Monday, May 27, 2024

A bishop’s help to the BJP

File photo of Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of the Thalassery Archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Church during the assuming function at Thalassery in Kannur.

File photo of Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of the Thalassery Archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Church during the assuming function at Thalassery in Kannur.
| Photo Credit: S.K. Mohan

At an unusual press conference in March, the Kerala leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) spoke about their continual discussions with Christian groups as a natural occurrence. They were quick to rebuff suggestions that Christians in Kerala were sceptical about the motives of the RSS. But in the same breath, they held forth on their reservations about Muslim organisations in the State.

A few days later, archbishop Joseph Pamplany of the Thalassery Archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Church kicked up a political storm when he said farmers in Kerala would join hands to send a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member to the Lok Sabha if the Centre increased the price of natural rubber to ₹300, which is more than double the price now.

The bishop stuck to his guns despite criticism. The BJP, which has been trying to woo the Christians, sought to cash in on his remark by saying it indicated the party’s growing acceptance among Christians. The Congress downplayed it as an emotional outburst while the Left slammed the remark. The rival P.J. Joseph and Jose K. Mani factions of the Kerala Congress, which have a support base in the central Kerala rubber belt, saw the comment as a reflection of the sentiments of the plantation community and an expression of dissatisfaction at the Centre’s apathy towards the sector, respectively. The numerically strong Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese of the Syro Malabar Church hauled the bishop over the coals in its mouthpiece, Sathyadeepam, for his short-sightedness and for sidestepping the larger problems of settler-farmers in hill districts.

The bishop’s statement would have been an exaggeration given the current price of rubber and the electoral history of Kerala, but there is no denying that it has given the BJP a shot in the arm. Read along with the openly anti-Muslim positions — mostly flagging the ‘love jihad’ bogey — taken by an ‘elite’ section of the Church in the recent past, and the meetings held by some leaders of the Roman Catholic and Syrian Orthodox churches with the BJP, the party would be only too happy to foster the perception. The BJP has been able to forge alliances with leaders such as Kerala Congress renegade P.C. George and gain the confidence of some anti-Muslim leaders of the Roman Catholic Church with an eye on Catholic votes in parts of central Travancore.

It is a fact that the BJP’s Central leadership is steering the outreach to the Christians in Kerala as the State unit of the party lacks the standing and resourcefulness to sway the Church leadership. The top echelons of the party realise that a pact with the community is the only way for them to break their electoral jinx in the State. But this is easier said than done.

The Syrian Jacobite Church, traditionally perceived as a pocket borough of the Left Front, has reaffirmed its support for the CPI(M) in the wake of the State government’s move to bring a legislation to end its century-old stand-off with the Orthodox Church. This has naturally riled the Orthodox group over which a rudderless Congress has a waning influence. Through confabulations and tacit alliances in central Travancore, the party is trying to wrest that space from the Congress.

The Kerala Congress parties aligned with the CPI(M)-led Left and the Congress-led United Fronts are facing the challenge of loss of identity in their one-time strongholds with the exodus of the youth to other countries in search of better livelihood options. The absence of tall leaders in these identity-driven parties is a concern, and the bleak future of the rubber economy isn’t helping their cause either.

Attacks on Christians elsewhere in India is a talking point in Kerala polity, too, and it has put the BJP slightly on the back foot. But to the party’s relief, many affluent and elite Christians are unfazed by this. To make it easier for the community, at the BJP’s instance, a new Christians-led political party is being talked about in the central Kerala region which, as the grapevine goes, would enjoy the implicit backing of some church leaders as well.

While the Congress-led alliance would be the casualty of such a move, it doesn’t seem to have woken up to it. But the question is whether the members of this class-ridden, politically divided community would be willing to toe the line of the church leaders for whom a pact with the BJP is not anathema.

#bishops #BJP

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