Goan Church and Hindu nationalist party

BJP has gained more from its love-hate relations with the Church


Panaji: The relation between the Church in Goa and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people’s party) that rules the western Indian state appears to be at the crossroads. However, history has etched their relation as that of civility and conditional cooperation, with a sense of wariness and even suspicion.

Hence the ruling party ignoring or slighting the Church controlled schools is no surprise. In 2012, a section of the Catholics did vote for the BJP but as enlightened voters and not as laity driven by the clergy. In 2017, this same enlightened Catholic vote is likely to shift away.

Alexandre Moniz Barboza explains how the equation between the Church and the BJP still remains wary and distant.

It sometimes is easy to overlook history, even recent events, when interpreting present happenings. On the day the BJP won an absolute majority in Goa in the March 2012 elections, many forgot, or perhaps chose to overlook, that for the first 17 years of democracy in Goa, it was the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak party (MGP) that governed the then Union Territory and that the BJP has built itself up by weaning away the core MGP support to its bosom.

It then went further and expanded its support base to include sections that the MGP had never attempted to woo — upper caste Hindus and Catholics. While MGP’s major support base was the Bahujan Samaj, one can’t say that the party didn’t have upper caste Hindus or Catholics among its supporters or among its elected MLAs. It did.

But MGP never did reach out to these as the BJP has attempted to do. BJP made quite a public relations exercise of giving election tickets to Catholics and when they won, its PR department went into overdrive to gain mileage from this, hoping that the victory of the minority community candidates would erase the communal tag it has been burdened with. But did it?

March 2012 Results

It would be wrong to assume that the BJP won an absolute majority in the March 2012 Assembly Elections in Goa because the Catholic Church supported it. In that moment of euphoria, when the BJP managed to storm to power in Goa with 21 seats in a 40-member Assembly, and got six Catholics elected as MLAs, psephologists and political analysts were quick to ascribe the victory to support of the Catholic Church in the state, though there is no evidence of the Catholic Church having backed the party.

That suggestion was never denied, neither by the Catholic Church nor by the BJP. While the former would, understandably, not want to rub the new government the wrong way by making such a denial unprovoked, such a supposition — that the party had the Church’s backing — helped the BJP to let the state and the country assume that the rightwing tag the party has been burdened with did not stop the minorities in Goa from voting for it.

While the Church, as an institution, may not have officially backed the BJP in its pre-poll campaign, there is no denying the fact that individual Catholics did vote for the BJP in the March 2012 election in Goa and that the absolute majority that BJP got was due to some Catholics voting for the party.

The shift from the Congress to the BJP was minor, but the maths adds up. India Today reported that 9 percent of the Goan Catholic community voted for BJP. In numbers that may not amount to much as in a state where the total population is about 1.5 million and Christians of all denominations around 25 percent, the number of Catholics who voted for the BJP would be negligible, yet in this case it was big enough to make that crucial difference.

Goa has 1,026,304 registered voters of which 851,230 voted on March 3, 2012. If we take that 25 percent of these are Catholic, then the Catholics who exercised their franchise on March 3, 2012 would amount to around 212,807 and nine percent of these would be 19,152, hardly a significant number.

Yet, considering that Congress got a total of 261,295 votes and BJP 294,392 votes, the difference in total votes between the two parties is a paltry 33,097, but in seats is a dramatic 12. Congress won nine seas and BJP 21 in a 40 member legislative assembly. Without the Catholic vote BJP would still have been the single largest party but may not have reached the majority mark of 21 on its own.

Yet, are the 19,152 or for argument’s sake let’s keep it at 20,000 voters, who were so crucial to the BJP really something to crow about for the party? It is an accepted fact that Catholics have voted for the BJP in past elections in the state, yet after contesting elections and having got its first MLA in the assembly in 1994, that BJP has the support of just about 20,000 Catholics should actually be a matter of concern for the party.

