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India’s Hindu nationalists, tribal Christians make strange bedfellows

For first time, two Christians contest and win as candidates of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat elections
Supporters of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party hold placards portraying Indian prime minister Narendra Modi during a political rally ahead of Gujarat's assembly election at Naroda in Ahmedabad on Nov. 25, 2022

Supporters of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party hold placards portraying Indian prime minister Narendra Modi during a political rally ahead of Gujarat's assembly election at Naroda in Ahmedabad on Nov. 25, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Published: December 12, 2022 11:34 AM GMT
Updated: December 12, 2022 11:38 AM GMT

Two tribal Christians have emerged winners as official candidates of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home province of Gujarat hinting at a new, well-thought-out political strategy by India’s pro-Hindu ruling party.

The newly elected Christian legislators from the southern tribal belt, Mohan Konkani from Vyara and Ritesh Vasava from Jhagadia, not only won but proved giant killers who trounced veterans of the electoral game.

Chhotubhai Vasava, known as the "tribal strongman" of Gujarat, had won in Jhagadia a record seven times since 1990. It was a clever strategy by the BJP to pit his former protégé against him, achieving the nearly impossible feat with a comfortable winning margin of around 23,500 votes.

Similarly in Vyara, the BJP set up a Christian versus Christian contest by fielding Konkani against the opposition Congress’ four-term legislator Punabhai Gamit, who had been the lone Christian face in the Gujarat legislative assembly since 2004.

"Whether this hitherto unlikely and unnatural alliance will hold is anybody’s guess"

The apparent divide it caused in the tribal Christian vote along with a strong showing by another candidate from the new entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP or Common Man’s Party) ensured Gamit was relegated to the third position. Konkani won by a margin of some 22,750 votes.

The political message of the two victories is loud and clear — the BJP is willing to embrace the Christian community in Gujarat as a new political ally, unlike Muslims who remain politically untouchable.

For the state’s tribal Christians, it’s a welcome change from the heady days of the vicious attacks on their churches in the southern Dangs district in 1998.

Whether this hitherto unlikely and unnatural alliance will hold is anybody’s guess, but ahead of Christmas it's good news for Gujarat’s Christians who number just over 300,000 or 0.50 percent of the state’s 64 million people and now have two representatives in the 182-member legislative assembly.

In the case of Muslims, who make up nearly 10 percent of the population, it is bad news. Of the six candidates from the minority community fielded by the Congress, only one, Imran Khedawala, managed to win from Ahmedabad city. The previous polls held in 2017 had returned three Muslim legislators.

The highest number of 12 Muslim legislators was elected in 1985 at the peak of Congress’ electoral hegemony made possible by combing the votes of influential sections of Hindus, tribals and Muslims

The BJP did not field a single Muslim this time too and all three Muslim candidates fielded by the AAP lost and so did those fielded by the other parties.

The BJP’s change of heart toward the Christians has evoked a positive response from the voters in the community, say observers from the southern tribal belt.

Romel Sutharia, a young activist, says tribal people in general and the Christians amongst them in particular, are deserting the Congress in a big way and gravitating toward the BJP.

There are at least eight seats where tribal Christian voters dominate or are the deciding factor. But Congress never bothered to field more than one candidate that to someone like Gamit hasn’t even gotten past high school education.

"The overall positive vibe in favor of the BJP does not augur well for the Congress, which claims to be secular"

“Unlike the Congress, the BJP fielded a competent and educated candidate like Mohan Konkani who is a postgraduate,” Dipak Gamit, a Christian activist based in Vyara, told UCA News.

He said Punabhai Gamit had no leadership qualities, and no performance to speak of, yet Congress chose not to replace him.  

Even those who do not support the BJP like tribal activist Raj Vasava agreed that the newly elected Christian MLAs are more dynamic.

“Both of them are articulate and proactive and have the potential to emerge as the face and voice of the tiny Christian community,” he said.

The overall positive vibe in favor of the BJP does not augur well for the Congress, which claims to be secular but has so far only extended lip service to the cause of minorities.

The shift in the Christian vote along with the 15 percent overall tribal votes concentrated in the south and eastern belts of Gujarat ensured the BJP won a record 23 out of 27 seats, reserved for the scheduled tribe (ST).

But is this development in Gujarat an indication of a new India in the making as the BJP’s parental body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), prepares to celebrate its centenary in 2025?

Will Christians be accommodated in the new scheme of things as the RSS-BJP inch toward fulfilling their founding fathers’ dream of a Hindu Rastra (Hindu Nation)? It is difficult to say at the moment.

Konkani and Vasava, both in their forties, say the community is willing to bury bitter past memories and start afresh.

“No BJP functionary was involved in the anti-Christian attacks,” Konkani told UCA News while cleverly shying away from naming the Hindu Jagran Manch, its sister organization affiliated to the RSS, directly or indirectly.

Critics of the RSS often describe it as a hydra-headed monster with several tentacles, which was originally inspired by European fascists. The founders of RSS-BJP believe in ethnic nationalism as against the secular ethic of the Congress and have sought to militarize Hindus against minorities over the decades.

How the two Christian legislators will fit into the RSS-BJP’s scheme of things is anybody’s guess. For the moment they seem strange bedfellows.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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1 Comments on this Story
F M BRITTO
In Goa too many Catholics have joined the BJP. Just like the spineless Congress fellows have become BJP fellows. Their umbrellas will open when it rains.
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