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Religious equations dictate political strategies in Kerala's forthcoming elections

Religious equations dictate political strategies in Kerala's forthcoming elections

Author: George Iype
Publication: Rediff on Net
Date: April 5, 2001

There's something about election fever -- in Kerala, at least, it affects even the Church, leaving the Marxists-led ruling Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led opposition, the United Democratic Front, with no alternative but to sing to the tunes of the Christian establishment.

In fact, on the eve of the assembly elections in Kerala, the first political demand from a religious community came from the Catholic church, one of the major Church denominations in the state. Senior priests from the archdiocese of Thrissur met Congress leaders A K Antony and K Karunakaran and demanded the UDF field Catholic candidates from the district's five assembly constituencies -- Kodakara, Thrissur, Ollur, Manaloor and Kunnamkulam. The Vicar General of the Thrissur archdiocese Monsignor Joseph Kakkassery went a step further by issuing an ultimatum: "If the UDF rejects our demand, the Church will not hesitate to put up its own candidates in these five constituencies."

Though Antony, Karunakaran and other UDF leaders did not relish yielding to the Church's demands, they had no choice but to agree. The five seats are dominated by Catholics, whose electoral decision will be influenced by Thrissur's Archbishop Jacob Thumkuzhy.

"The Christian vote is a crucial factor in Kerala's elections. Hence, no political party wants to unnecessarily upset the Church," admits Benny Behanan, general secretary of the Congress party in the state. But he believes both political and Church leaders should "ponder seriously" on whether it is proper to divide the electorate on religious lines and whether it is prudent to fight the polls on a communal agenda. "It is a very serious issue," the Congress leader insisted.

Christians constitute nearly 21 per cent of the state's 30 million population. The biggest Christian community belongs to the Roman Catholic church, followed by other Churches like the Orthodox, the Jacobite, the Marthoma and the Church of South India. Both the Marxists and the Congressmen are acutely aware that the clergy lend a definite direction to this major vote bank. In fact, the CPI-M's candidates's list proves the Marxists are eager to capture the Christian votes in Kerala.

Father Mathai Nooranal is an Orthodox Christian priest, contesting as an Independent from the Sulthan Bathery constituency in Wayanad district. What makes his candidature interesting is the fact that he is being supported by the CPI-M for reasons, they say, that have nothing to do with the fact that he is a well-known Christian priest. They say they are supporting him because of his long-standing social services in the fields of education and charity in Wayanad, one of the poorest districts in Kerala.

Father Nooranal is quite recognised in the area. He founded the first college of the district, namely the St Mary's College, at Sulthan's Bathery in 1965. He has also been working for the development of the co-operative movement in the state. He is, at present, the president of the co-operative banks in Sulthan Bathery.

Father Nooranal says he decided to contest the polls as an Independent with Marxist support because of his concern for the people of the area. "I am not an ardent supporter of any political party. When I aired my wish to contest, the CPI-M agreed to support me. It was very nice of them." The priest does not think it "wrong" for Church leaders to participate in the political process for social service. "Everything happens only through politics in India. How can the Church run away from this reality?" he asks.

The Left Democratic Front has also nominated M S Joseph, who resigned as the state's chief election commissioner, as its representative in the Idukky constituency. Idukky has a sizeable number of Dalit Christians from the Church of South India, to which Joseph belongs. Many believe nominating Joseph was a calculated Marxist move, since he wields considerable influence over the electorate in the region.

Joseph does not deny there is a religious agenda behind his nomination. "It is true that I am contesting from Idukky because there are many CSI families there. But I come from there too and there is nothing wrong in being a contestant in a democratic election."

It is not just these two regions; the Catholic church controls many constituencies in central Kerala and, as a result, influences both the Congress and the three major groups of the Kerala Congress in the area. The latter, led separately by K M Mani, P J Joseph and T M Jacob, survive only because they are supported by the Catholics.

Mani, whose group has been allotted 11 seats by the UDF this time, is not ashamed of the fact that his party wins elections because of the Church's support. "It is a fact that our party grew from the Christian heartland in Kerala. The Church naturally has considerable influence over the electorate. But we are not asking priests and bishops to canvass for us. We do not communalise issues. We do not mix politics with religion," says Mani, who served nine terms as Kerala's finance minister.

P J Joseph, who broke away from Mani to form his own party some years ago, has been an ally of the ruling LDF for the last five years. Many believe that, despite teaming up with the Marxists, Joseph has not lost the goodwill of the Church leadership. "In politics, it is not important which coalition you are part of. The most important thing is whether you are doing enough for the people in the constituency which you represent," says P C George, a close Joseph associate.

According to George, a sitting MLA from Poonjar, Joseph's Kerala Congress group has not lost "the Catholic credibility" by joining hands with the Marxist party. "Look at what I have done for my constituency. I have built roads, bridges... introduced development to the people's lives. No other politician has done what I have done here."

Over the years, the Church has emerged as an influential pressure group in Kerala's complex political scenario. It now competes with similar religious pressure groups like the Muslim League, the Nair Service Society and the Ezhava-based Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam.

This has raised questions about whether the Christian establishment should flaunt its political affiliations and openly indulge in political activity. Church leaders are divided. Some say it is unethical. Others say it is in the proper Christian spirit.

"I should make it very clear that the Church in Kerala is not committed to any particular political party. We want parties to take up our demands concerning the people. If we ask political parties to field Catholic candidates, it is because that makes it easier for us to garner attention for vital issues concerning the community," says Bishop Thomas Chakiath of the Ernakulam archdiocese. He adds that Church leaders never ask their community "to defeat" any candidate. "The Christians in the state are free to vote. They are free to make their own choice as far as the candidates are concerned."

But Father Paul Thelakat, editor of the widely-read Catholic weekly, The Sathyadeepam, laments, "It is improper for the Church to demand seats and press for particular candidates from political parties. The mission of the Church is not political. Sometimes, I fear the line between politics and religion are getting blurred in Kerala."

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