HomePoliticsBishop’s nice words are no saving grace for electorally-jinxed Kerala BJP

Bishop’s nice words are no saving grace for electorally-jinxed Kerala BJP

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Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala’s ever-despair Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership received a glimmer of hope the other day from a most unexpected quarter, from a Catholic Bishop. Archbishop Mar Joseph Pamplany of Thalassery ArchDiocese in north Kerala made the unsolicited offer that his flocks would not be averse to voting the BJP.

The offer, however, came with a caveat. The Centre should take steps to raise the steadily falling natural rubber price to help the farmers, who constitute the majority of his diocese as well as most other Christian-dominated places across the state.

The BJP’s state leadership has lapped up the bishop’s statement like ‘manna in the wilderness.’ But it is unlikely that the party, which has been stagnating in the southern state, will gain any substantial advantage from the prelate’s offer. Bishop Pamplany presides over a diocese where the majority of the flock comprises small-time farmers.

Located far from the traditional Christian heartland of central Kerala, the community in northern parts of the state almost entirely consists of third generation settlers. Their pioneers had moved over to settle in forest- fringes of the Western Ghats slops mostly between the intervening years of two world wars in the last century.

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Battling the hostile nature and wildlife, the settlers had turned dense forests, valleys and inclines of the hilly terrains into prime farm lands. Most households are small-holders who subsist by growing rubber, pepper and other commercial crops. The fluctuations in prices of farm produce are a burning issue in their lives. The steady decline in rubber prices while the production cost keeps soaring has been persistent to their livelihood.

The import of synthetic rubber is the prime reason for free fall of rubber prices. It is for the Union Government to take a call on this.  It was against this backdrop that Bishop Pamplany came out saying that the community is prepared to support the BJP if the Centre assured a minimum support price of Rs 300 per kg of rubber.  

The elated BJP leaders in the state did not hesitate for a moment to hail the bishop’s statement.

Some local functionaries even rushed to greet him in his diocesan headquarters. Predictably, the Left and the Congress, and the allies on both sides, have declined to be swayed by the bishop’s statement. They, however, took potshots at the bishop by reminding him of the alleged attacks on the community by the Hindutva elements in northern states.

Though unfazed by the adverse reactions, the bishop himself clarified later that his statement had been taken out of context and misread by both sides to suit their political narrative. He said his sole concern was to see that the hard-pressed farmers received some relief from the highest power center.

As the issue threw up debates in the media, an official journal of the Catholic church in the state clarified that the Bishop’s statement has nothing to do with the formal position of the establishment. The bottom line is loud and clear. It will be pretty hard for the BJP to replicate in Kerala its success in Christian-dominated north-eastern states. 

This immediate reaction of the BJP to the bishop’s statement only exposed the party’s weaknesses in the state where it had failed to break the electoral jinx. The state’s political and demographic are heavily loaded against it achieving a breakthrough in near future. Muslim and Christian communities together account for close to 50 per cent of Kerala’s population.

The Hindu community is deeply divided in the state, whose political affiliations are mostly with the CPI(M) and the Congress. True, the BJP, over years, especially since its national ascendance under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has weaned away a good chunk of Hindus from other parties. But that constituency is too inadequate to make an electoral breakthrough. In this helpless scenario, the party is desperate to get allies, cutting across traditional barriers.

The BJP leadership, both at the center and in the state, knows that it would be well-nigh impossible to get the support of the Muslim community, which accounts for nearly a quarter of the state’s population. This is why, of late, the party has been making gestures towards the Christian community, especially the Catholic fold. One swallow doesn’t make the summer.

A sliver of a promise from one bishop doesn’t mean a large scale political shift is in the offing. To start with, Kerala’s Christian population is not a monolith. Christians in the state are divided into different congregations. The Catholics have multiple church hierarchies, with the Syrian stream, to which Bishop Pamplany belongs, being the largest. There are other Christian denominations such as the Orthodox, the Jacobite, the Protestant and evangelical and fellowship groups.

Of the different church orders in Kerala, the Catholic establishment has a history of meddling in politics, though not openly, to safeguard the interest of the faithful and the church-run institutions. Kerala Congress (KC), once a powerful regional outfit, sustained itself from the support of the Catholic and other prominent Christian communities. It has mostly been a constituent of the coalition led by the Indian National Congress.

The KC has over the period split into splinters, one of which is now a partner in the Left Democratic Front (LDF).  This itself makes clear that the sway of the church in political matters has its limitations.

Given the prevailing political scenario in the state, the majority of Christian communities and establishments are unlikely to provide open support to the BJP in the near future. The saffron party in Kerala may find it still hard to move up from the plateau it has hit.

N Muraleedharan
N Muraleedharan
Senior Journalist from Kerala. Worked with leading news agency Press Trust of India. He is regular columnist and writes on politics of Kerala and National Politics.


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