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Church watches anxiously as general election begins

P.V. Thomas
04/16/09 NEW DELHI, India (UCAN) — India has begun another round of what is described as the largest democratic exercise in the world.

A five-phased general election began on April 16. The results, expected on May 16, will determine which political party or alliance receives a mandate to rule India for the next five years.

During the monthlong exercise, about 714 million voters are expected to visit 828,804 polling stations throughout the country as they elect 543 members to the Lok Sabha (people’s council), the lower house of parliament.

At issue are high stakes, such as the country’s existence as a secular nation. Other core concerns dominating the election include good governance, development, internal security and corruption. Religious minorities, especially Muslims, are decisive in many states.

The Church plays a crucial role in several Christian pockets, especially in Kerala, Goa and some northeastern states. The election comes at a time when Christians are facing challenges from governments and religious fundamentalists in various places.

In the southern state of Kerala, Church leaders are at odds with ruling communists, whose government they claim is trying to smother Christians. Media have accused Kerala-based Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil of Ernakulam-Angamaly, president of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India, of saying in his recently published biography that communists are a greater evil than the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian People’s Party).

However, Christians in the eastern state of Orissa, where Hindu radicals waged seven weeks of anti-Christian violence beginning last August, have identified the BJP as the force to defeat. The party, which supports a Hindu nationalist ideology, was part of the two-party coalition that ruled the state during the violence. When that alliance split on March 7, Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, head of the Catholic Church in the state, said he was happy.

Some BJP leaders do not hide their hatred for religious minorities and sometimes express it openly to gain popularity and votes.

Varun Gandhi, a BJP candidate from Uttar Pradesh and grandson of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, recently provided an example of this. He was arrested and jailed on March 28 for saying he would cut off the hands of Muslims who dared raise them against Hindus. He was booked under the National Security Act, which allows imprisonment of up to one year without trial.

The woman who heads the government in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Kumari Mayavati, continues to challenge the BJP. Some predict she has a chance to become prime minister if none of the three main players in the election emerges with a clear victory.

The three main players are the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and the communist-led Third Front. Pundits do not expect any party or coalition to gain 273 seats, the simple majority required to form the government, and predict a heavily fractured mandate instead.

No single party has achieved this majority since the 1984 election, in which the Congress secured a record more than 400 seats under the leadership of the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. He rode a sympathy wave then, in the aftermath of the assassination of his mother, Indira Gandhi, while she was serving as prime minister.

Even the present ruling front that is completing its five-year term does not have a majority. It ruled for four years with outside support of communists. After the communists withdrew support last year, the front continued with support from another party. Outside supporters do not join the government but vote in favor of the government in parliament.

In their bid to woo voters, parties have promised action to help students, job seekers and farmers, as well as tax cuts and better administration. Both BJP and Congress also have promised to tighten internal security if voted to power.

National security became an election issue following the terror attack last November on Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. The Congress manifesto promises “zero tolerance towards terrorism from whatever source it originates,” while the BJP manifesto pledges stringent anti-terror measures and also a review and revamp of the internal and external intelligence system.

While the BJP accuses Congress of being soft on Muslim fanaticism, BJP opponents point out that terror attacks on the Indian Parliament, the iconic Red Fort in Delhi and a temple in Gujarat, western India, took place when a BJP alliance was ruling the country.

Large-scale violence against Christians has occurred in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh states, both of which the BJP rules, as well as Orissa. Several constitutional provisions allow federal intervention in such situations, but Christians have complained that the ruling federal alliance has been apathetic for fear of antagonizing Hindus, who form more than 80 percent of India’s people.

If the Congress-led UPA alliance manages to return to power, Manmohan Singh is expected to serve a second term as prime minister. The BJP has named its leader, Lal Krishna Advani, as the rival for the job. Advani, 81, is close to groups working to make India a Hindu theocracy.

However, past Indian elections have been full of surprises, especially after single party domination gave way to an era of coalitions in 1989.