No other Assembly election than the recently polled one in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam (May 16) and West Bengal had seen the worst communal polarisation ever. These had also been elections, which the Catholic Church and other Christian bodies endeavoured to steer the course by strong interventions in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Minority electorate was decisive in reinstating Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal with a record number of seats. Mamata’s pro-development, pro-poor and pro-minority stance helped her very much to keep the rival parties too far away from their political ambitions. In Assam the BJP tasted seminal success by consolidating Hindu and tribal votes and dividing the minority votes between Congress and AIUDF.

Kerala: Snag In The Social Fabric

The political spectacle of Kerala often sees its populace marching ‘left, right, left, right’ for every quinquennial term! This time Kerala leaned to the Left Democratic Front (LDF) explicitly or implicitly favoured by one or other minority body.

The politically conscious Kerala electorate presented a deserving defeat to Congress led United Democratic Front (UDF) for its full-tenure corrupted and scandalous governance. National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a combination of BJP and BDJS, made the exceptional breakthrough in Kerala politics by wining the first single seat and ending the longstanding bipolar politics of Kerala.

In terms of vote share the UDF suffered facial fractures with a sharp fall from 45% of 2011 to 38.78%. The LDF secured a scintillating 90 seats victory nevertheless it faced a decline of 1% of its votary. The NDA, which was nominal in Kerala, more than doubled their share of votes to 15% from their previous 6% implying consolidation of votes on communal grounds.

The real victory of NDA is not the sole seat they won, rather is in their success to wake up the dormant communal conscience of Kerala polity in their favour. Some analysis read that the NDA expanded their vote share drawing a portion from UDF electorate with anti-incumbency feelings. Others perceived that minorities – Muslims and Christians – favoured the LDF fearing the rise of fundamentalist and communal fascist parties such as the BJP in Kerala.

The historic idiocy of Ummen Chandy projecting BJP as UDF’s principal opponent during the last lap of political campaigning helped LDF and NDA garner a significant share of votes from its own treasury. That political strategy not only bit back the UDF but also would continue to have heavy impact on Kerala’s pluralistic but peaceful society in future.

Bitter Grapes of Political Ambitions

Inadvertently or not, Christian leaders significantly contributed to the communal polarisation by openly negotiating candidates for particular constituencies. Though Church leaders used to admonish the Christian electorate to cast their vote counting the conscience through the Pastoral Letters prior to past elections, explicit advocacy of candidates was unprecedented.

The Church encourages people to participate in a politics of humanity but it does not endorse partaking in party politics. Instead of claiming constituencies, had the Church leaders tried to create public opinion and constructive debates on people’s exigencies before the polls it would have been an outstanding political contribution. Despite Kerala having numerous social issues to be debated and resolved religious leadership including the Catholics could not highlight them to be a decisive matter at the poll.

Walk With The People: The True Agenda

Though the elections took place amidst soaring temperature in the unusually hot month of May global warming and its local effects did not become a matter of political debate. Issues related to renewable energy found no place in the political discussions while Solar Scam was central to UDF’s doom. Many communities lack pure drinking water and some are completely deprived of water. Vizhinjam International Seaport project has displaced many fisher families and has robed of their livelihood. Additionally, it causes intense damages to the marine ecosystem. Waste management in the State is poorly handled and strategies to reduce waste are not accomplished.

While creative and urgent interventions in similar ecological issues constitute part of the social responsibility of the Church according to Laudato Si (#15), it is unfortunate that the leadership did not deem them to be critical agenda in the election. The defeat of the BJP in the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu was the result of a popular verdict steered primarily by the Catholic leadership who represent the fishing community of the area. The community thrashed the BJP tactic of communal and religion polarisation and stood against the proposed Colachel International Port.

A young woman (also a Dalit) had been brutally raped and murdered a few days prior to the polls in Perumbavoor, which is a Christian stronghold in Kerala. For politicians murder of Jisha and her mourning mother were merely an electoral opportunity, which they immensely exploited on the eve of the election. KCBC called for appropriate action against the culprits in a press release and Catholic youth groups staged protest rallies. The Church has separate commissions for the welfare of Women, Dalits, and above all for Justice, Peace & Development as well as Social Harmony & Vigilance. In spite of all these, the Church could not surface the issue as a human rights and gender issue, which would have been decisive about popular perception about the Church in the humanitarian politics.

Though Kerala has achieved remarkable standard in the human development indices, the plight of Adivasis and Dalits is still an unresolved issue. A vast majority of these groups live in Waynad and Idukki districts where Catholic Church has a significant presence. The mental health index of Kerala is depressing too. In a context when Kerala society turns hostile to people in the fringes as well as women it becomes a moral imperative for the Church to call for attention and aid appropriate agencies to curb such tendencies.

Kerala is host to almost 4 million domestic migrant labourers from other States such as Bengal, Assam and Orissa. These groups are exploited much and they live in subhuman conditions. At least 1.5 million of them work in the district of Eranakulam, where the Catholic Church is an affluent social presence.

Pursue the Concerns and Lead the Way

In a recent interview to the French Catholic newspaper La Croix Pope Francis explained how the Church should detach from partisan politics but hold on to healthy secularism. He reminded about the right way to understand and live according to the Church’s universal missionary mandate in relation to migration and the possibility of peaceful coexistence between and amidst other religious groups.

Many socially motivated priests and religious sisters of the Catholic Church have been enthusiastically working for the emancipation of marginalised sections of the society such as fishermen, migrant labourers, differently abled, farmers, Dalits, women and children. However, matters relating to these borderline groups have yet to become part of the Church’s common persistent agenda for public involvement.

What is evident from the past election in Kerala and Tamil Nadu is that partisan politics by the Church will only fragment the community further on caste and religious basis even if it is ostensibly for minority welfare. In dioceses such as Idukki and Thamarassery Church’s involvement in politics has divided even the presbyterium and the community into many factions.

Now that the public has counted some Catholic Bishops among other leaders who bank on religious and communal politics, they cannot conveniently retreat from public sphere. In a process of living the Gospel meaningfully and joyfully the ecclesiastic heads need to pursue the social and human issues and lead productive debates and discussions in the public sphere.

What the society needs is development based on peace and welfare of humanity. While politics thrives on rhetoric and strategies, Catholic involvement might transform it through creative and humanitarian engagement.

Ingenious attempt of eradicating communal language from political parlance is necessary. In a context when the ruling LDF is no exception of using the same communal language and violence constant and relentless efforts to control it shall be maintained for the coming years. Then the church would be seen as a true political force that stands with the people.

Christianity is a universal religion and is open for all. It cannot be reduced as a communal organisation, whose members of course have social, cultural and political demands. The Joy of Gospel is that Christ is for all and Christians live and die for all.

Published in Indian Currents on 6th June 2016, Volume XXVIII, Issue 23