Church and politics may be too rich a mix
It was expected, but many have been taken by surprise at the flurry proxy conversations between the Church in India and political leaders and parties currently in the midst of the nation’s most bitterly fought parliamentary elections. Questions have arisen if the Church has gone beyond its duty as a watchdog of ethics, morals and values in society, and its concern for the poor, and is trying to do micromanagement of issues and intervening all too much in political processes.
On the heels of the Pastoral letter of the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India exhorting the people to come out and vote and chose parties and candidates committed to India’s religious and plural diversity, Individual Bishops, the ecumenical Council of Andhra Pradesh heads of churches and various protestant groups have come out with similar statements. Many diocesan Bishops in several parts of the country organised prayers and fasting to ensure a healthy and beneficial election.
The Andhra Pradesh Bishops’ group has perhaps gone a step further and presented a charter of demands to the political parties and candidates in the election fray. These demands included setting up of a Christian finance and development corporation, perhaps the only one of its kind, removal of the ban on propagation and practice of Faiths in certain areas, and Christian representation on various government organisations. They were perhaps shooting for the moon when they also demanded an Assembly seat in each district and two Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament, seats in the State for the community, apart from land for building churches. The Christian community is quite large in Andhra, but note large enough. Andhra and Tamilnadu also have Christian Political parties, which, however, do not have much popular following and never win.
In Kerala, the Catholic Bishops had early in the election campaign made clear their unhappiness at a controversial environment zoning report in the State’s highlands region that would have severely impacted a large number of farmers, most of whom were Christians.
The political parties have apparently been quick to respond to ensure that the Christian vote does not desert them, whether or not it is significant or is large enough to impact the results in several constituencies.
The Kerala chief minister lost little time in trying to tone down the proposed environment regulations, and his emissaries have been meeting Bishops to allay their fears that the state administration was acting against then interests of the Christian community. Parties in Andhra and Telengana, recently divided and now fighting separate political battles, are hoping that the large number of Christian Dalits in the State will vote for them. In Goa, the chief minister went to the Election committee to ensure that there was no polling in the state on Maundy Thursday, as announced in the original schedule.
But other than Kerala and three states of the North East – Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland which have a Christian majority – Christian and specially Catholic representation in the elections remains abysmal. The State’s apathy and the disinterest of political parties is monumental. Most parties have failed to nominate Christians, and in many northern and western states, there is not even a single Christian candidate. This is perhaps the real index of how little Christians matter in the political discourse in the country. The Muslims representation in the elections also falls very short of their numbers in the nation’s population. But their issues remain very much in the manifestos and promises of every single political party, even the Bharatiya Janata party that is backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, which remains exceedingly hostile to the Muslims.
The recent visibility of Bishops in the election environment has, however, generated considerable controversy. At one level are questions if Bishops who speak only for their own denominations and Rites, actually do represent the community as a whole. More serious are questions as to why Bishops are leaving their pulpits to intervene or interfere so directly in the political process. The most telling question is on the utter absence of the Laity in the interaction between church leadership and the political hierarchy.
The larger question is how religious minorities, particularly those as small as the Christian community which is a puny 2.3 per cent if the population, can safeguard their interests in a first-past-the-post election where vote banks and brute majorities dictate the outcome. And with it is tied up the equally important question of how this minor group can intervene effectively in decision-making and governance, irrespective of the results of the elections.
The Indian election laws bar the intrusion of religion in politics, specially in elections. This does not always work, though candidates have in the past lost their seats for using appeals to religion in their election campaigns. In actual practice, political parties chose their candidates on the basis of their faith, or their caste. Hindu religious Gurus and Muslim Mullahs also intervene often, and quite directly. Many campaign for their favourite candidates, and even for their parties. The Yoga guru and indigenous pharmacy tycoon Ramdev is a case in point to Mr. Narendra Modi, the prime-ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
But members of the Christian hierarchies, specially that of the Catholic Church, are not expected to be so visible in the political process. This diffuses the fine line separating relgion and politics, and can be counter-productive in the long run. It also runs counter to the understanding that while the clergy can and should monitor and comment on issues of morality and values, matters such as abortion and stem cell research, corruption and the questions of poverty and development, they should keep their distance from active politics, and specially electoral politics. The church has failed in this. And the leadership, naive in the intricacies of real-politics, has often compromised its integrity.
The Church leadership, Catholic and protestant, would have served its purpose better, and served the community in real terms, if it had spent time, energy and money empowering and educating the laity in public affairs and democratic procedures. The community needs to participate in all areas of politics life, ranging from civil society to local governments and popular movements. The community remains invisible. For a Church as old as the Indian one, it is tragic that its only visibility is in the schools and a few hospitals it runs in various towns and cities.
It is not too late. The on-going elections offer a challenge to the community. It should, and can, gear up to play a fulsome role in the political life of the country, beginning at the bottom, in the villages and small towns, and when there are no elections in sight. It must make common cause with the aspirations and problems of the people. And he Hierarchy can help empower them in this. There is no other way.