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Published in the 1-15 Apr 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Indian Christians and general elections

The religious hierarchy and community leadership of India’s 2.5 crore Christians, of whom over 1.15 crores may be registered voters, has called on them to cast their vote to make a difference in these forthcoming general elections which have been described as a watershed in the history of the nation.

The Christian community is divided and scattered, but has significant concentrations in Gurdaspur district of Punjab, the main cities of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra, several districts of Kerala, Andhra, Tamil Nadu and in Bangalore, Mangalore and Dakshin Kanara in Karnataka. They are also decisive in Goa, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram though these states have very few parliamentary seats. With other minorities and secular groups, it has in the past been decisive in several constituencies, says Christian council secretary general and AICU vice president John Dayal after a nationwide survey

The Christian community can also play an important electoral role in the tribal belt extending from Gujarat and Rajasthan in the west to Jharkhand and Orissa in the east, and parts of Bengal where its educational and social projects have transformed life over the past century and a half.

Though divided into Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecost Denominations, separated by language, rituals and oriental, occidental and indigenous rites, the community has collectively faced victimization, persecution and violence. It has also, in recent years, felt increasingly marginalised in economic development, entrepreneurship, employment and in higher education and government jobs.

The community, specially its youth, has also felt betrayed by political combinations and sometimes their own political leadership. Christian members of Parliament have not taken up issues of persecution and rights for Dalit Christians, matters better raised in the Lok Sabha by Marxist and Independent MPs. Exceptional Christian MPs have been Eduardo Faliero and Margaret Alva.
Although they are still against religious reservation of seats in Parliament – a position they took to great applause in the Constituent Assembly where Father Jerome D Souza was the articulate spokesman – the Christian community is increasingly feeling left out of the electoral process because of the very small numbers participating in grass roots and Panchayati Raj activities, and the miniscule number who manage to get a ticket from the established political parties. 

Christians are by and large against a religion-based political party, even otherwise impossible because of their scattered demographic distribution. In Tamil Nadu where one-man Christian parties have been set up in the past, the results have been disastrous.

The broad perception has been that the community has voted for the Congress over all the past general elections, but this image changed in the last two general elections where persons such as Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra and even Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu rode to power on the additional strength of the Christian vote. Even in Goa, the church hostility to corrupt politicians in the last two general elections indirectly helped the BJP to come to power by a thumping majority.

Christian organisations this time have urged political parties – the entire spectrum barring perhaps the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata party which still remain an anathema -- to give seats, and winnable seats, to the Christian community.

Christian leaders have urged the community to come out in large number to cast their vote, and cast them early in the day. They have also been told to remain vigilant against their names missing from voters list, or others casting their votes in their place.

Similarly, the congregations are being told, after Sunday prayers and in mass contact programmes, that they must remember that in this age of collation parties, it is a vote for the party and not for an individual which matters.

Speakers, among them lay leaders, are also emphasizing that congregations keenly look at party records, past promises and performances and above all a sustained commitment to secularism before they cast their vote. They should not, as John Dayal says, be misled by slogans such as so and so is a good man in a wrong party, or false promises.

— John Dayal

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