Mohan Bhagwat (center), chief of the hard-line Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, attends a congregation in Meerut on Feb. 25. The group accuses the Vatican of conspiring to convert India into a Christian country. (Photo by Sajjad Hussain/AFP)
As national elections approach, leaders of the Indian Church appear to be confused over their role, causing others to question the extent of their influence on vital issues affecting the faithful and the nation at large.
In-house critics feel that rather than looking forward, the church leadership is trying to play safe as the political landscape turns hostile ahead of a parliamentary election due in May 2019.
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads the national government that came to power in 2014, has been spinning a toxic, divisive narrative.
Some analysts see Prime Minister Narendra Modi's divisive style of politics as part of a wider strategy to deflect attention from a nagging government deficit and blunt opposition attacks.
Christians have long been on the radar of the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Hindu hard-line Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) group, which accuses the Vatican of conspiring to convert India into a Christian country.
This inflammatory claim is made despite Christians making up only 2.4 per cent of India's 1.3 billion population after a presence of 2,000 years.
The federal government has taken steps to restrict Christian activities and other curbs have been imposed by various state governments, many of them also dominated by the BJP.
These negative developments have occurred despite the Catholic Church in India making a significant social contribution by running more than 50,000 institutions, including schools, colleges, hospitals, healthcare centers, orphanages and homes for the elderly.
Anti-Christian symbolism is routinely invoked to create societal schisms for political ends. Sadly, the church has failed to effectively counter the right-wing propaganda that is bolstered by some sections of the media.
The church publishes thousands of community newsletters and journals but does not own a newspaper or television channel of national importance.
Last year, in an attempt to throttle church-sponsored NGOs, the government removed a tax exemption for donations made to social projects run by volunteer organizations including Caritas India, Compassion India and others.
One church official said that many registrations under the onerous Foreign Contribution Regulation Act were cancelled and this resulted in thousands of people losing their jobs, 90 percent of them Hindus.
The donations have been used for various social causes, the official added.
There are now also plans to take away the rights of tribal people to forest produce and land ownership in Jharkhand state. This is seen as an insidious way of targeting the state's large Christian population, who are mostly from tribal groups.
The Modi government also rejected a request from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) to invite Pope Francis to the country.
A delegation led by CBCI president Cardinal Oswald Gracias has drawn Modi's attention to a spurt in attacks on Christians and their institutions in different parts of India. However, critics say Modi has done little to stop the violence.
One Christian bureaucrat warned against a combative approach. "The church as an entity should not directly confront the Modi government as that will give BJP a handle to pit Hindus against Christians to win elections and further its hidden agenda of making India a Hindu nation," he said.
In hindsight, it appears that the practice of individual bishops writing pastoral letters, which have been construed as political in nature, is counter-productive.
The BJP kicked up a fuss early this year over a letter Delhi Archbishop Anil Couto wrote to parish priests asking them to start a year-long prayer campaign to save India from what he described as a "turbulent" political atmosphere.
Some militant Hindu groups and elements of the media accused him and the Vatican of trying to influence Catholics to vote against the Modi government and other nationalist politicians.
Last year, Archbishop Thomas Macwan of Gandhinagar issued a pastoral letter on the eve of a Gujarat state election urging parish priests to organize prayer sessions to help candidates who would "remain faithful" to the Indian constitution.
The BJP promptly exploited the letter to run an anti-Christian campaign. One wonders about the wisdom of such an epistle given that Christians account for only 0.52 per cent of Gujarat's 60 million people.
And yet the prime minister said in a speech during the Gujarat election campaign that he was shocked to see a religious person trying to influence Christians not to vote for nationalist forces, an apparent reference to his own BJP.
What is needed is a unified voice instead of individual bishops issuing their own missives.
One priest said the church should go beyond "minority-ism" and widen its social support base to include liberal, secular Hindus and others. He said this could form a social front comprised of people concerned about upholding plurality, democracy and diversity.
Three years ago, leading industrialist Sanjay Kirloskar went public saying that India needs to assert itself as a secular and tolerant nation. For good measure, he noted that a high proportion of foreign investors are Christians.
The church in India has in times past been able to influence policy decisions of various federal governments, a level of influence that appears to have waned.
It is not known whether the church has yet pressed other nations to put diplomatic pressure on the Indian government to rein in Hindu nationalist hotheads.
Kay Benedict is a senior journalist and political analyst based in New Delhi.