The Parrikar model: Why Modi is reaching out to Kerala’s Syrian Christians

by G Pramod Kumar
Narendra Modi and the BJP seem to have been successful in what the Marxists in Kerala have been desperately trying in vain – wooing the influential Syrian Christian clergy which always stood by the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).

What began as a trickle a few years ago seems to have gained considerable momentum of late with heads of different sects of the Syrian Christians either praising Modi, or refusing to criticise him. For them, he is good for both secularism and development.

On Sunday, the heads of the Jacobite and the Malankara Orthodox churches reiterated what the Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan Baselios Mar Thoma Paulose had said a few months ago – that the Church has no problem with Modi.

The fact that the clerics gave Modi a clean certificate on both the counts that he is criticised for – communalism and development – will be a shot in the arm for the BJP which has been trying to gain a foothold in Kerala’s highly polarised political space. Gaining the support of the Syrian Christian clergy is a breakthrough that the party has been working on in the state since the late 1990s. BJP state leader and former union minister O Rajagopal spearheaded the initial efforts in 1999 when the party was willing to listen to some of the long standing issues, such as divorce and succession, of the Syrian Christians.

Modi meeting with Syrian Christian leaders in Kerala. PTIModi meeting with Syrian Christian leaders in Kerala. PTI

The apparent warmth of the clergy with the BJP is not surprising because Syrian Christians, who claim to have been converts from upper caste Hindus, practise many of the latter’s rituals. In fact, other than their belief and methods of worship, they have more in common with the upper caste Hindus than other minorities. This has been the entry-point for the BJP. A few years ago, the RSS had asked the Muslims in the state to emulate Syrian Christians.

The BJP certainly looks inspired by its breakthrough in Goa, where it successfully wooed Christians, who account for a quarter of the electorate. In the last assembly elections, the party worked to a plan and had three influential Christian leaders from South Goa on its side. During the campaign, the present chief minister Mohan Parrikar went out of his way to promise Christians considerable share of seats and a number of initiatives that appealed to the community.

During his first term Parrikar had illuminated all the major churches in the state. Winning the loyalty of the Church and the Christians in Goa, which always stood with the Congress, was a strategy that worked for the party.

Syrian Christians are generally among the most prosperous in the Kerala – they have the highest per capita ownership of land, better housing and household goods than anybody else. They also top the number of US migrants from the state. In terms of development indicators, they have the highest women’s age at marriage, highest utilisation of family planning services and lowest fertility rate.

Other than gaining access to a possible BJP government at the Centre, with its traditional ally Congress, which has more or less been written off by everybody, the Syrian Christian community would want Modi’s support on the Kasturi Rangan Committee report, which conflicts with the interests of the influential lobbies within the community. The Church has been in an open war against the report claiming that it’s against the interests of farmers in the hills.

However, it’s too early to say if the BJP’s strategy will deliver electoral dividends. What has been apparent so far is that at least some of the Syrian Christian spiritual leaders are either not averse to the BJP’s political ideology, or Modi becoming the prime minister. A few months ago, the chief whip of the ruling UDF and the vice chairman of Kerala Congress, a political party that represents the interests of the Syrian Christians, had participated in a rally organised by the BJP. He distributed saffron T-shirts with Modi’s face on it.

Kerala has been an impregnable fortress for the BJP in the south. It hasn’t been able to send a single MLA to the assembly, and the party has been largely a political untouchable. Besides the polarisation of voters between the UDF and LDF, what also stood in the way for the BJP is the state’s demography – about 50 per cent of the population comprises of minorities.

It’s impossible to break into the state without the minority support. In the last few months, the local leaders of the BJP, as well as the Syrian Christian ambassadors in Gujarat – both businessmen and the community outposts, including the Church – have been working overtime to get close to each other.

In the coming months, the party will be looking for a Syrian Christian mascot, somebody similar to Matanhy Saldanha in Goa, to bat for them. But, the UDF losing Christian votes to the BJP is still a distant prospect because the political habits of the people in the state have been static for decades.