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Goa Polls & Anti-Christian Attacks: Is the BJP-Church Understanding Over?

Will the recent spate of anti-Christian hate attacks impact the BJP's relationship with the Church in Goa?

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As Goa gears up for the 2022 Assembly elections, is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Goa Church honeymoon already over, and well past its sell-by date? This unlikely and seemingly impossible brief fling is still only inadequately understood, explained in clichés, and at times even deliberately incorrectly portrayed.

This uneasy alliance was in place just prior to the 2012 Assembly elections in Goa. Without it, the BJP wouldn't have got its slender 21-seat majority in the 40-member in the Assembly.

Former Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar's long stint in the Opposition, his eagerness to get into power virtually at any costs, and ability to compromise with the devil (to choose an inept pun) when needed, all made this possible.

So will the spate of anti-Christian hate attacks, and other controversies, including anti-conversion laws, have its impact on the BJP's relationship with the Goa Church?

Yes, and no. Depending on how one looks at it.

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Understanding the History

In a Goa driven mainly by soft communal polarisations since 1963, the Church has seen itself as having limited choice.

For the 1960s and 1970s, it largely supported the United Goans Party (UGP), a Catholic-dominated group led by more affluent and upper caste Catholics, which shared the Church's perspective. (Catholicism does not ritually sanction caste, but the system carries on at the economic and social levels nonetheless.)

By the 1980s, when the UGP leadership mostly shifted first to the Congress (U), and then the Congress (I) – together with much of the Hindu-dominated Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) as well – the Church naturally moved politically, with some exceptions.

As prominent Catholic leaders like the late strongman Dr Wilfred de Souza, a double-FRCS (Fellow of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons) and skilled surgeon, felt emasculated within Congress politics, the Church appeared divided.

In the 1990s, the rise of the BJP lead to sharper communal concerns. This led to shifting approaches by an institution which has under 25% of the state as its religious adherents (down from around 38% in the 1960s).

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Hierarchy in the Church in Goa

Contrary to the perception from the outside, the 'Church' is not a monolith, though at times it does work as a concerted lobby. This depends on the threat perception and other factors.

Despite its hierarchy – headed by an archbishop, the local head of the archdiocese of Goa and Daman – there can be many pulls and pushes within the Church. Individual priests are known to take their own stands at the grassroots, siding with one or the other politician, sometimes going against what seems to be the Church's 'position.'

Given its own concerns and limitations, the Church itself tries to take more subtle stands in the elections, offering 'guidelines' to the faithful. These focus more on broad principles, against corruption at times, highlighting communalism, or 'anti-people' and unpopular projects. It does not take names of parties or politicians, though its allusions can be read.

Given its network of schools and churches it runs, the Church has also been cautious about not alienating the politicians in power.

Unlike the Church in Latin America or some overtly political Popes, at times willing to speak out against power, the Archbishop of Goa has been sometimes criticised for not taking hard stands.

But the 68-year-old Filipe Neri António Sebastião do Rosário Ferrão has increasingly come out strongly against the misuse of political office. The latest was during the 3 December 2021 Francis Xavier Feast at Old Goa.

His speech lashed out at unnamed politicians for not doing their duties in preventing corruption and protecting people's interest. This vent viral in these times of YouTube and social media.

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Ferrao, who studied in Rome, is seen as soft-spoken, the kind who will often start his talk with a joke. He is known to tell the devout "Call me Father," though holding a post which is treated with immense respect otherwise, and doesn't mind a handshake instead of a more-reverential kiss on his ring.

Besides this, it is hard to understand the mechanics of the Church itself.

A hard-hitting article in its official fortnightly magazine Renewal/Renovacao might reflect the individual views of an influential member of the community. Or it might also reflect a view that has the backing of the Church itself, make what you can of it.

The toughest part is the role played by individual priests sometimes. They sometimes seem to be 'freelancing' in the worst sense of the world, uncontrollable by the institution they are part of. Some take sides depending on their own biases. This is especially true in constituencies like Salcete (Goa's only Catholic majority taluka now), where more than one party or politician is vying for the Catholic vote.

The community has differences of caste and class, which make the issue complex.

Can 2012 Repeat Itself?

It were these difference of caste and class that, in 2012, were skilfully made use of by Manohar Parrikar, the chief minister of Goa for four (all incomplete) stints, and later India's defence minister.

Parrikar's contribution was his innate ability to understand the complexities of Goan society. He made deals where needed. At the cost of losing close allies, he compromised to give (mostly Church-run) schools state grants even if they taught in English medium.

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Manohar Parrikar also negotiated for the backing of diverse sections of the Catholic minority. He mopped up a dominant section of the elites, including Brahmins within the Church and parts of Panjim, to members of another dominant caste, the Chardos of Salcete, to subaltern Catholics seeking their place in the sun and eager to outgrow elite domination within their own community.

Added to this, he also successfully picked up support of those simply sick of Congress' corruption, including the party being used by all forms of vested interests. The party's long stay in power had also made it face more anti-incumbency factors, a couple of years before the 2014 Modi historic win in Delhi.

After Parrikar's death, his successor Pramod Sawant, though the former's nominee, has been very different from his predecessor.

Sawant is showing signs of taking a hard-line approach, including with a headline-grabbing statement on rebuilding Hindu temples in a Goa which faced long (and sometimes intolerant) colonial rule from 1510, when Europe was convulsing between the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Renaissance.

Goa's Christian population has often been well-received in many parts of India, despite the low-intensity communalism back home. So the recent attacks and anti-conversion thrusts (including in nearby Karnataka) have been unsettling.

But the role of the local politicians is something that is continually pushing the Church to take on more activist stands. This has been true of pre-BJP times prior to 2012 too.

The recent building of a huge mansion in the backyard of the Old Goa protected religious monuments, allegedly by the kin of BJP spokesperson Shaina NC; eco-unfriendly projects; rampant corruption; dubious laws affecting land (including small owners since the 1960s); primary education policies that are anti-English; controversial mega-projects amid growing land-related political rackets; are among the issues the Church and some of its outspoken younger priests have spoken out against.

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Following 2012, when the BJP is also seen as having won over crucial sections of the Catholic-owned media, the unspoken-of alliance came unstuck. But it held out for long enough to gain a 21:9, seemingly impressive, lead over the Congress in the 40-seat assembly elections then.

In 2017, the results were 17:13 favouring the Congress. Yet, the BJP stayed on in power, with the help from the governor's decisions, and repeated defections through the term.

Splitting of the vote could also play a role now, with new entrants like Trinamool Congress, an aggressive Aam Aadmi Party, a local nativist Revolutionary Goans and the MGP all believing that they have a fair chance.

As of now, there are no signs that the Church would want to keep the BJP more than an arm's distance away. But, if there is a fragmentation of the vote effectively undertaken, any result could emerge.

More than the "minority vote," what would also be carefully watched is whether the BJP can continue to be successful to keep together its "Hindu vote bank" attempt, given caste and other pulls and pressures. In 2017, there were clear elections that the party was unable to sustain its support from many sections of the Hindu voters themselves.

But given its determined and all-out election machinery, any result out of Goa might not cause much surprise.

(Frederick Noronha is a senior journalist based out of Goa. He has previously written for Deccan Herald, The Financial Express, BBC, Outlook, Associated Press, Dawn and can be reached at @fn. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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