Thursday, April 17, 2014

Indian Elections: What Could They Mean for Minority Christians?

India is gearing up for the largest show of democracy on earth. Ahead of the national elections, the silent Christian community in India has become restive and alert.

An electorate of 814 million, a number greater than the entire population of Europe, is eligible to cast the ballot in the staggered polls (scheduled in nine phases from April 7 to May 12) to choose India's 14th Parliament.
The national alliance of all the mainline churches, the National United Christian Forum, has come out with an appeal. The Catholic Church (which accounts for two thirds of the 28 million plus Christians) has issued a voter guideline, and regional ecumenical Christian bodies have recently come out with similar advisories.
Two major alliances-the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the "secular Congress Party (that has ruled the nation for the past two terms) and the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-are the main protagonists.
Apart from these two main alliances, 25 or so regional parties make the combat tougher for each of the 543 seats in "Lok Sabha ("House of the People-the lower House of the Indian parliament) that will decide who will rule India for the next five years.
With the opposition alliance led by the BJP (known for espousing a Hindu nationalist agenda) being projected by the pre-poll surveys as the front-runner in elections that many expect to produce a fractured verdict, the Christian community has grown increasingly uneasy.
The Catholic Church issued a call for prayer "for divine assistance for all the citizens of India so that we may elect the best persons... uphold the democratic and secular character of our great nation and selflessly work for the peace and prosperity of all the people of India.
BJP's intense campaign for the 2014 elections has been built around Narendra Modi, chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, who is expected to become the prime minister in waiting. While the Hindu nationalist lobby hails Modi as an able administrator who can accelerate India's sagging economy, secular parties claim he is a polarizing personality. He carries the stain of the 2002 slaughter of over 1,200 Muslims in Gujarat-the homeland of Mahatma Gandhi-when Hindu mobs targeted Muslims following the torching of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims.
The inaction and even collusion of the police under Modi's command, coupled with his persistent refusal to express regret for the deaths, has made Modi the target of many secular groups.
"There is (also) a fear in the minds of (Christians), admitted Rev. Roger Gaikwad, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), a network of 30 Orthodox and Protestant churches. "Some fear that difficult are days ahead.
The BJP has campaigned to foster better relationships with the Christian community, trying desperately to shed its "anti-Christian image. Two Bishops of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church praised Modi and his Gujarat model of development, but most Christians were angered by their support of Modi. Despite conciliatory gestures by the BJP, many Christians remain skeptical. States under BJP rule have historically witnessed a rise in incidents of anti-Christian violence, and some BJP State governments have been eager to push through anti-conversion legislation. BJP leaders are also known to have defended the assailants in brutal attacks on Christians and the rape of nuns.