The Telegraph
Saturday , January 21 , 2017

BJP grapples with bishop's barbs in Goa

New Delhi, Jan. 20: The BJP is banking on a division in Goa's dominant Christian vote to help it tide over Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrao's thinly veiled criticism of the party-led state government at a civic reception attended by chief minister Laxmikant Parsekar.

Party sources said the archbishop's comments at the pre-Christmas annual reception - also attended by Parsekar's predecessor, defence minister Manohar Parrikar - had made it clear the Church would signal to its laity not to vote for the BJP in the February 4 Assembly elections.

In the 2012 elections, the BJP was the beneficiary when the Catholic Church had distanced itself from the Congress government of Digambar Kamat with a call for change.

"We hope the Christian votes get divided between the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). If it consolidates behind one party, we will be in trouble," a BJP leader in Delhi said.

Christians account for a fourth of Goa's population and most of them are Roman Catholics. Ferrao, a local who has headed the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman since December 2003, is considered fairly influential within the community and in the state.

The Catholic Church never tells its members which party to vote for but issues broad guidelines that are indicative enough.

At his civic reception speech on December 22, Ferrao had complained about the prevailing atmosphere in the country. He did not blame anyone directly but it was clear that his barbs were directed at the ruling dispensation at the Centre and in Panjim.

"The proposed draft of the new education policy has been brought out recently, but such a recognised stakeholder as the Church has not been taken into confidence at all. There are elements today who accuse the Church in India of engaging in proselytisation and conversions. Our charitable works are looked upon with suspicion and as an allurement for conversion," he said.

The Church, he added, has often been accused of being of "foreign origin, although it has gifted the nation with some of the finest high-ranking defence and administrative personnel, who have defended our country and served it with exemplary patriotism and dedication".

"Our institutions have been attacked, robbed, burnt down and the perpetrators of these crimes often go scot-free. It is almost as if the tiny three per cent is posing a serious threat for the disintegration of the whole nation," Ferrao said. The archbishop also dwelt upon Goa's environmental degradation.

Parsekar and Parrikar, who are said to have a good equation with the archbishop, apparently did not stay on at the reception after he wrapped up his speech.

The Church's annoyance with the BJP should be a fresh cause for concern for the party, already battling a rebellion by former Goa RSS chief Subhash Velingkar. Ironically, Velingkar has accused the party and the BJP government in Goa of appeasing the Church.

Velingkar has formed his own outfit - the Goa Suraksha Manch - and has aligned with the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtravadi Gomantak Party with a single-point agenda: defeat the BJP.

Along with the division in the Christian votes, the BJP hopes the multi-cornered contest would split the anti-incumbency votes and pave the way for its return. "The presence of the AAP would only help us. The AAP will divide the anti-BJP votes," a BJP leader associated with Goa affairs said. Party leaders here claimed Velingkar's rebellion would have little impact.

The BJP is also banking on the Narendra Modi government's demonetisation decision.

"Corruption is a big issue in Goa and so demonetisation has had a big impact in the state. Modiji will address election rallies and we are confident that people will vote the BJP back to power," a party leader said.

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