Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the launch of a Covid-19 vaccination drive via video conferencing in New Delhi on Jan. 16. (Photo: Indian Press Information Bureau/AFP)
New Delhi witnessed vintage politics when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met three Indian cardinals this week, but it went off more as a photo opportunity without any debated content.
For Modi and his pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Jan. 19 meeting was a sure piece of material to woo Christians in some key states where elections are due this summer.
At face value, Modi inviting and having an exclusive meeting with India's most senior Catholic leaders — Cardinal Oswald Gracias of the Latin-rite Church, Cardinal George Alencherry, major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, and Cardinal Baselios Cleemis of the Syro-Malankara Church — denotes Modi and the BJP re-establishing strong links with Christians.
The BJP and Modi have been facing criticism for ignoring Christian interests amid reports of increased anti-Christian violence and harassment from Hindu fanatic elements, particularly in northern India.
The meeting’s timing can easily link it to the fast-approaching state elections in the southern state of Kerala, where Christians are important stakeholders.
Numerically, Christians form some 18 percent of the state’s 33 million people. But in several constituencies, they are strong enough to turn the tables in favor of the BJP, which currently has only one seat in the 140-seat legislative house.
Hindus in Kerala, who form 55 percent of the state's population, have mostly voted for either left-wing parties or the BJP's national rival Congress. In the highly secularized state, the BJP hardly had any base until five years ago.
Kerala's political landscape began to change after Modi came to power in New Delhi in 2014, and particularly after his re-election in 2019. Emboldened by the BJP victory at national level and in several states, the party's state unit has been trying to befriend Christians.
In the last decade, the BJP has succeeded in winning sympathizers, politically and emotionally, among Kerala Hindus. With the backing of Christians, the BJP leadership hopes to gain politically.
Politics, of course, is the art of the possible. The dice's throw, such as the cardinals' meeting, can often have consequences that are not easily visible. But master electoral strategists such as Modi can see what the cardinals cannot see.
The ruling BJP's chief electoral planners, Modi himself and his trusted lieutenant Amit Shah, the combative federal home minister, know well that the meeting with the cardinals can send a strong positive message to Kerala Christians.
The ruling dispensation in Kerala, led by the communists, depends on Hindu and Christian votes. The rivals are the Congress party and its partner Indian Union of Muslim League, a Muslim party.
Modi's BJP does not have much organizational presence in Kerala. Modi has been one of the most ambitious prime ministers of modern India, and his stint in New Delhi had seen a massive expansion of the BJP. The party has managed to marginalize opponents and wrest power in several states, including Christian-majority Nagaland and Meghalaya.
The cardinals reportedly discussed several issues at the meeting with Modi. But one of them will certainly stand out during election time in Kerala. The cardinals sought equitable distribution of social welfare funds meant for religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims, complaining that Muslims take away the lion's share.
The BJP, which looks to pitch Hindus and Christians against Muslims in Kerala, has a tool here. Between 2001 and 2011, Muslims increased from 24.7 percent to 26.5 percent of the state’s population, while Christians declined from 19 percent to 18.3 percent and Hindus from 56.2 percent to 54.7 percent.
It is important to note that the meeting with the cardinals happened at the initiative of S. Sreedharan Pillai, a Kerala BJP leader and current governor of Christian-dominated Mizoram state.
The BJP is clearly trying to woo Christians in Kerala amid criticism of the party unleashing a highly polarizing mission to establish a Hindu-only nation.
During election campaigns, the BJP softens its belligerent stand on religious conversion or cow slaughter with a keen eye not to offend Christians and Muslims. And many fall for it.
"One can call such Christians and Muslims political Hindus. They are useful during elections, and in the past Christians have embraced the BJP in states like Nagaland and Mizoram. Overall, they fit in with Modi's definition of a Hindu nation," says a Mizo Christian politician on condition of anonymity.
"In a narrow perspective, the Hindu nation concept is a highly personalized one in which Modi becomes a cult and a macho leader who pledges a strong and richer India."
Modi has befriended Christian leaders in the past, sometimes bringing electoral dividends. The BJP runs a coalition government in Nagaland, where native Naga Christian leader Y. Patton is the state’s deputy chief minister.
In Mizoram, too, on the eve of 2018 assembly polls, several Christian leaders, including former pastors, joined the BJP.
In Kerala, Modi made Catholic former bureaucrat K.J. Alphons a minister in 2017. Of course, in 2019, after he started a second term as prime minister, his mega 58-member Council of Ministers did not find a berth for any Christian leader.
It is now given that Kerala BJP leaders are going gaga over Modi's latest meeting with the cardinals. They project the meeting as proving Modi's keen interest in addressing the issues of the Christian community.
In 2015, a year after the prime minister took charge, Modi was strongly criticized for not speaking out against the Delhi attacks on churches or the “reconversions” of Christians to Hinduism.
It is also not much discussed that in 2017 Pope Francis had expressed interest in visiting India but the visit did not materialize as the BJP-led government chose not to invite him.
Generally, the BJP's election strategies have yielded dividends, notwithstanding the growing perception that the party has been against Christian and Muslim interests.
Modi and his party have brought methods and effective planning in drawing up election strategies. Wooing Christians is perhaps one of such many strategies. The cardinals’ meeting with Modi should be seen from this perspective. However, there is no reason to lambast the cardinals or accuse them of helping a political game.
If the BJP and Modi himself were working on a plan, the cardinals were in a difficult position. Could they have said no to an invitation from the prime minister? What purpose would it have served?
It is almost impossible to block Modi’s strategies.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.