Prime minister Narendra Modi lighting a candle at the Sacred Heart Cathedral Catholic Church on Easter Sunday, in New Delhi on April 9, 2023 | Photo: PIB
Kozhikode: The political - religious equations in Kerala seem gearing up for a change as the BJP is making an all out endeavour to capitalise the bonhomie between the churches and the party in the state. It is a surprising development given the state's history and the party's track record with non-Hindu communities in India. Despite the fact that the party had only produced one MLA in the state assembly so far, a bishop has offered a Lok Sabha seatto the BJP.
The initial public statement came from the Syro-Malabar Church, which holds significant influence in the state. Subsequently, a bishop from the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Churchalso expressed support. A Jacobite Church priest had already shown comparable interest. Together, these three Syrian churches represent over 70% of Kerala's Christian population, which numbered 65 lakh according to the 2011 census. The remaining Christians are Latin, Pentecostal, Mathoma and other smaller groups.
During Easter this year, several prelates and priests received BJP leaders, from prime minister Narendra Modito local office bearers of BJP. While they claim that topics such as the drop in rubber prices were the focus of discussion, a videographed commentary by an Orthodox priest, broadcasted by a BJP leader on social media,reveals that meetings also touched on issues such as religious freedom in present India and opposition protests following Rahul Gandhi's disqualification from Lok Sabha. In the video, Geevarghese Mar Yulios Metropolitan aligns with the BJP's stance and lauds the RSS for their 'positive qualities,' including 'personality development and self-defence.'
In anticipation of the prime minister's visit to Kerala in the third week of April, the BJP is also spearheading the creation of a 'secular, national' party. This party will be led by dissatisfied second or third-tier Congress and Kerala Congress leaders from the Christian community. The BJP is optimistic that this move will help it break the electoral deadlock in the state, as it has been unable to garner more than 15% of the vote in recent elections.
However, what matters is whether the 'sheep' in Kerala will vote for BJP when the church asks them to. Let us start with understanding what the churches and bishops need from BJP. The Orthodox and Jacobite churches have been engaged in a near-literal battlesince a 2017 Supreme Court ruling gave the former control over the majority of churches in dispute, numbering over 1,000. The issue has become a matter of law and order, and the state government has sought to address it by enacting new legislation.
It is worth noting that the Orthodox Church has traditionally supported the Congress party and the community has produced prominent leaders such as former chief minister Oommen Chandy. As a result, the Jacobite faction has gravitated towards the Left, making it perhaps the only church aligned with that political orientation. According to news reports, the state government aims to allow both factions access to the disputed churches. While the Orthodox Church is keen to implement the court's decision, the Jacobites are content with the state's stance. However, there has been no progress yet, as both groups seek control over the contested churches.
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Given the ongoing dispute, it is understandable that both factions would be inclined to support the BJP in the hope of a favourable resolution. While the Orthodox priest who recently expressed support for the BJP did not mention the church conflict, a Jacobite priest has made his stance clear. Metropolitan Thomas Mor Alexandrios of the Mumbai diocese of Jacobite Church stated that the church would back the BJP if it was to resolve the dispute. However, the Church has distanced itselffrom this statement.
It is unclear what may be driving the Syro Malabar Church's newfound affection for the BJP. Some have speculated that a pending Enforcement Directorate case against church head Cardinal Mar George Alencherry may be behind the public statements. Alencherry himself has supported the BJP. What the church has publicly stated is its concern over the slump in rubber prices. Metropolitan Archbishop Mar Joseph Pamplany of the Tellicherry Archdiocese, one of the church's four Metropolitan Archbishops who serve as second-in-command, was the first to make a public statement. He suggested that the BJP's lack of an MP from Kerala could be remedied if farmers received Rs 300 per kilogram for their natural rubber. Many other priests of the church too have since taken up the issue.
Kerala has a long history of plantations and has a monopoly on several cash crops in the country, including rubber. In the early decades of Kerala's formation, many Christians, predominantly from the Syro Malabar Church, settled in the high ranges and began farming. They primarily grew rubber, a cash crop, in the region for many years. 'Kerala holds a dominant position both in the area of cultivation as well as in the production of natural rubber in India. Kerala at present has more than 85 percent of the total cultivation and nearly 93 percent of the total production of natural rubber in India,' notes a study of Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. However, the industry has not been doing well for the past decade.