Some further maths reveals interesting statistics. In the March 2012 elections, BJP contested in 27 seats. If you average out the voters to these 27 constituencies, then just about 740 Catholics or Christians voted for the BJP in each constituency. Given that the Catholic community can be found is sizeable numbers in the talukas of Salcete, Bardez, Mormugao and Tiswadi and these four talukas account for 24 constituencies then the number of Christians in each of these constituencies that voted for BJP in each constituency could be higher.

Interestingly, the BJP did not win in any Catholic majority constituency. Again, we have to assume that Catholics are in a majority in only some constituencies in Salcete taluka and BJP did not field candidates in five out of eight constituencies in this taluka.

A further minute scan of the constituencies where Catholics won on the BJP ticket shows that, with the exception of just one, none of the other constituencies can be described as Catholic dominated or Congress strongholds. The Catholic victors on the BJP ticket were Francis D’Souza from Mapusa, Michael Lobo from Calangute, Glenn Ticlo from Aldona, Carlos Almeida from Vasco, Nilesh Cabral from Curchorem and Matanhy Saldanha from Cortalim.

Matanhy Saldanha expired a few weeks later and his wife Alina was elected unopposed from the constituency. Setting aside this particular constituency of Cortalim, the other five constituencies have divided their loyalty between the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and the Congress in past elections, and Congress could never claim them as safe constituencies. How then does one explain that the BJP’s Catholic candidates won in Hindu dominated constituencies?

Mapusa for instance has been an MGP stronghold. Calangute has returned MGP MLAs more than twice in past elections. Vasco has swung between MGP and Congress and the former party even got a Catholic — Wilfred Mesquita — elected from this constituency in the past.

Mesquita today is a senior Vice President of the BJP and his importance in the party was acknowledged when he was appointed the Commissioner for Non Resident Indian Affairs after the party came to power.

It is not the first time that Catholics may have voted for the BJP. A former director of the Diocesan Centre for Social Communication Media, was on an earlier occasion, in June 2009, quoted as having said, “Catholics are open to the BJP. Even in the past, they (BJP) had come to power with the help of Catholic votes.” A few days later the DCSCM clarified that the statement established “a fact” and did not “define Church policy”. Yes, Catholics voted for the BJP, the Church did not support the party.

Church Denial

For a year after the elections the BJP lay low, basking in the party’s believed friendliness with the Church. That perception would not last long and it took a statement from a National level party leader to bring out the truth.

In April 2013, BJP National Secretary Aarti Mehra announced that the party would follow the Goa model in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which she said meant reaching out to the leaders of the minority communities. She claimed that she had met the ‘Bishop’ of Goa as part of the pre-poll BJP campaign for the 2012 state assembly election. Provoked, the Church immediately denied this, and the denial drew no counter response from the BJP. Significantly, the release that came from the Archdiocese’s media arm, the Diocesan Centre for Social Communications Media said, “The final result of the last elections cannot, therefore, be attributed to the Church having actively promoted any particular political party.”

The immediate reaction from the Church is an example of the Church being wary of any allegation that it had or has some nature of a truck with the BJP. Clarifying that there was no meeting between the Archbishop and BJP National Secretary, the Church went on to explain the presence of Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrao at the swearing-in ceremony of the Manohar Parrikar government saying, “Let it be known that the Archbishops of Goa have been attending many government functions to which they are invited, particularly swearing-in ceremonies, irrespective of which party is invited to form the government.”

