With over 75 per cent of Meghalaya’s population Christians, both the Congress and the BJP are out to woo the Church ahead of the assembly elections. The Congress has pulled in a number of Christian leaders, particularly from South India, to whip up its campaign against an “anti-Christian” BJP, which is looking at Meghalaya as a major destination for its next government in the Northeast.
While former Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy is on a two-day tour of the hill state to address a series of election meetings, Lok Sabha MP Anto Antony and Kerala MLAs K C Joseph and Dominic Presentation too have been detailed for whipping up the Congress campaign. Congress national spokesperson Tom Vadakkan has been stationed in Shillong for the last two weeks now.
The BJP, for its part, has placed Union tourism minister K Alphons in Meghalaya.
The two parties are also engaged in a debate over wooing the powerful Church, with the Congress accusing the BJP of trying to bribe the Church. The allegation has come from Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who has described the BJP’s alleged offer as “sad”.
The BJP has hit back saying Alphons had only referred to schemes under the Swadesh Darshan that provide funds for development of pilgrimage sites for people of various faiths. “The Congress has been trying to mislead the people. We demand an apology from Rahul Gandhi and his party,” Meghalaya BJP chief Shibun Lyngdoh said, adding it was Rahul who had actually held a meeting with Church leaders in Shillong.
During his visit on January 30 and 31, Rahul also indirectly referred to the BJP government’s attempt to ban beef. “We will defend your culture, your way of thinking. Be proud of your heritage, of your culture, of your language, your religion,” Rahul had said, after attending a concert called “Celebration for Peace” in Shillong on January 30.
“It is a fact that political parties try to woo the Church during elections. Political leaders and candidates visit Churches and other religious institutions, and nowadays even take pictures with religious leaders to later put them out through various media to claim they have their blessings. But as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, it has nothing to with politics. We are neutral. We work for the poor,” said Father Bivan R Mukhim, principal of Don Bosco College in Tura.
Father Mukhim added, however, that the Church definitely looks forward to candidates and parties who are honest, work for the poor, and are serious about tackling the burning problems faced by the people. “We look for a leader who would work for the poor. We look for a party that is concerned about the poor. There are so many burning issues, such as unemployment, poverty, healthcare, roads, insurgency which require urgent attention,” he said.
Former IAS officer Toki Blah, who was appointed chairman of the Social Audit Council by the outgoing Congress-led government of Mukul D Sangma, said that the Church, though influential, had never played any role in politics in Meghalaya. “The Church has never played a role in politics. It is however a fact that political parties try to rope in the Church to get votes. But I would call it dirty and opportunistic politics,” Blah said.
The BJP has fielded 47 candidates for the 60-member Meghalaya assembly election, while the Congress has fielded candidates in all seats. The National People’s Party (NPP) founded by former Lok Sabha Speaker P A Sangma — which is part of the NDA at the Centre — has fielded 50 candidates, and is not in alliance with the BJP in the state.