Indian Christians struggle for political relevance

Election in small Kerala village may set the stage for greater church influence
Indian Christians struggle for political relevance

Catholics pray during Mass in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Recent village elections in the state saw the Communist Party support several church-backed candidates in an unusual but promising arrangement. (Photo by Raveendran/AFP)

For a long time, Indian Christian leaders depended on others for their political meal, without bothering to know the recipes. But theories of political cooking are fast changing in India, and they are hurriedly looking for some easy-to-learn recipes.

A new recipe was successfully tested in the cardamom-growing hills of southern Kerala in November, when village elections were conducted there. Nominees of the church-supported High Range Protection Council won Kattapana Municipality of Idukki district, bagging 14 of its 34 seats. The Communist Party also supported these church candidates. A political anathema.

In the 2014 national elections as well, the council's nominee won the seat with the support of leftist parties.

What occurred in this small village of Christians could have great lessons for their people across India in their attempt for political assertion. How communists came to support them, without the church asking for it, also should get the attention of church and political leaders.

Ever since Indian independence in 1947, Christians have been seen as supporters of the Indian National Congress, a party that led the freedom movement. For almost six decades, Christians and the Congress continued the honeymoon as the party ran the federal government and almost all the states.

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Kerala was always different. In the first election after the state was formed in 1956, communists came to power in 1957 and were billed as the world's first elected communist government. The socially powerful Catholic Church joined the Hindu Nair community and Congress Party in a struggle against communist policies, which ultimately brought the government down in 1959.

The events cemented the church's friendship with the Congress, and intensified the hostility of communists. However, in the sea-saw of politics that began to develop in Kerala, alliances of Congress and communists alternated power.

In the decades that followed, communists won power on their own in only two more states — West Bengal and Tripura. The church's support for Congress continued across India, wherever Christians were available to vote. That included in northeastern states, western pockets of Goa, Mumbai, Mangalore and the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

But the friendship did not help Christians other than helping the hierarchs hobnob with the rulers. Congress governments were the first to enact anti-conversion laws, and ignore more than six decades of Christian pleas to grant educational and economic benefits for dalit Christians, who are still denied benefits, because their religion does not accept caste principles.

In the past decade, the primacy of Congress began to be questioned across India as coalition governments began to take power. Several regional parties began to gain strength as they spoke for and stood firmly for the issues, emotions and aspirations of the regional populations. An era of coalition was emerging; a new kind of political meal was getting prepared. As always, Christians and their leadership paid no attention to the cooking. Church leaders played their traditional role of kneeling before ruling governments for the political meal.

 

Winds of change

Ever since India opened up markets in 1991, Indian politics began to see added assertions from neo-rich and mega corporations and business houses backing politicians and political parties. As globalization of the economy stressed the role of private players, the power of the state began to wither. Another new aspect was added to politics, and church leaders stood confused.

For so long, the basis of church leaders' political decisions was their institutions. They allowed nothing to hurt the interests of their high-ranking educational institutions and hospitals. They silently paid bribes, kept quiet about political corruption and struggled enormously not to offend their political bosses.

Church leaders supported political opportunists who used their political power to loot the country and people. Church leaders failed to react when corruption demeaned democracy and failed to provide a platform for the common man to raise his voice. Yes, their tastes in politics were traditional, and they had no idea of the new mix of ingredients making politics spicy.

They solely depended on Congress for almost everything. And, Congress couldn't care less about them, as people across India were getting sick and tired of Congress, and the party itself was struggling to exist. People were looking for alternatives.

The winds of change were fast and enormous. The Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, swept to power in 2013, shocking both Congress and Christian leaders. Of the 29 states, Congress and its alliances are in power in only nine, mostly in the smaller northeastern and southern states of Kerala and Karnataka. Most states and the federal government are under the BJP and have made clear statements against Christian missionary works, suggesting policies and programs that will make the freedom to practice Christianity difficult.

Congress is on life support; the BJP will not entertain church leaders. From where will their political meal come? Who will protect their interests?

But what happened in Idukki in November could be a beacon of hope. The first point to note is that the success was not sudden. It was the result of the church leadership taking up the cause of poor people and standing together with them for their rights, when political parties failed to keep promises.

In the 2014 national election, the communists, sensing the popularity of the independent candidate, played intelligently, supporting the council's candidate who they championed as the people’s candidate. The people won, their cause won. The same recipe was repeated in local elections.

The church needs unusual strategies to tide over challenging situations. But a sure strategy is to be with people and their issues. They should follow the leadership of Pope Francis in letter and spirit. They should show openness, moral courage and transparency in dealing with situations that demand their leadership.

It's time the church took a proactive role in addressing the issues that burn people. Inflation, corruption, corporate exploitation of poor people, lack of toilets and drinking water — issues that affect the lives of the voters.

It is a rare chance for the church to come to the mainstream of India and become relevant. Will it ever become that? We need to wait.

Jeemon Jacob is an award-winning journalist and former Reuters Fellow based in Thiruvananthapuram.

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