Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram's latest weekly column in the Indian Express titled 'Mischievous and Fake Crusades' has apparently been seen by Kerala's Congress leadership as politically incorrect. The Congress leader tried in his article to counter common allegations against Muslims of waging 'love jihad' – meaning attempts to lure non-Muslim girls to religion through amorous relations - and about Muslim 'expansionist' policies to increase their population in the country.
However, the comments overall don't seem to have amused the state leadership of the Congress, as reflected in the immediate reaction of KPCC president K Sudhakaran. He said in so many words that it is up to the state party leadership to take a stance in such situations as warranted by local situations. Sudhakaran said that the party would not denounce the Bishop, nor did it endorse Chidambaram's views overall. He however did not explain what the state's local situation in this particular case is.
After Bishop of Pala Fr Joseph Kallarangatt in a read-out speech at a church ceremony used terms such as 'love jihad' and 'narcotic jihad', many quarters were up in arms against him for having ruffled the feathers of a communal equation in the state: for his comments were accusing the Muslim community of luring Christian girls with inducements of love and narcotics.
The Congress also had its initial finger of blame pointed at the Bishop; the ruling CPI-M too didn't approve of the Bishop's comments. It is another matter that CPI-M's Minister for Co-operation, VN Vasavan met the Bishop and told the mediapersons after visiting him that the Bishop's misgivings were cleared and the chapter was closed - as if the Bishop's utterances did not contain anything wrong. It was significant that Vasavan did not bother to meet in the same round any leader or organizations of the Muslim community, the party that was victimised by the controversial comments.
However, in subsequent response to the Bishop's speech, at a factual level and after some research into figures about narcotics-related criminal cases in Kerala, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan made some amends for its initial lapse and came out with a statement that the percentage of religious communities involved in narcotic-related crimes in Kerala did not show a disproportionate presence of any community; there was no point in alleging narcotic crimes as a reason for religious conversions. He also stated that bringing in religion as a factor in criminal involvements was undesirable as much as a counter to facts.
At issue for the Congress, however, is that though at one point, its leadership had come out strongly against the Bishop's comments, especially in tandem with the alliance partner Indian Union Muslim League leaders' reactions, the Congress in an apparently latter-day rethinking switched to a balancing gear. The party thence did not make comments against the Bishop, rather it emphasised the need for restoring peaceful inter-communal relations. Thus it took initiative to meet prominent religious leaders of both sides, but not before repeatedly asking the government to make that move. The government, alleged the Congress, failed to do so and hence it was forced to try a patch-up of troubled relations between two communities.
The Congress had its own political furrow to plough. For despite the denunciation of the Bishop's remarks by a spectrum of denominations of Christians in Kerala, the masses of the community would still be swayed by the Bishop's stance. And no section of the community would bear with a political party pitting its clergy on the dock.
As a matter of fact, at the ground level, there was no distancing between the two communities but misgivings were quite likely on both sides. Impassioned sections of people had got busy on social media too. Being the prelate of the prominent sect of the Syro-Malabar church, Bishop Joseph's words would carry some weight and attempts to bring him down in public estimation would be stiffly resisted by the laity at different levels.
Thus Congress soon was seen showing a push-back on its implicit denunciation of the Bishop for his comments but took a position as if the Muslims just needed some assuaging. The meeting of the Congress leaders separately with the Bishop and prominent Muslim personages appeared to be a conciliation move, as if there had been some bilateral issues between them. The party keeps asserting that it would try to bring both sides to a joint meeting.
As for community electoral equations, already the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress, had lost a slice of its block when the Kerala Congress-M faction led by Jose K. Mani, switched sides to the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the CPI-M. It is significant that the KC-M stood firm behind the Bishop causing some discomfiture to the CPI-M. That said, the absence of any election in the near future has prevented the matter from turning into a hyper-sensitive issue among political parties on both sides, though the medium and long-term implications are well realised by every side.
However, the Congress obviously does not want to suffer another round of erosion of popularity through a stance that would be widely seen, or at least projected, by the Sangh parivar, as appeasing Muslim leadership at the cost of ditching the Christian clergy. On the other hand, the BJP has consistently stood behind the Bishop's jihad hypothesis which even earlier the party had been whipping up. Hence the Congress' backtracking from putting the Bishop and his backers on the defensive.
But how the divergence between the Chidambaram stance and the KPCC president's pragmatic retort would be resolved, remains to be seen.