04/16/2009, 00.00
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What Indian Christians can hope from these elections

by CT Nilesh
Voting, which began today, is scheduled to last a month. For Christians two factors are a potential sign of change: the end of the alliance between the BJP and Orissa’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and his party, and the election of a new leader to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS or National Volunteers' Organisation).
New Delhi (AsiaNews) – The political scenario is becoming more complicated day by day. The old alliances are breaking up. Every party wants to go alone to face the electorate, hoping to gain and be in a better bargaining position to make alliances for the future government. New regional parties are appearing, moved by the desire to acquire statehood or by the need to resolve regional problems. Most probably the two national parties, Congress and BJP will suffer a loss. There is a lot of talks about a third front, around the communist party and Dalit parties, hopeful to put up a government without the Congress and BJP, but among them there are too many self proclaimed candidates for prime minister. The real battle will be in the second half of May, when the results will be known and the leaders will start working out coalitions, promising ministerial berths right and left.

One survey published on The Times of India said that the Congress will emerge as the single largest party with 144 seats, but will find the BJP just a step behind with 137.

If the Congress will be able to convince the present allies it will get 257 seats but it will fall still short of the required majority of 272 in a house of 543 members.

Will the Christian community gain from the present election? The question is particularly relevant in places where they suffered persecution in the recent past like in Orissa.

Two events may have some bearing on this question.

First the chief minister of Orissa, Naveen Patnaik, with his party, had broken away from the BJP. Second the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) has a new leader in Mohan Madhukar Bhagwat.

The first event was greeted with great enthusiasm by the Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, Raphael Cheenath. He said that the church is happy to see Orissa’s ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) parts ways with ally Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Violence against Christians in Orissa by Hindu rightwing activists last year, particularly in Kandhamal district, is believed to be one of the reasons behind the collapse of the BJD-BJP alliance in the state.

“The Kandhamal incident may be one of the reasons for breaking the alliance” Cheenath acknowledged. Communist Party of India-Marxist general Secretary, Praksh Karat, has said his party leaders met Orissa Chief Minister and BJD chief, Naveen Patnaik, following the attack on Christians by rightwing Hindu groups and told him that “it is untenable for him to continue with the BJP”.

Kandhamal district in Orissa witnessed large-scale violence against Christians after the murder of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, August 23 last year. At least 38 people were killed and thousands of Christians were driven out of their homes. . More than 3,000 people are still living in government relief camps.

Cheenath himself received death threats from alleged VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) activists that his life would be taken to avenge the killing of the Hindu seer. He expressed hope that secular forces would come to power in the state after the general elections.

Another encouraging fact in Orissa is the recent arrest of the local BJP candidate to Lok Sabha, Ashok Sahu. He was arrested Tuesday for making an inflammatory speech in Orissa's Kandhamal region earlier this month. 'Sahu was arrested from Phulbani town,' Kandhamal District Collector Krishan Kumar told Asia News. He was accused of delivering a communally charged speech on April 5 at a public meeting in Raikia town. He allegedly accused the church of indulging in conversion. During his two-hour-long speech he accused Congress Rajya Sabha MP Radhakant Naik and archbishop Cheenath and missionaries of plotting the Swami murder. He also held the church responsible for the insurgency in the north-east of India and Maoist violence in Jharkhand and Kandhamal. His hate speech prompted the administration to lodge a complaint against him on April .

Kandhamal DM Krishna Kumar said: “We had also sent the videotape and other proof to the Election Commission.” He was arrested in the district headquarters town of Phulbani. He was produces before a local court which remanded him in judicial custody for 14 days. Sahu, linked to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, had made similar remarks during the communal violence last year. Christian leaders had immediately refuted the allegations. While Sahu is contesting the Kandhamal Lok Sabha seat, the BJP has also nominated Manoj Pradhan, an accused in the riots, for the assembly election from G. Udayagiri constituency in the district. Pradhan was arrested about four months ago and is still in jail.

The second event that can have a bearing on the relationship between the Christians and the rightwing Hindu organisations is the change of leadership at the top of RSS.

Mohan Madhukar Bhagawat,  a 58 year old veterinary doctor, was elected last month as the sixth Sarsanghchalak. He comes from a family of RSS activists. His father, Madhukar, is known to have initiated LK Advani into RSS fold.

Bhagawat is seen as unifier within the Sangh. Bringing back a sense of equilibrium within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar’s functioning are expected to top his priorities.

One of his first priorities will also be to prepare a second line of leadership after the aging LK Advani.

In the recent past the Jesuits had tried to start a dialogue with the RSS, but with little success. The RSS founded in 1925, is keeping the idea of a colonial church, not acknowledging the changes of Vatican II. With a new leadership, a new start can be made on the basis of the recent documents of the Vatican and World Council of Churches on conversion and freedom of religion.

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