India’s political class has the amazing knack of milking any event for all it’s worth. But the scramble for scoring brownie points invariably exposes politicians’ double standard and opportunistic streak as their antics over Nobel Prize-winning Mother Teresa’s canonization at the Vatican prove beyond any doubt.
The Bharatiya Janata Party government’s decision to send a fairly large delegation to the Vatican smacked of hypocrisy as the BJP-RSS and affiliated outfits like Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal have a well-documented history of targeting Christians along with Muslims for the imposition of majoritarian rule in the country. The Hindu right-wing elements heaped the vilest abuse on Mother Teresa — India’s and the world’s most famous Christian besides the Pope — during her lifetime and after her death in 1997. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat savaged her recently.
So what drove Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who himself resorts to Christian-bashing to consolidate his hard-line Hindu constituency — to send Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to represent India at the Holy See? A couple of non-BJP politicians also tried to capitalize on the big event. But their romp paled into insignificance before the BJP’s chicanery.
The BJP-RSS is hardly bothered about the welfare of India’s tiny Christian community: Roughly 27.8 million or around 2.8 percent of the country’s population. But New Delhi badly wants to be in the good books of world powers like America, United Kingdom, France and Germany where Mother Teresa enjoys iconic status.
Moreover, key western governments and religious freedom watchdogs have often rapped BJP-RSS across the knuckles for attacks on Christians. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were burned to death by Hindu fanatics in 1999 causing global outrage. And soon after Modi became the premier, Christians were targeted and churches vandalized even in Delhi.
Speaking on Indian soil last year, US President Barack Obama delivered a stinging message to Modi to safeguard minorities at any cost.
Obama’s lecture on secularism left India red-faced. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s plans to visit a temple, mosque and gurudwara (Sikh place of worship) in Delhi last month couldn’t materialize because inclement weather had paralyzed the Indian capital. But he successfully delivered his message.
Modi’s other reason for sending Swaraj “to represent 1.25 billion Indians at the canonization” is next year’s elections in Goa. Roughly one-third of Goa’s population is Christian. The BJP has electoral ambitions in Kerala too where the Christian vote matters. As it does in the turbulent northeast, which is as overwhelmingly Christian as India is Hindu. And the BJP is greedily eyeing the entire region.
Unfortunately for Swaraj, she had to contend with an angry West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in the Vatican. Banerjee was invited to the canonization by Missionaries of Charity (MoC), the Calcutta-headquartered international order founded by Mother Teresa. But the room in the five-star Gran Melia Hotel which Banerjee had booked for her stay was grabbed at the eleventh hour by the Indian government to accommodate a member of Swaraj’s delegation.
According to The Telegraph, the Calcutta newspaper, which sent a correspondent to cover the canonization, “Banerjee, clearly smarting at the shabby treatment she had received from the Centre, planned her revenge well.” A detailed account of the “revenge” was published in Times of India, which wrote that “Banerjee sat beside and spoke to MoC head Sister Prema (during the ceremony) giving the royal ignore to Swaraj.” Banerjee also boycotted the dinner and reception hosted by India’s Ambassador to Italy, Anil Wadhwa, in Swaraj’s honor.
Petty squabbles apart, Modi’s decision to ignore demands by the Hindu right not to send a delegation to the Vatican, underlines his determination to kowtow to the West. The rebuffed right-wingers are extremely critical of what they call Modi’s obsequious and servile behavior bereft of any ideology. The compromise or sell-out — call it what you will — hasn’t gone down well at all.
Significantly, Modi didn’t send a junior minister or a political lightweight to the Holy See. He is so desperate to please world powers and cozy up to them at any cost that he zeroed in on Swaraj who is ranked number three in the Indian government after the PM and Home Minister Rajnath Singh. But all his maneuvering and posturing will come unstuck when Hindutva foot soldiers train their guns on Christians the next time.