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Indian politics create strange bedfellows

Communists seek alliance with Catholic Church in Kerala
Indian politics  create strange bedfellows

Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) graffiti on a wall in Kerala. File picture: Shutterstock

Published: January 22, 2014 06:31 AM GMT
Updated: January 21, 2014 07:41 PM GMT

With national elections a few months away, one of India’s Communist parties has begun courting the vote of its traditional foe, the Catholic Church.

Leaders of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) say they have grown closer to the Church because of Pope Francis, whose statements on the poor and marginalized have galvanized people across the globe. But political analysts say the only hope for the party to gain more seats in India’s southern state of Kerala is by capturing the Catholic vote.

“We find Pope Francis very close to our ideology. He is pro-poor and leads a simple life. He has a revolutionary mind and is an idealist. His interviews tell his vision,” M.A. Baby, the party’s politburo member told ucanews.com.

The communists’ admiration for the pope comes as national elections are due by mid-year. Of Kerala’s 20 seats in parliament’s lower house, the CPI-M holds only four. The communists believe they can increase that number with Catholic support.

With only 400,000 party members among Kerala’s 30 million people, support from the state’s seven million Catholics could prove decisive in national elections this summer and state elections in 2016, political observers say.

The party began courting Catholics a few months ago, when it announced its public support of the Church’s opposition to a government environmental plan in Kerala’s Western Ghats region which could result in the displacement of some 800,000 people.

Until then, the Communists had never made an open political statement in support of the Church, an organization once considered the party's arch enemy for organizing massive streets protests that toppled the first Communist government in 1959.

The party’s state secretary and Politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan visited Bishop Remijius Inchananiyil of Thamarassery in December, offering his support in the Church’s Western Ghats campaign.

This stands in sharp contrast to Vijayan’s relationship with the diocese’s former head, Bishop Paul Chittilappally, whom he denounced as "a despicable beast" in 2007.

"My visit was not political. It was only to offer support for the ongoing agitation. The Church is leading an agitation for the people of Kerala. We are also concerned about it," Vijayan told ucanews.com.

Bishop Inchananiyil also said the Communist leader’s visit was a friendly gesture offering support. But political observers see much more than a gesture.

"Only fools will believe their version. The CPI-M wants to win as many seats as possible in Kerala and they know very well that it will be easy if they win Church support," said A. Jayashankar, a political commentator.

Jayashankar said the Communists are trying to woo Christian and Muslim minorities in upcoming parliamentary elections. In the 2009 national elections, the Communists could win only four of the state's 20 seats. When religious minorities supported them in 2004 they won 19, he noted.

The party has also started organizing special conventions for Muslims in various part of Kerala.

“The next election is very crucial to all. We want to get the maximum number of seats from Kerala. It’s only possible if minorities support us,” said a senior Communist leader who requested to remain anonymous.

“Catholics are our target as a large section of the community is against the Congress (Party) on various issues. We are trying to use that opportunity to our advantage,” the leader said.

But one political commentator said the Church would also benefit from a Communist coalition, in order to defeat Hindu radical groups like the Bharatiya Janata Party, with its track record of stoking sectarianism and anti-minority religion sentiment.

“They [the Church] are taking a chance by betting on the Communists after fighting them for so long. Political creepers can grow only in the mutually supportive environment,” commented George Mathew, a social scientist.

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