It was certainly ill-timed, evidence of political naivety, and possibly an overdose of wishful thinking for the Archbishop of Delhi to request his flock to storm heaven through prayer and fasting for a pristine election next year ~ for the Karnataka poll was set to be completed when his missive was circulated in all Catholic churches in the NCR.
He thus pitchforked himself and his community into a controversy best avoided. Yet, as JFK had observed, “those who do not speak when they should, lose the right to speak altogether”. And being a spiritual leader Archbishop Anil Couto had no other remedial mechanism at his command.
Actually, before every election the Church issues such an appeal, but this time around the BJP leadership reacted sharply. Couto’s remark that a “turbulent political atmosphere” posed a threat to India’s democratic principles and secular fabric pricked the conscience of the leadership, and it saw ghosts where none may have loomed ~ at least not according to a clarification issued by the Archbishop.
Amit Shah said it was “not appropriate” to polarise people around religion”, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi asked Couto to shed his “prejudiced mindset”, and new kid on the block KJ Alphons said the remark was “unfair” to the government.
The union home minister did not directly join issue with the Bishop, said he had not personally seen the statement, but stressed a commitment “to strengthen the bonds of amity, affinity and harmony in our society”. The relations between church and state have universally been complicated, but with the BJP now leading the government an anti-minority slant is perceptible.
And the various points Couto made for preserving the nation’s secular credentials could be faulted only by those unaccustomed to hearing even stray moans of dissent. Of course their “fears” were fuelled when Mamata Banjeree and Chandrababu Naidu spoke up for the Bishop.
Fortunately, Sonia Gandhi did not say anything immediately ~ else Couto would have been dubbed the “voice of Rome”. Overall it was a storm in a teacup. There is still another year for the general election: too long for Couto’s comment to reverberate, but long enough for the BJP’s lesser lights to make the statements that confirm their bias.
As a church leader the Archbishop of Delhi does wield a certain influence but not enough to influence a poll in even a municipal ward in the city. Thus by reacting as sharply as they did, without citing which of Couto’s comments they deemed offensive, the BJP ran the risk of cementing the concerns of the minorities.
That the majority is expected to “carry” the minority along with it is a concept too elevated for large sections of the political class to appreciate. And the Archbishop will not have even a walk-on role in 2019, but could be “exploited” to consolidate Hindutva forces.