When one hears 'plantations,' they may think they are controlled by people who own several hectares of land. Large-scale agricultural enterprises were the first rubber plantations in India, which hired regular labour and operated on commercial lines. However, due to high remuneration in the early 1900s, small-scale cultivation began to emerge. Rubber's ability to provide steady returns over a long period and its adaptability even to hostile conditions attracted small-scale cultivators. The Land Reforms Act and rubber development schemes of the Rubber Board in Kerala further accelerated this trend. According to a CDS study, the rubber economy is now dominated by smallholders, who are landowners below 50 acres. However, the majority of smallholders own less than 10 acres of land.
According to another study, in 1955-56, holdings above two hectares accounted for about 80% of the total area under natural rubber. However, the average holding size decreased from 3.08 hectares in 1950 to 0.54 hectares in 2011-12. Presently, about 9 lakhs small holders occupy 93 percent of total rubber area and contribute 85 percent of total rubber production in Kerala. Besides, it provides jobs to 4 lakh workers. Area of production has been stagnant since 2010 at 5.5 lakh hectare. To put in perspective, net area shown in 2021-22 is 20 lakh ha. Production hovers around 5.5 lakh tonnes in 2022. Only exception is 2012 when the state produced 8 lakh tonnes.
'Plantations even used to control the Kerala economy once,' said KN Harilal, a development economist and former member of the state planning commission. Many Christian families in Kerala who started rubber farming were able to liberate themselves from poverty and to join the modern middle-class, providing education for their children and building a strong community. However, the newer generations have higher aspirations and are less willing to engage in the demanding physical labour required for rubber farming. A highly-placed government official, who works in the field of agriculture and comes from a rubber-farming family, explained that there is currently a shortage of skilled tappers. 'Tappers are in short supply and as a result, many farmers tap their own rubber. However, the children of second-generation farmers are no longer interested in this type of work. They are educated and have pursued careers as nurses, bank employees, teachers in church-run schools, or have moved abroad,' he noted.
According to Harilal, a leftist academician, Congress and Kerala Congress have been the traditional representatives of the rubber farmers' interests. However, he holds them solely responsible for the current price slump. 'While Congress and Kerala Congress have represented the interests of rubber farmers in the past, they are also to blame for the current price slump. What caused the price drop? Certainly the imports following WTO and ASEAN agreements. The union governments failed in protecting the interest of farmers as it had to take into account preferences of rubber manufacturers and international treaties,' he said.
‘Rubber plantations in Kerala struggled due to fall in price during the period from 1997 -2002 because of the large-scale import from major rubber producing countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand resulting in high volatility in the price of natural rubber,’ notes another study by CDS.
Harilal suggests that the solution to the rubber price slump is not internal and cannot be solved by turning towards the Kerala government for hiking support prices. Instead, he believes that the union government needs to work towards a consensus among ASEAN countries to ensure that the market competition does not lead to a fall in the price below a certain level, and maintain a buffer stock. Harilal also mentions that India cannot unilaterally increase import tax as it would affect the country's tyre production. However, he questions whether the BJP government is willing to take such a step.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Paul, a Left sympathiser who has contested to Lok Sabha and Kerala Assembly four times each and succeeded in half of it from Congress stronghold Ernakulam, opined rubber is not the only pressing issue of the Church. He highlighted the issues faced by the Latin Christian fishermen community as well as pepper and cardamom farmers. He argued that the Church is portraying rubber as a religious matter, when in reality, it is a commercial issue. He also questioned the stance of the Church on the ASEAN agreement protests by the left parties.
That being said, Harilal also pointed towards an interesting factor. 'The situation in central Travancore is dire, as the rubber price slump has caused a community to fall behind economically. In areas such as Muvattupuzha and Kothamangalam, the Muslim community has become more prosperous than the Christian community, which was once dominant due to its involvement in rubber farming. While Christians have lost their economic power, Muslims have thrived through various means, including trading woods, business ventures, migrating to Gulf countries, and even gold trading,' he said.
