Why did Pope Francis drop India for Myanmar?

Inviting the pope will not gel with the pro-Hindu government and their nationalist supporters
Why did Pope Francis drop India for Myanmar?

Pope Francis touches the head of a child as people gather to watch him leave after Mass and the canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican, on Sept. 4, 2016. (Photo by AFP) 

As Pope Francis flew home from Azerbaijan in Eurasia last October, he spoke off the cuff with journalists about his travel plans.

He was then "almost sure" of visiting both Bangladesh and India in 2017.

However, Pope Francis will not visit India this year. 

And, almost certainly, he will not travel to India in the next two years because of political considerations of the Indian government, run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The "almost sure" reference by Pope Francis showed his keenness to visit India and suggested there were positive signals of an invitation coming from the Indian government. 

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He waited and the Indian church waited.

But when in August this year the Vatican announced a November-December papal visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, it was clear that Pope Francis' first South Asia trip would not include India.

This is despite India being the world's second most populous nation and home to 25 million Christians — 19 million of them Catholics.

The itinerary change made it abundantly clear that New Delhi did not invite him.

A senior church official confirmed this, but said no purpose would be served by making  "any official statement" on the issue.

Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014, ten months after Francis was elected pope, church officials, ultimately in vain, have discussed with Indian government representatives the prospects for a papal visit.

Political factors were no doubt a major consideration.

For example, elections for state legislatures in India come at different times depending on the completion of electoral terms.

Some key states went to the polls in 2015, 2016 and 2017 and Modi being seen shaking hands with the pope just before people cast their votes could have damaged the BJP's electoral fortunes.

And all-important national elections are due in April 2019.

Inviting the global Catholic leader to India during these times would, of course, not gel with BJP Hindu hardliners.

On the contrary, it would provide opposition forces with scope to brand Modi as mendacious when it comes to rallying behind the Hindu majority.

Modi's BJP came to political prominence some 25 years ago through ultra right-wing Hindu propaganda.

This in effect relegated India's Christians and Muslims to the status of 'aliens' in the Hindu-majority nation of 1.3 billion people.

It was the same propaganda, including occasional hate speeches and violence, that fueled the BJP's landslide election win in 2014.

Modi's election hoopla included discrediting the rival Congress Party by portraying its president Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, as an agent of the Vatican working to execute "a papal conspiracy" to convert Hindus.

Modi's party now rules 18 of India's 29 states.

He would not want to upset the apple cart by sanctioning a Pope Francis visit ahead of the 2019 national elections.

To do so could be seen as a prelude to backing down on Hindu nationalist demands for an end to Christian mission work and religious conversions.

And there could be negative publicity if a papal visit were to include criticism on the restricting in India of religious freedoms.

Considering that some 30 percent of Indians are illiterate, mostly in villages, Hindu sentimentalist propaganda can help ensure election victories. 

Moreover, matters of vital importance to the BJP cannot be decided without a nod from the party's engine room, the long-established Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that promotes Hindu supremacy.

Modi, a former RSS volunteer, cannot function politically without its grassroots network.

The RSS and its affiliates have consistently, and sometimes violently, opposed Catholic mission work, particularly among indigenous and socially poor Dalit people, formerly known as untouchables.

The RSS sees the pope as the remote operator of a conversion machine, which they want to dismantle to advance their goal of a theocratic Hindu state.

Nonetheless, the last papal visit of Indian happened during the previous BJP government. In 1999, when now Saint John Paul II came to New Delhi as pope to launch the Asian Synod document Ecclesia in Asia, BJP ran the government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was a moderate in the party.

But the papal invitation had been issued in 1998 by his predecessor, Inder Kumar Gujral, who led a coalition government.

Despite the BJP being in power, the RSS protested with "go back" slogans on the streets of New Delhi, embarrassing the government and creating tensions within the party.

Protests continued even after the papal visit amid claims that the Ecclesia in Asia document the pope released defended conversion of Hindus.

Some senior church officials still hold out hope of another papal visit despite the political impediments.

Pope Francis is also said to remain enthusiastic about visiting India.

"It is your country, your church, you work for it," one church official quoted the pope as telling him.

Will Pope Francis ever visit India?

The answer at the moment is convolutedly linked to the BJP's destiny.

In all probability before a papal visit can happen, the BJP will need to survey the political landscape in the wake of the 2019 election.

Then there could be an assessment of whether the party could act in a way that transcends religious sentiments.

Christopher Joseph is a journalist working for ucanews.com in India.

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