Christian and Muslim leaders ask Indians to 'vote wisely' as Modi eyes re-election

Catholic Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas (left) speaks with Dr. Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, an imam and president of the Imam Council of India (right) at an interfaith conference Feb. 23, 2019 in Delhi.

Catholic Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas (left) speaks with Dr. Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, an imam and president of the Imam Council of India (right) at an interfaith conference Feb. 23, 2019 in Delhi.

BANGALORE, India — Some 900 million Indians will be involved in the world’s biggest exercise in democracy to vote a new federal government April 11 to May 19. The results on May 23 will determine whether the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 69, will return for another five-year term or whether a grand alliance of the Opposition parties will put the breaks on the juggernaut of the Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that’s on a roll.

Leaders of India’s minority faith communities have exhorted their faithful to elect political parties that have demonstrated their commitment to the Indian Constitution’s protections to maintain social harmony, pluralism and respect for everybody’s faiths.

Modi’s BJP party, with its umbilical cord to its ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that’s been advocating the establishment of a Hindu nation has steadily won support from a majority of Hindu Indians, who form 80 per cent of the country’s 1.3 billion population.

In seven phases of polling spread over 36 days, more than half a billion people are expected to register their votes at nearly one million polling stations run by an independent constitutional authority, the Election Commission of India (ECI) that has declared a model code of conduct where political parties are warned of severe action if they try to polarize voters or play the religion card.

“As I travel the country, I have sensed a kind of apprehension that the minority faiths are going through under some fringe elements who seem to have the blessings of the ruling dispensation,” said Sajan George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians. “The BJP’s manifesto speaks openly about the party’s intent to build a strong base among the majority Hindu community.”

For example, building a temple for the Hindu god Ram in his birthplace Ayodhya, on the site of a mosque’s rubble, is on the BJP manifesto. A Hindu mob demolished the historic 16th-century Babri mosque there in 1992, triggering communal riots. More than 1,000 people died. It was the worst ever sectarian violence since India’s independence in 1947. Currently, the Ram temple dispute has stagnated before the Indian Supreme Court, which has asked a three-member team of experts to come back to the apex court with the best way to settle the matter. India has the third largest population of Muslims, who form about 14 percent of the population, behind only Indonesia and Pakistan.

Meanwhile, a leading Muslim scholar, Kanthapuram A.P. Aboobacker Musliyar, general secretary of the All-India Jamiyyathul Ulema, has urged people “to elect secular political parties…to protect constitutional values and strengthen democratic institutions.” Despite a significant Muslim minority, the BJP’s list of congressional candidates has hardly anyone from the community.

That’s not because Muslim Indians don’t have impressive accomplishments. An Amman, Jordan-based nonprofit has listed 22 Indians among the world’s 500 most influential Muslim leaders in the world: the list includes tech tycoon Azim Premji and Oscar award-winning music maestro A.R. Rahman (who composed the soundtrack for Slumdog Millionaire among many others). Although Muslim rocket scientist APJ Abdul Kalam was handpicked by the BJP to be India’s president, there was no attempt made to build a national memorial in New Delhi to keep the popular president’s memories alive (Kalam died while in office in July 2015).

In the 2014 polls, more than 60 percent turned out to vote: that is, about half a billion. Modi has been associated with the RSS from the age of 8, including when he allegedly assisted his dad selling chai at a railway station in Gujarat. He joined the BJP in 1985 and grew fast within the ranks thanks to his speaking and organizing skills. After serving as the Gujarat state chief minister, he became the BJP’s face in the 2014 Lok Sabha (parliament) polls where the BJP pulled off a victory with 31 percent of votes – the highest for any single political party. India’s oldest political party, the Congress Party, only received 19 percent. Other like-minded parties joined hands with the BJP to form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – representing a 39 percent vote share.

NDA is confident of returning to power on the Modi wave, fueled by the promise of getting closer to a Hindu rashtra (nation) soon. RSS, the cultural organization founded in 1924, desires to consolidate the collective strength of the 80 percent Hindu population to make India a strong nation. BJP leaders like Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk who is the chief minister of India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh, have been renaming cities with Muslim names to more Hindu ones. For example, Allahabad, named so in the 16th century during Mughal rule, was renamed Prayagraj, forcing all government communications to use the new official name. The BJP has also talked of coming up with a uniform civil code (India currently has separate laws for different faiths for some civil matters like marriage, divorce, property taxes, etc.) and a multi-billion-dollar plan to clean up the river Ganga, considered holy water by many Hindus.

Modi isn’t stopping at Hindus in India, either. He’s winning the hearts of Hindus worldwide, reaching into the vast Indian diaspora. Though Indians abroad cannot vote without returning to India, they can fund political activities with a major currency advantage.  For example, Modi managed to influence leaders in the Middle East. Later next week – April 20 – he will inaugurate the groundbreaking of the Middle East’s first traditional Hindu stone temple. The marble temple will be built in Abu Dhabi featuring intricate architecture and delicate carvings, set to open around 2020. This temple will be built by the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, the non-profit organization entrusted with constructing and managing the temple.

Leaders from the Christian and Muslim communities, meanwhile, are exhorting their community members to “vote wisely.” By law, religious leaders cannot name the parties or the candidates that their faithful should vote for, but they have given general guidelines that their faithful should follow when deciding which button to press on the electronic voting machines. Catholic leaders are sore that community members in states like Goa – 27 per cent Christian, a former Portuguese colony until its liberation by Indian forces in the 1960s – have to take time off from observing Lent to cast their votes on April 23 (Good Friday falls on April 19).

On Maundy Thursday, April 18, 13 Indian states will vote, making it difficult to juggle between participating in daylong prayers and mass while slipping away from the pews to cast votes in long lines at nearby polling stations.  

The EC rejected the request of Tamil Nadu Catholic bishop Antony Pappusamy, archbishop of Madurai, to reschedule the polls even after explaining to the EC that in his state Tamil Nadu there were five million Catholics, and nearly 2,800 schools run by the church will host the polls. CBCI secretary general Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas had also supported his appeal to the EC.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India that represents the nearly 20 million strong Indian Catholic community, has sent an appeal to Catholics to go to the polling booth and vote. In his appeal, he notes that “voting is a sacred obligation: do so wisely".  The Cardinal, who is also the archbishop of India’s commercial capital Mumbai, exhorted that every single vote counts. “We owe it to ourselves, to our children and to our country, to exercise this sacred duty and to involve ourselves in improving the direction of our nation,” he said.

The Cardinal flagged some hot button issues that the leaders in power must address: burning issues like supporting the poor and the disadvantaged, creating a healthy environment for all citizens, especially women and children, protecting our environment and promoting harmony between communities and interreligious dialogue.

The president of The North East India Regional Bishop’s Council (NEIRBC council, Rev. Dominic Jala, issued a statement that voting is a sacred duty and obligation of every citizen.

In the north-eastern state of Assam, where the BJP is in power, archbishop emeritus of Guwahati Bishop Thomas Mennamparampil notes that the 2019 polls are the most crucial in the political history of modern India. In another northeastern state Arunachal Pradesh, the election regulatory body was forced to trash Catholic church circulars that openly canvassed for a particular candidate, a violation of the election body’s rules (as well as the Catholic Church’s official policy of not endorsing any particular candidates or parties).

Says one leading Christian leader, who didn’t want to be named:

“We fear we will be targeted if we speak out boldly. Ultimately, it is God’s plan who ought to be India’s next prime minister or the political party. Like the apostle Paul who wrote to his spiritual son Timothy, we have to pray for our kings and those in authority and we have to be good citizens and do whatever it takes to be a salt and light in a dark world.”