last week to seek ways of winning over Christians. For him, this would be killing two birds with one stone: nationally, it helps him remove his tag as a minority baiter, and in the state it gives ammunition for direct political victory.
His poll managers are working overtime to convince certain sections of the Christian community that the BJP is ready to protect Christian interests. They try to project Modi as a man who brought all-around development in Gujarat, where he is chief minister.
BJP leaders want Christians to forget the Hindu massacre of Christians in Kandhamal in Orissa and the pogrom against Muslims during the Gujarat riots. Both Christians and Muslims are encouraged to forget the past and look ahead. The party assures that minority communities can flourish under Modi's rule, since he will be focusing on the development of the whole of India.
According to BJP insiders, the party has tactical understanding with the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, a Kerala-based rite that has some 1 million followers across the world. The Church’s senior Metropolitan Philipose Mar Chrysostom shared the platform with Modi when he attended the birthday celebration last week of Mata Amritananandamai, the hugging Hindu god-woman, who has a global following.
Media reports said the BJP leadership contacted Bishop Mathew Arackal of Kanjirapally for "a secret meeting" with Modi while he was in Kerala. But a diocesan official has denied the report and told ucanews.com that the story was "planted."
It’s a fact that the bishop was nominated as a member of the Planning Commission of India, the highest planning body in the country, when the BJP-led coalition government was in power in New Delhi a decade ago.
“It recognized his innovative work in the field of social work. It was not a political appointment," a close aid of Bishop Arackal commented.
BJP leaders in Kerala feel they can be brought closer to Catholics in Kerala through Bishop Arackal.
“We are working out a strategy to win over friendly communities and people in the state. We wanted to win at least one seat in Kerala where we could never win", a senior state BJP leader said.
He said they couldn't expect all Hindus to vote for them. Although most in the state, some 56.2 percent of the state's population, or 19 million people, are Hindus, they are staunch supporters of other parties such as Congress or the communists.
Few people vote for the BJP as was evident in the last state elections when the party polled only 6.4 percent of votes. Christians traditionally vote for the Congress Party.
BJP desperately needs to befriend Christians in Kerala to create a swing in election loyalties.
“Winning over Christians is important for the BJP, as it helps us to minimize the chances of Congress in the state. Modi’s presence and credentials as a model of good governance helps us to win Christian leaders,” another BJP leader has said.
According to party insiders, the BJP has already made contacts with Protestant groups including multi-billionaire evangelist and self-designated Archbishop KP Yohannan, who wanted a smooth relationship with the party in power.
The BJP, like any other political party in India, firmly believes there are no permanent enemies in politics. It only wants its party symbol, the lotus, to bloom well in Kerala. They would only be too happy to see the lotus on the Cross in Kerala. Maybe the new friends of the BJP believe that they have nothing to lose, but will only gain if the BJP comes to power.
Jeemon Jacob is an award-winning journalist and former Reuters Fellow based in Thiruvananthapuram