DELHI, India (BP)–India’s 14th general elections -– the world’s largest electoral process — began on April 20, with voting to continue until May 10. More than 40 regional and national parties are vying for 543 parliamentary seats. Given the nation’s recent history of religious oppression, the election – with a potential 675 million voters – is critical to Christians throughout India.
The two major groups contesting the elections are the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the secular alliance led by the opposition Congress Party.
The BJP has surprised some voters by wooing Christian and Muslim communities, previously seen as the exclusive vote block of the Congress Party, according to a report by Compass Direct news service. As part of their campaign platform, BJP politicians have promised an economic uplift for religious minorities while downplaying their support of the militant Hindu cause of making India a Hindu Rashtra (nation). The traditional right-wing party has pledged to make India a more developed nation by the year 2020.
In a surprising move, the BJP recently recruited Christians into the party itself. Four Christian clerics belonging to the Church of South India (CSI) and the Pentecostal movement have joined the BJP in Kerala state, where Christians comprise almost 20 percent of the population.
Abraham Thomas, a member of the CSI, told media representatives that “I am joining the BJP to prove that the party is not anti-minority.”
In the southern state of Karnataka, H.T. Sangliana, a former superintendent of police in Bangalore, also has joined the BJP. Sangliana is well-known for his Christian beliefs.
Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani of the BJP paid special attention to Christian-dominated areas when he traveled through Kerala state as part of a countrywide election campaign in March.
However, most Christians refuse to believe that the BJP party, with its record for militant Hinduism and oppression of Christian minorities, has made any real change in its nationalist policies.
The BJP’s ongoing support of extremist Hindu organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal is evident in its election manifesto which talks about a nationwide ban on unethical religious conversions. Such a ban would be based on anti-conversion laws already in force in Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh states.
Some Christians are puzzled at the way BJP politicians have appealed to Christian voters while simultaneously promising to extend anti-conversion legislation. John Dayal, national vice president of the All India Catholic Union and the secretary general of the All India Christian Council, pointed out the inconsistency in a recent news release.
“Though the party is busy trying to seduce people of various minority communities, the vision document of the BJP, the manifesto of the NDA and statements of the BJP’s national leadership leave one in no doubt that the party and the NDA are wedded to the communal politics of the RSS, which are hostile to all minorities and specially to the Christian community,” Dayal stated.
Anti-Christian activities are still underway, despite the election rhetoric. According to a report in the Indian Express on April 15, the VHP recently held a “re-conversion” ceremony for Christians in the Dangs district of Gujarat, a state notorious for the violence perpetrated by Hindus against Christians.
Christians claim that the recent attacks on Christians in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh, were orchestrated by BJP government officials in that state. The officials were elected on a platform that emphasized development issues. However, oppression of the Christian minority began immediately after the elections.
Christians in other parts of India fear the same thing may happen if the BJP wins the general elections by a substantial majority.
“Even if the BJP returns to power using development issues, it is very likely that it would revert to its core Hindutva [nationalist Hindu] ideology,” Reginald Mukha, general director of the Evangelical Trust of North India, told Compass Direct.
The Congress Party manifesto also has accused the BJP of misusing religion for political gain. The manifesto holds the BJP responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 Muslims in the Gujarat riots of 2002.
In contrast, the Congress Party promises “strict action against those who promote social bigotry” and “the enforcement of the rule of law to ensure social harmony and cohesion.” Its 32-page manifesto also advocates “full equality of opportunity in all respects for the weaker sections of our society.”
Most opinion polls give the NDA a comfortable majority. According to an Indian Express–NDTV poll in mid-March, the NDA is likely to win the elections, with the BJP winning 190 to 200 seats. The same poll predicts the Congress Party will win 95 to 105 seats.
However, it will be several weeks before the final results are known. Vote counting will not begin until May 13. Until then, India’s Christian community can only vote, wait and pray.
Copyright 2004 Compass Direct, a news service based in Santa Ana, Calif., focusing on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.