Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, head of India’s bishops’ conference [CBCI] and a member of the council of cardinals instituted by Pope Francis in April to advise him on Church reform and governance, this week met with Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi.
It is not the first time a Catholic archbishop has met the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance which rules India.
All four Indian cardinals have met her at one time or the other in courtesy calls, or to bring to her notice some Church issue they thought important enough for government action.
They of course also meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his ministers sometimes.
Other bishops routinely meet chief ministers such as J Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu or Sheila Dikshit of Delhi, again for mundane local issues, or to urge them to set right some irritant hindering the functioning of a school, or to press the cause of some aspirant to political or administrative office.
In some states, Christian ministers routinely call on bishops for support when elections come around. These are presumed to be natural functions of a Church head, or of a diocese in the service of the people.
Heads of other religions also call on Gandhi and Singh and meet the heads of other political parties in a similar vein, so there is nothing unusual in the 'princes of the Church' contacting rulers of the realm. In fact, some other religious heads are blatantly political, or are political functionaries themselves, unlike in Christian churches.
But what drew attention in Indian newspapers, political circles and social media regarding Gracias’ meeting was the CBCI note which said the cardinal “appreciated the key role played by Sonia Gandhi” in getting the Food Security Bill passed into law by parliament.
Cardinal Gracias also discussed certain clauses in the Right to Education Act and some sections of the proposed National Land Reform Policy. No details were given, but the CBCI quoted Gracias saying, that the “Catholic Church will wholeheartedly support all efforts of the government, aimed at the welfare of the poor and the downtrodden.”
With general elections due any time before May 2014, and several state legislatures up for grabs in November and December, election fever is slowly gripping the country.
There are some who interpret the cardinal’s visit and remarks as pledging support to the Congress Party. More so since the popular view is that Christians have always supported it.
This is not entirely a myth, for the Congress is seen by Christians as among the few political groups that swear by secularism and is not wedded to one religion.
The Communist parties are also secular, but Christian leaders have been suspicious of them ever since the 1950s when Kerala’s first Communist government sought to meddle in the management of Church-owned educational institutions.
The controversy comes when lay voices challenge the right of the bishops and heads of churches – of all denominations – to speak on behalf of Christians on issues which are entirely temporal, and in fact political, and therefore within the rights of lay men and women. And specially when their words seem entirely partisan and commit the entire Christian community to a course of political action which may not, be desirable in the long run.
It does not help that the religious leadership is also seen as being politically naive.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) remains an anathema to Christians and Muslims across the country – despite the fact that in Goa some Catholics voted the local BJP into power because they had tired of a very corrupt local Congress leadership.
In Gujarat and Delhi, some Christians are now warming up to the BJP, saying that the party could shed its Hindu-centric agenda once it is in power.
There are other political alternatives with a secular and pro-poor agenda. But while church leaders want to tell political parties that they represent and speak for their communities, hardly anyone has ever taken any steps to educate and train their laity in political processes, ideologies and grassroots mobilization.
The result is that barring a few states, Christians are almost absent from local political processes. There is gross under representation in village, block, district and state elected administrative structures.
Gandhi would perhaps be better served if she talks with ordinary Christians in villages and towns. Then she will be really aware of the plight of tribal women, the anger of Dalit Christians who feel betrayed by her party and the youth who seek progress, jobs and scholarships for higher education, which their parents cannot afford, and for which the Church offers no help. She may even take some steps to reduce the disempowerment.
Aspirants for political office may still seek the bishops’ blessings to strengthen their application for a ticket to a state assembly or parliament seat, but ordinary Christians are increasingly making it clear they are not a pocket borough, or a vote bank, of any single party, and their religious leaders are not authorized to barter away their support.
John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.
India: India's lay faithful face myriad social problems that need addressed.