Hundreds of pilgrims carrying heavy wooden crosses chanted Ponnum Kurishu Muthappo, Ponmala Kayattom (Oh, Patriarch of the Golden Cross, we climb the golden hill) as they trekked up the Kurishumudi (Hill of the Cross) at Malayattoor in Kerala’s Ernakulam district on Good Friday, 7 April.
Among them was a group of men, mostly clad in white, scaling the rocky, steep terrain of the hill to the St Thomas Syro-Malabar Church, located 1,269 feet above sea level.
BJP’s state vice-president AN Radhakrishnan led the group of the organisation’s Minority Morcha activists up the hill in the Western Ghats for reasons more political than religious.
Radhakrishnan and his group’s trek was part of the BJP’s overtures to Christians in Kerala for a foothold in the state’s electoral politics. The saffron party is yet to make a significant foray into Kerala, past the Western Ghats on its eastern frontier.
The beginning of their trek was energetic, with a beaming Radhakrishnan, his forehead anointed with sandalwood paste, revealing his religious identity.
After trekking halfway, he aborted the attempt, citing health reasons. The climb is challenging that even the healthy find it tough.
Also read: Is a section of Christians in Kerala crying wolf to appease the BJP?
Walking the extra mile
Radhakrishnan may have called off the trek midway, but the BJP has not dropped its bid to woo Christians.
On Easter, 9 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Sacred Heart Cathedral Church in heart of New Delhi to “deepen the spirit of harmony”.
He also planted a sapling on the church’s premises.
The response to Modi’s visit was immediate. The next day, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan mocked the prime minister, hoping the visit was an “atonement for past deeds” of the Sangh Parivar.
The CPI(M) leader also wondered whether “the tiger takes a different stance after knowing that taste. Will it travel any other way?”
In Kerala, state leaders of the BJP, too, reached out to Christians on Easter. Union Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan, party national executive member PK Krishnadas, and state president K Surendran called on bishops and extended Easter greetings.
The outreach has been viewed as the saffron party’s strategy to win over the minorities, who have a combined strength of 45 percent of the state’s population.
Also read: BJP leaders visit prominent bishops in Kerala for Easter
Uphill task for BJP
The BJP’s attempts to win the confidence of Christians is part of its 2024 Lok Sabha poll campaign. However, it won’t be easy — as Radhakrishnan experienced on Good Friday.
“Radhakrishnan’s aborted attempt indicates the enormous challenges the BJP faces in winning the confidence of over 37 lakh Catholic votes in Kerala,” Fr Paul Thelakkatt, a senior priest of the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese said.
The former spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church then pointed at the new-found camaraderie between some of the religious leaders and the BJP.
“Any ruling party can find supporters among religious leaders embroiled in corruption and financial mismanagement as they are keen on avoiding investigations by central investigating agencies,” he told South First.
“But it is unlikely that the Catholics in Kerala will shift their political preference en masse to the BJP and Sangh Parivar, which are practising the politics of hate. There is no apparent need for such a shift,” Fr Thelakkatt opined.
Known for his advocacy of transparency and accountability in church administration matters, Fr Thelakkat is among the priests and laity who have accused Cardinal Mar George Alencherry of corruption, financial mismanagement, and tax evasion.
Cardinal Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church, grabbed headlines recently by terming Modi as a good leader and and asserting that Indian Christians face no persecution under BJP rule.
The BJP social media handles are convinced that the Catholics would support the saffron party in opening an account in the Lok Sabha election.
Also read: Will Christians toe Sangh Parivar line, as PM Modi expects?
However, Fr Thelakkat differed. He opined that bishops in Kerala are losing their clout over the laity of late, especially on socio-political matters.
He also believed that only a minuscule number of Kerala Christians are Islamophobic. Even if they align with the BJP-RSS against their imagined enemy, it won’t make much impact during the hustings.
Dr Yuhanon Mar Meletius, bishop of the powerful non-Catholic Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, also shared the same view.
“Christians in Kerala are not a collective entity obeying the dictates of their religious heads,” he told South First.
