Desperate to shake off its anti-minority image — and the resultant electoral disadvantages — the BJP is trying to cosy up to the Christian community in Kerala, as it has somewhat successfully done in the North East and Goa.
On Easter Sunday (April 9), state BJP leaders V Muraleedharan and PK Krishnadas visited Bishop houses in Kerala, while BJP state president K Surendran paid a visit to Thamarassery Archbishop Mar Remijius Paul Inchananiyil the day before.
Muraleedharan, who is Union Minister of State for External Affairs, visited Archbishop Mar George Netto at the the Latin Catholic Arch diocese headquarters, while Krishnadas, who is the party’s national executive member and former state president, paid a visit to Thalassesry Archbishop Mar Joseph Pamplani at the Thalassery Bishop House.
On the other hand, BJP state vice-president AN Radhakrishnan participated in the Malayattoor Church festival on Good Friday (April 7) and even climbed Malayattoor hill to visit the shrine.
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Bishop’s ‘support’ promise
The BJP’s efforts seems to have borne some fruit, with the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church’s Archbishop Joseph Pamplany saying last month that it was ready to back the saffron party if the BJP-led Centre did something to improve the conditions of rubber cultivators, specifically, “buy rubber from farmers at Rs 300 per kg”.
Though Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church, in an interview to The New Indian Express, denied that it was the Church’s official position, he also said that Bishop Pamplany was “echoing the sentiments of farmers.”
Cardinal Alencherry said the Church would never officially advocate for any party and argued that the Christian community’s apparent affinity for the BJP was all about expectations being met. He pointed out that even the Nair community, which traditionally leaned towards the Congress, had partly switched loyalties towards the Left, which also failed the community to some extent. So, now, people may be looking for other options, and BJP may just slip into that slot.
Minorities account for around half of Kerala’s population, with Muslims making up some 26% and Christians around 18%. And the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church represents a dominant segment of the latter in Kerala. Of late, issues such as “love jihad,” which is blamed on the Muslim community, have opened a rift between Christians and Muslims in the state, and the BJP has been trying to capitalise on it.
Also read: Kerala farmers will vote for BJP if rubber price hiked to ₹300 a kg, says Thalassery archbishop
A space that BJP can slip into
The decline of Kerala Congress, a regional party that once dominated central Kerala’s Christian politics, has further opened a space for the saffron party to squeeze into. Reportedly, some former Kerala Congress leaders are planning to float a new political party to cater specifically to Christian interests, and it would join hands with the BJP in Kerala. And the BJP needs that space desperately because it is yet to win any Lok Sabha seat in the state and won its only ever Assembly seat in 2016.
However, as Bishop Pamplany has made the position clear, BJP won’t be enjoying the unconditional support of the community, even if it does enjoy some support. It must address practical concerns such as the fall in natural rubber prices, growing human-animal conflict, and concerns over forest areas’ buffer zones.
The conditions that apply
In recent years, the powerful Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council has taken up the cause of farmers. In central Kerala, which is one of the areas the saffron party is targeting, rubber is a big part of the agricultural economy. While they are facing massive competition from imported natural rubber, not much has changed for them under the Narendra Modi-led Centre.
Also read: BJP to follow ‘Christ path’ to make more electoral inroads in Kerala
Another concern is the threat from wild boars in the hilly farm regions of the state. It is another cause taken up by churches, demanding that the wild boar be declared a vermin, which would allow the state to control its population. But the Centre rejected the demand last year.
The Left Front government’s plan to hold satellite surveys to mark buffer zones to restrict human activity and manmade structures is another contentious issue, which the RSS has failed to tap into. However, the Hindu organisation has said dialogue with Christians in Kerala will continue and mechanisms have been set up for the purpose at the state and district levels.
BJP’s growing footprint
Indeed, over the years, the BJP’s vote share in Kerala has grown from 6.6% in the 2011 Assembly elections to 14.93% in 2016, and a slight drop to 14.4% in 2021. In seven Assembly seats last time, the BJP candidate had finished second.
Recently, with Congress veteran AK Antony’s son Anil Antony joining the BJP, the saffron party has scored a big win. The Stanford University and MIT graduate could help it reach out to the Christian community and the youth at the same time.
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On April 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself is scheduled to attend an interactive session with youngsters in Kochi with Anil Antony by his side. Around 100,000 people are reportedly expected to attend the event called Vibrant Youth for Modifying India (Yuvam).
Not an easy task
The BJP has shed its anti-minority image in the North East to some extent by joining hands with Christian-dominated local parties, notably the National People’s Party in Meghalaya and Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party in Nagaland. In Goa, it fielded 30% Christian candidates in the last Assembly polls and shunned its usual Hindutva politics.
Yet, Christian leaders, especially in the North East, have often expressed their reservations over the increasing footprint of the saffron party, with the Sangh Parivar frequently being linked to horrors such as attacks on churches and missionaries. Incidents like the imprisonment and death of Father Stan Swamy in the Elgar Parishad case and the RSS’s stand on reservation benefits to Dalit Christians also ensure that the community remains wary of the saffron brigade.
Therefore, the task of wooing the Christian community will hardly be a cakewalk for the saffron party and its allies. Besides, the CPM, which currently rules Kerala, has not allowed the community to forget the Sangh Parivar attacks on churches in North India either.