The words “irrespective of which party is invited to form the government” are pertinent and we’ll come to this a little later. Yes, the Church did guide Catholics in Goa on exercising their voting rights. The Church has been doing so for years now, but till date the Church has not aligned with any party, and has done everything possible to be seen as being above partisan and party politics. Logically the Church would lean towards the Congress and away from the BJP, with the latter being seen as a Hindu revivalist party and the Catholic Church would have trouble identifying with the BJP’s policies.
A question that needs to be addressed today, and is pertinent to the topic, is whether the Church is as powerful in influencing its laity towards voting for a particular party as it may have been five decades ago? It is common knowledge that in 1966-67, the Church played a major role in the Opinion Poll that voted to retain Goa as a Union Territory. That was in the immediate aftermath of Liberation, when the laity looked up to the clergy for guidance and it was an issue that tugged at the people’s heart strings. The situation in 2012 did not come remotely close to the charged-up atmosphere of 1967 and almost five decades later, with a highly literate and educated laity, directions from the Church on who to vote for are unlikely to be well received and acted upon by an enlightened laity. The Church as an institution, however, has been successful in influencing the laity in taking up causes and issues, but the same can’t be said about electoral politics.
Minority Issues

There is no doubt that the Church in Goa is fully aware that it is a minority community, an influential one at that, in a state governed by the BJP. Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrao rarely speaks out aloud but, what he says at the annual Christmas reception can be taken as a pointer to what he is thinking.

In December 2012, the first Christmas reception after the BJP government assumed office in Goa, Archbishop Ferrao said, “Once again from this platform, we would like to assure everyone that, irrespective of the political affiliations of the governments in power at the Centre or at the State level, the Church in Goa is committed to extend her unstinted support and backing to any initiatives taken to sincerely promote the integral development of human persons and communities, of course, within acceptable standards and safeguarding ethical principles.”

It is the first part of the sentence that is important here. Why was there need for the Church to assure those present, and those who would read the Archbishop’s speech the following day in newspapers, or find it on the Archdiocese website, that the Church commitment towards a course of action remained undiluted whatever the political affiliations of the government? The Church repeated this some months later when it refuted Aarti Mehra’s claim. Would the Catholic Church in Goa have felt the need to make such a qualified statement if the government was headed by the Congress?

Perhaps not, as it didn’t qualify its support in the past. Compare this statement with what Archbishop Ferrao said at the 2010 Christmas reception.

“I shall end with the assurance that we have given you consistently on this meaningful occasion in these last few years, namely, that the Church in Goa will be only too glad to offer her collaboration in the building of a society that sincerely and genuinely promotes the dignity of the human person, religious freedom and cultural harmony as well as peace and justice for everyone. We have already told you before that, whenever Catholics gather for their Sunday Mass, they pray specifically for those who govern our land and state as well as for all those who, in some way or the other, share in that responsibility, in a greater or lesser degree. I pledge the continued support of our prayer for each one of you.”

There was no mention of the party in power in 2010, when there was a Congress-led government in Goa and the UPA in Delhi.

Mehra’s comment also gave the Church the opportunity to assert its stand on communal politics. The release from the Church to the media after her remarks said, “The Church in Goa has never tired of raising her voice particularly against corruption and communalism, since both these practices are unconstitutional and anti-people.”

The use of the word ‘communalism’ by the Church in this response is a telling comment on how the Church views the BJP. It is an accepted fact that in Goa, Congress is synonymous with corruption and BJP with communalism. Mehra’s statement of “reaching out to leaders of minority communities” too, can easily be taken as an admission of the party’s zero-support base outside the majority community. That BJP is making efforts to bridge the gap is evident and if it is successful then it could make a difference to the party’s continuation in power.

Gains and Losses

Taking this argument further, another question that needs to be asked is what, if anything, could the Church in Goa gain from supporting the BJP? There is no plausible reason for the Catholic Church to support a party whose policies do not match its principles and its teachings.

Going back to Archbishop Ferrao’s 2012 Christmas reception address, it is necessary to recall what he had to say regarding the role the Church plays in education in Goa. A brief background may be required here, before his quote can be fully appreciated. The Catholic Church, through the aegis of the Archdiocesan Board of Education (ABE), oversees all Catholic schools in Goa, run directly by the Archdiocese and those that are managed by other Catholic societies.