While the Churches are engaged in direct talks with BJP national leadership itself, there has been an undercurrent among common believers along religious lines. Sijo (name changed on request) is a bank employee from Kannur. He is in his mid-40s and quite active in church activities. When asked whether the Church was getting closer to BJP, he started off by saying 'Christians have been feeling let down for quite some time now'.
He said that the community feels that the Muslims in the state have been getting more than what they deserve, often at the expense of the Christians. According to him, the Christian community feels ignored by the government, citing examples such as the 80:20 ratio of minority scholarships and the appointment of a Muslim minister to the minorities department. He also stated that Christian MLAs are not addressing the concerns of the community because they fear losing their 'secularist' image.
He also alleged that the education department has top positions occupied by Muslims and that the 'Marxist party' is hurting the religious sentiments of Christians by supporting 'anti-Church plays like Kakkukali' while giving blind support to Muslim beliefs. Sijo further claimed that the future leadership of the CPM is falling on Muslim leaders who are not true leftists and that the party has made peace with the Muslim community due to their 'militant nature'.
While Sijo is not an active member of the controversial organisation CASA (Christian Association and Alliance for Social Action), he says that their work in 'dealing with Love Jihad' is crucial. However, he also says that such activities are not supported by the Church or its priests. Interestingly, Sijo notes that in areas where CASA is not strong, it has sought help from the RSS in 'dealing with some cases.' It is important to note that the term 'Love Jihad' was originally coined by the Sangh Parivar in Kerala, and has been used to spread communal tensions. A section of Christians in Kerala have taken up the campaign against the bogey of 'Love Jihad,' claiming that their girls were lured away by Muslim youth and forced to convert to Islam. Sijo said these 'movements' in the last 3-4 years have made a 'serious impact on Christian community'.
MA Baby, CPM politburo member and former state minister acknowledges that some Christians do feel this way. But he scoffs at it and says it is not a major issue. 'For CPM and LDF, primary concerns are the poor, farmers, women and other marginalised groups. Religious issues come second for us,' he told mathrubhumi.com. Sebastian Paul feels that Islamophobia is a key reason for the Church's support for BJP. Certain 'extremist' factions among the believers are playing a key role in it, he said.
Dr Josukutty CA, political science professor at Kerala University, said the Islamophobia among Christians is a factor that has takers among the believers. However, that alone will not be sufficient to gain a large number of votes as the communities are living in peace, he said.
Can Churches bring votes?
Not directly and immediately, says all academicians this reporter spoke with. Sanjay Kumar, former director the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, and the co-director of Lokniti, an electoral research programme of CSDS, said it is difficult to assert the impact of religious leaders regarding voting patterns. 'Generally, it is believed that they have only a limited influence on voting preferences of the followers. People listen to religious leaders, but not necessarily follow them in these issues,' he said. He added that the preferences would change according to the level of literacy of the community.
Professor Sajad Ibrahim, from the political science department of Kerala University, has extensive experience in electoral research and studying the voting patterns of Keralites. He stated that it is difficult for any religious leader in Kerala to have a significant impact on the people's voting decisions. According to him, leaders of any community, religion, or caste do not hold significant command over voting issues, with minority leaders possibly being slightly more influential than others.
He also said that there has been a significant change in the trend of committed voters, who only vote for their particular political party. The CPM used to enjoy the highest share of committed voters, but this has decreased in recent times. On the other hand, the BJP is seeing an increase in this category, he said. Professor Sajad suggests that neutral voters are increasing, and they are the ones who decide the outcome of the elections.
When mentioned that BJP is pointing to Goa and North East to show that Christians can vote for the Hindu nationalist party, Sanjay Kumar said they cannot be compared with Kerala. 'Unlike in Kerala, Christians are not a minority in those states. The preferences of voters are different there. They don't have much of a choice either, like the Left and Congress in Kerala. So the agenda will not be centred on minority versus majority', he said. In Christian majority states Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya, BJP has only 12, 1 and 2 MLAs, respectively. In Goa, Christians are around 25 per cent.
However, Sebastian Paul said BJP succeeding in winning Christian hearts cannot be overruled. According to Paul, the BJP had previously tried to attract Christian political leaders by offering them significant positions within the party and government, but this approach did not result in any major breakthroughs in Kerala. Therefore, it turned their attention to Church leaders, recognising their ability to influence people and considering how it could make use of this.
