ELECTIONS AND CHURCH HIERARCHY On the Propriety of Directing the Flock on How to Vote

Valson Thampu

Valson Thampu

It has become customary for bishops in diverse denominations, especially in Kerala, to direct their flocks regarding how they should vote or who they should vote against. They do so, unmindful of the democratic impropriety they incur. Also, in indifference to what is good for the Christian witness in this country and the health and wholeness of India as a socialist, secular, democratic republic. This is irresponsible and indefensible.

An action has to be judged by its intent. What is the motive underlying this arbitrary and unreasoned advocacy by the prelates?

Clearly, it is aimed at sending a message to the political class in the state and wherever else. By flaunting the authority to direct the flocks to punish a particular political outfit in this fashion a message is sent out to the political class that Christians vote en masse as directed, which is simply untrue! No prelate or priest enjoys in this day and age such a sweeping and tyrannical control over any Christian individual or denomination. Rather, given the trauma and anger in which most individual Christians are at the moment on account of the many fronts of moral failure of the hierarchy, it is even likely that such directives result in a backlash against the party officially favoured. What these acts of desperation by those who resort to them illustrate is their need to secure political patronage for themselves and the interests they need to protect. It has nothing to do with promoting the larger interests of the Christian community, the wholeness of the society or the health of our democratic culture.

What is more, measures of this kind have a sinister side that, for being hidden from immediate view, need to be highlighted all the more. That aspect pertains to influence-wielding by the prelates. None of us is against the priestly officialdom having due influence with the wheels of governance.

This involves a host of other issue as well, only a few of which can be flagged here.

First, it is presumptuous on the part of bishops to assume that the lay people are so politically uneducated and immature that they need to be instructed, like kindergarten children, on how to behave in respect of voting. The truth, on the contrary, is that a great many among the laity are more politically aware and wise than those who seek to chaperon them. Only those who assume that others need to be tutored by them issue such directions, which are, therefore, vitiated by an assumption of lay ‘immaturity’ in the Kantian sense. An immature person, according to Immanuel Kant in The Meaning of Enlightenment, is one who cannot use his judgment, and needs to be told what to do at every stage. He is one who dares not trust his capacity to make independent judgments. The sign of spiritual and intellectual maturity is that a people emerge from their self-inflicted or Church perpetuated immaturity and, on mature considerations, decide for themselves. It is an insult to the laity that they are not trusted to the extent of being able to use their common sense that teenagers are assumed to have these days.

Second, directives of this kind interfere with the benchmark conducting ‘free and fair’ elections which is a democratic imperative. All citizens –more so members of minority communities- must be firmly and fiercely committed to the integrity and inviolability of our democratic processes; especially when, as now, they have come under serious stress and strain. I need to be explicit here. The foremost nightmare we face today is that of Indian democracy succumbing to majoritarian communalism, which is tantamount to fascism. The operating principle of this potential communal Holocaust is the communal polarization of voters. That is to say, coercing or cajoling citizens to vote as per religious considerations. The directions issued by some of our bishops are in no way different from the communal strategy followed by the BJP and Sangh Parivar to garner electoral benefits. By acting in this myopic and irresponsible fashion, our religious leaders legitimize the Sangh Parivar way of doing politics.

Third, the rationale used for these appeals is alarming. A party is to be favoured, and others frowned upon, simply because that party favoured the church! There is no word on what these interests were, or if they were just and fair. The impression created, therefore, is that a political party is to be rewarded for serving the vested interests of the church hierarchy. Put more explicitly, the church publicizes the impression that it will reward anyone who acts in indifference or violation of the demands of objectivity and justice. This is horrendous in its implication. The spiritual mandate of the church is, instead, to be a voice crying in the wilderness demanding justice not just for itself but also for those who thirst and hunger for it. I am not implying that the party officially favoured is inferior or superior to other parties in its commitment to truth, justice and good governance. My point is that there is no indication pertinent to this in the statements issued, which is misleading.

Many of us see a not-so-subtle connection between such political trade-offs and the need that the Kuruvilangad sisters had to resort to direct action to ensure that justice even begins to be available to the victim in the alleged rape case involving Franco Mulakkal. It is some relief that at long last the charge sheet has been filed in this case. But the inordinate delay in appointing a public prosecutor in this matter is a cause for anxiety.

The nexus between the political and the religious elite –which is not quite the same as a principled collaboration between religion and politics- is a trend that merits outright condemnation. In history, the collusion of elite interests has always worked to the subversion of justice and the promotion of vested interests. The church would need no political patronage, if it pursues its Christ-centred mission without fear or favour. Patronage is needed only to defend what otherwise is indefensible.

Partisan appeals and public posturing can work only to the detriment of ordinary Christians who have to face the communal hostility this is sure to activate. It is dangerous and dishonest to create the impression that Christians are a pliable vote-bank that their religious leaders can mortgage electorally to promote themselves. I know the Kerala Christian community to be a politically mature and discerning one. I have every reason, therefore, to believe that they will vote, not as per directions issued to them, but according to their own inspired understanding of what is good for themselves and the country, both of which, I hope, converge in the present instance.

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