For its own schools, the Church has the Diocesan Society of Education that manages some 127 schools in Goa. In 1990 all schools under ABE switched to the Konkani language as the medium of instruction for the primary classes so as to avail government grants to pay teacher’s salaries. In 2011, following demands from parents, ABE schools switched to English as the medium of instruction in the primary. The government, at that time led by the Congress in Goa, continued giving grants to the schools and in the run-up to 2012 elections, one of the BJP’s promises was to stop grants to English medium primary schools. The grants were not stopped, but there was every indication that they could be stopped, putting financial pressure on the schools.

In December 2012 Archbishop Ferrao said, “It is a matter of concern that the Church in Goa, being the largest education service provider in the private sector and having a voluminous body of qualified resource personnel, does not receive the desired recognition in this field nor is it given an adequate representation in the decision making echelons. While we acknowledge, with appreciation, that some outstanding issues have been resolved by the present administration, others are waiting to reach their logical conclusion and many more are still to be addressed. We hope that our educational institutions will have a certain freedom to streamline the excellence in the quality of education that they impart, for which the necessary funds and facilities should be made available, without unnecessary delays, thus ensuring the right direction to integral development and progress in our state.”

Given the background, the quote is self-explanatory.

After the BJP led government finally announced a medium of instruction policy the Archbishop, in February 2014, publicly thanked the government, in particular the education minister, in this case the chief minister Manohar Parrikar, for “the listening ear and satisfactory solution to the few long-pending needs and demands in the field of education.”

As of June 2015, those long-pending needs, still appear to remain pending.

Goa as a communal theater

Strangely, or perhaps even funnily, the bone of contention between the BJP and the Church in April-May 2013 turned out to be the non-availability of beef in the State. The Council For Social Justice And Peace (CSJP), another Church organ, slammed the government on its failure to address the issue. “The CSJP views with disappointment the failure of the government to intervene and act with a sense of fairness and justice to the meat traders and those who consume beef as an essential part of their diet,” the Council said.

Later the same year, when the Archbishop stood to speak at the customary Christmas reception there was not much of a difference in what he had earlier said. He assured the government of the Church’s support, especially in protecting the environment and in the integral development of the people, but this time touched upon communalism in the state.

Conclusion

Given these instances, there doesn’t appear to be any realignment in the Church’s position vis-à-vis BJP. Current relations between the Church in Goa and the BJP can neither be termed friendly nor strained. Both accept that the other exists and appear wary of the other’s moves, perhaps one trying to be seen to reach out more than the other.

In this the BJP may be seen as milking the perceived friendliness more than the Church. It is interesting that in Goa, it is the politicians in power that appear more interested in being seen as those who desire that Pope Francis be invited for the Exposition of the Sacred Relics of St Francis Xavier due in 2014.

Whatever public perception to such an invitation may be, the Church in Goa is yet to give thought to the matter. There has been a studied silence from the Archdiocese of Goa on this, but that didn’t stop BJP leaders from making announcements in the media that they would be willing to host the Pope next year.

As weeks went by, a positive response to a possible invitation grew increasingly unlikely, the lateness of the hour being one major reason, and no invitation was ever sent. But then, BJP had little to lose, it has shown its willingness in hosting Pope Francis, and got the desired media columns and television minutes of reportage. The Church, on the other hand, is yet to make such an appeasing public gesture aimed at the BJP.

The BJP benefited more than the Church from the perception that the latter backed the former in the March 2012 Goa Assembly elections. The Church, whether in Goa or India, appears far from ready to align with any political party. But that won’t stop political parties from targeting the Catholic community as a vote bank, more so in Goa, where even a slight shift by members of the community can make a difference between sitting on the treasury benches and the opposition benches.

While BJP and Congress vie for the Catholic vote, or rather votes from Catholics, the Church as an institution may have little to say on the matter. Any realignment will be not between the Church and the BJP, but between individual Catholic voters and the political parties.

(This first appeared in heraldgoa.in on June 14, 2015)

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