But will it work in terms of winning elections?
There may be some local experiments, but the Church is not capable of giving BJP even an Assembly seat, let alone Lok Sabha, Josukutty said. BJP experiments with the new party will probably be useful to CPM, he added. ‘Earlier days, the Churches used to influence followers in voting. But they don't preach electoral politics at the altar anymore. But BJP can legitimise itself among Christians through Church heads to overcome the negative image due to the attack on churches in other states', said Sebastian Paul.
According to him, Churches have always stood with power. 'Before independence, the Church was not with Congress. Since it could not back communists due to the global scenario, it joined hands with Congress post-independence. Now it feels it is better to stay with BJP to fulfil its needs,' he said.
Middle-class of Kerala
Sanjay Kumar pointed out that wherever BJP has made inroads, it first won the trust of the middle class. 'When Atal Bihari Vajpayee won the national polls for the first time, it rode on the wave of the middle class. They were the biggest cheerleaders of BJP', he said. According to Harilal, whatever may be the interest of the middle-class Christian communities and the Churches, it will be difficult for BJP to crack Kerala. Both UDF and LDF have a strong base in Kerala, which is fundamentally anti-BJP. Therefore, it will be a difficult task for the BJP to crack this base, and it will take a long-term effort from it to do so.
'BJP has always tried to influence the middle class. But for Kerala, it is blocking all projects which are beneficial to the state. Vande Bharat train is a showcase product. It should have reached Kerala long back. The government should have spent more money repairing tracks, installing automated signalling if it was serious about it. Keralites will definitely understand this double standard,' Harilal added.
When asked about BJP wooing the middle-class, Paul said, 'Jan Sangh (earlier form of BJP) was known as the party of merchants,' asserting the focus of BJP on the middle class.
When it comes to voting, Sijo, who is a member of a traditional Congress-voting family, says he 'doesn't have a reason not to vote for Narendra Modi.'
'I like his vision. I visited Karnataka recently. The projects, especially the infrastructure development, are astonishing.Also, the lack of corruption is a key factor. Even in Kerala, this government is just renaming the central projects. Or at least most projects have central support,' he said. Congress is closely associated with the Muslim League. So he doesn't think Congress can make much difference in the state for him.
Harilal believes that the Left will benefit from the weakening of the Muslim League and Kerala Congress, two key members of the UDF. He also notes a change in the approach of the Churches and Muslim groups towards the Left, but acknowledges that the Left may not be able to address all their concerns. As a result, the Church may feel the need to befriend the BJP, which may retain power at the centre. However, Harilal believes that the BJP's interest in cooperating with Christians is simply because they are 'lesser enemies' for them, and their ultimate goal is evident.
'Not even the Pope'
The believers this reporter talked to mostly said they would never vote for the BJP. However, there were people ready to experiment, like Sijo.
Pauly is a small scale rubber farmer from high range in Kannur. An ardent believer, she goes to church regularly. When asked if she would vote for BJP if the bishop asked, she said no. 'Even if the Pope asks us to vote for BJP, we will not,' she said. Pauly is a Congress voter. But she is disheartened about the 'power hungry' politicians from 'all parties' who 'would do anything to stay in power.'
Eldhose MT from Thrissur is a young Jacobite who works in Bengaluru. He is also a Congress sympathiser. 'No priest can tell me who I should vote for. I don't think no one in my church will listen to any of them,' he told Mathrubhumi.com. In his opinion, religion and politics should not be intertwined. For a teacher at a government-aided school in Peravoor, who is also a small scale rubber farmer, if the union government intervenes to ensure procured rubber Rs 300 per kg, 'one of thousands' of her votes 'can be polled in favour of BJP.' She is not a traditional Congress voter. She described herself as a 'neutral voter' who votes according to the credentials of the candidate. However, she is sure that BJP will not win.
Another teacher in a church school of the Thalassery diocese said that she would follow priests' words only in religious matters, that too if she felt they were just. Her church priest had allegedly made anti-Muslim remarks during a prayer speech. She is intrigued by it. Manuel, a devout rubber farmer from Kannur, is certain that he will support the BJP in the elections if it promises to pay him Rs. 300 per kilogram for his rubber. Despite his children being successful and settling overseas, his primary source of income is rubber farming.