“In general, Kerala has a solid secular democratic foundation, and the people across religions co-exist without falling prey to the sinister designs of the communal forces. Why should any particular religious group have regressive agendas to disrupt the existing peace,” he asked.
According to Riju Thannikkaran, leader of the laity association of the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, bishops with ulterior motives are brokering ties with BJP.
“Some bishops may be soft towards the BJP. All of them are facing stiff resistance within the community for their swindling of funds and misappropriating assets meant for total welfare,” he told South First.
“In Kerala, no church leader can force the voters to change their political preferences,” he said.
“The so-called outreach is happening at a time when hate speeches and calls for genocide of Christians are made with chilling frequency by leaders close to the ruling formation at the Centre,” Fr Francis Alappatt of the Thrissur Catholic Diocese, said.
“Let them first end the violence against minorities in other parts of the country. We are bound to protect the existing communal harmony and social amity in Kerala. We, the Christians in Kerala, know what is happening outside,” he added, referencing recent attacks on Christians across several BJP-ruled states, as well as hate speeches targeting the community.
Also read: Will Kerala’s rubber politics take Christians closer to BJP?
However, Mar Joseph Pamplany, the metropolitan archbishop of the Tellicherry Catholic Archdiocese, has continued with his pro-BJP position stand.
Pamplany last month declared that Christians in Kerala would vote for the BJP if the Union government ensured a support price of ₹300 for natural rubber.
He told South First that there is no “untouchable” among Indian political parties.
“We represent numerous poor farmers and must act strategically to protect their interests. There is no point in raising an old statement of RSS ideologue MS Golwalkar, terming Christians an enemy of Hinduism,” he said.
“People in Kerala have the maturity to understand the historical context of that allegation. The BJP is the ruling party, and why should we object if it wants a harmonious relationship with us,” he asked.
Pamplany seemed furious over Tourism Minister PA Mohamed Riyas’s references to Golwarkar’s negative statements on Christianity.
“The so-called Communists, who rule Kerala, treat Christians as enemies,” he said.
Apart from Alencherry and Pamplany, Thamarassery Bishop Remigiose Inchananiyil and Pala Bishop Mar Joseph Kallarangatt are the Catholic prelates advocating a handshake with the BJP.
However, most Catholic and non-Catholic bishops are silent on the issue. They include Andrews Thazhath, the Archbishop of Thrissur and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI).
Kerala Congress groups in Catch-22 situation
The latest developments have made the Christian Association and Alliance for Social Change (CASA) happy. The youth organisation strongly aligns with the BJP-RSS against Muslims.
Besides raising the Love Jihad bogey, CASA shares the Sangh Parivar’s opinion on the Citizenship Amendment Act, the hijab Issue, triple talaq, and halal food.
It claims it has lakhs of members from 17 Christian denominations in Kerala.
However, the BJP’s overtures to the Catholic Church have put the Kerala Congress (M), the most prominent of the Christian parties, in a spot of bother.
This Christian-majority regional outfit is currently a part of the ruling LDF. The party leaders refused to comment on the issue.
The same is the case with the Kerala Congress (J), a constituent of the Opposition UDF. Both parties comprise Catholics. The BJP had made several attempts to win them over to its side.
From the agricultural and economic angle, rubber growers in Kerala mostly hail from the Christian community.
Therefore, its procurement price and the welfare of those dependent on it have periodically influenced the community’s politics. The BJP national leadership has entrusted Rubber Board chairman Sawar Dhanania with the task of continuously engaging with Kerala bishops.
The chairman met Bishop Pamplany in Kannur last week and assured him that he would try to ensure a support price for rubber.
But there is a prevailing feeling among rubber growers across religions that the Exim policies of the Union government caused the sharp drop in the price of natural rubber.
In Kerala, a few Christian leaders have aligned with the BJP in the past.
They include former Lok Sabha members PC Thomas, former bureaucrat and parliamentarian Alphons Kannanthanam, and former AICC spokesman Tom Vadakkan. And all of them seem to have now been sidelined in the party.
The BJP’s latest big catch is AK Antony’s son Anil Antony. He has been creating headlines with his anti-Rahul Gandhi rhetoric. But he has little clout in Kerala.