April 25, 2014

On the Road before E Day

Day 16: Does Church have a poll role?

I am a devout, church-going Catholic and take religion seriously. However, I don’t wear it on my sleeve and try not to make it part of my public persona. Despite these efforts, there are occasions when some people choose to misunderstand me and miss a nuanced point.

This happened the other evening on Times Now, while discussing the letter written by Father Frazer Mascarenhas, a priest and the principal of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, to all the students of his college. Without explicitly naming parties, Father Mascarenhas made a pitch for the Congress. He urged students to be wary of the Gujarat model and praised some key programmes of the UPA government. The implication was obvious.

As an individual, Father Mascarenhas is entirely entitled to his views. He is free to write a newspaper article stating his case, and criticising or praising a political party. However, in writing to his students in his official capacity as principal, in writing on official stationery and under the St Xavier’s College letterhead, he clearly and absolutely overreached himself. In that narrow sense, his action is indefensible. I say this even though I share misgivings about the Gujarat model’s political sustainability.

I was keen to see, however, that the debate did not take a religious turn and did not lead to accusations that all Catholics, or all Christians, were being asked to vote against the BJP and in favour of the Congress. I believe Father Mascarenhas’ personal view is not the institutional view of the Church nor the view of every single Christian. Indian Christians are as heterogeneous and as politically divided as members of any other community.

We need to understand the social-religious structure of India’s 24 million Christians, some 80 per cent of whom are Catholic. Father Mascarenhas reports to a Provincial. In turn the Provincial reports to an Archbishop. The Archbishop reports to a Cardinal. India has five Cardinals. All of them vote in a papal election. One of the senior-most is Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.

On February 11, Cardinal Gracias issued a letter to the Catholic community in anticipation of the general election. He laid down the social and economic context of the election and the Church’s concerns. He prayed for, among other things, a leadership that would “uphold the secular character of our nation and promote communal harmony and a spirit of inter-religious dialogue and understanding”. Other than a general wish list, there was no reference to parties or political programmes. In fact, the letter said:

At the outset we wish to make it clear to all that the Catholic Church does not identify herself with any political party. But we have a responsibility as bishops to urge every eligible citizen to exercise his/her right and duty to vote and do so prudently, carefully and judiciously. All our parish priests are urged to impress on the people their obligation in this regard. We must be convinced that every vote does count. We owe it to ourselves, our children and our country not to let go of this opportunity to get involved in bettering the history, culture and destiny of our nation.

I fail to say how the paragraph above, and the tone of Cardinal Gracias’ letter, is even remotely objectionable. Of course, I would be the first to admit that Father Mascarenhas’ letter violates the spirit of Cardinal Gracias’ message.

On April 6, the final Sunday before voting began in the 16th Lok Sabha election, every church in India, across denominations, had a special prayer for “free and fair” polling. Again, no parties were mentioned and no preferences were stated. These two signals – of February 11 and April 6 – encapsulate the Indian Christian religious leadership’s official view of the election.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

[This article was carried by The Times of India | Friday, April 25, 2014]