The BJP’s Goan Catholic MLAs feel the heat after the Church opposes CAA

On 18 February 2020, Filipe Neri Ferrão, the archbishop of Goa presided over the Saint Joseph Vaz feast mass at Sancoale in south Goa. The archbishop has opposed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, and destabilised the position of Catholic legislators who recently defected to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the state. Sujay Gupta
19 February, 2020

On 9 February, the archbishop of the Catholic community in Goa issued a statement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, which appealed to the government to “immediately and unconditionally revoke the CAA and desist from implementing the NRC and NPR.” The Church’s stand seems to have had a deleterious impact on the political fortunes of eight Catholic members of Goa’s legislative assembly who defected from the Congress to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, in July last year. It has led to a perceived fall in support for these MLAs among the Catholics, who make up 26 percent of the state’s population and to the Church butting heads with a government they had previously been on cordial terms with.

Many members of the BJP leadership I spoke to were worried. A senior member of the BJP’s Goa campaigning team, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me that the eight Catholic MLAs who defected in July 2019 are likely to feel the heat the most. Other Catholic MLAs such as Mauvin Godinho, who holds five portfolios including transport and panchayati raj, were elected on the BJP platform and will not be as affected, he opined. He continued, “The new MLAs have expressed to us how difficult it will be to convince their minority voters. It is a fact.” An MLA who did not want to be identified was also deeply concerned about his own electability after the CAA was passed. He said, “My constituency has Muslim voters too, about a thousand of them and I am surely not getting their votes.” He added, “My Catholic voters will move away and only if I manage to help them by other means will they still be with me. And the Congress votes are not coming to me either except the very personal supporters. The only solace is that we have two more years and may manage to recover some ground.” Some MLAs are harried enough to question their continuation in electoral politics. Antonio Fernandes, a BJP MLA from Santa Cruz, is one of the eight Catholic defectors. He told me “I will see the ground reality. Only if I’m sure that I have a good chance of winning the next elections, will I contest. If I don’t see it, I will stay home and will not contest to lose.”

This unease was visible in one of the semi-urban constituencies of central Goa. Amid new construction and the faithful attending mass at the village church situated in its main square, the usual languid pace typical of the region had been replaced by a distinct sense of disquiet. The MLA of the region who won his election on a Congress ticket had left it for the BJP. The reason for his defection as well as that of his seven colleagues is tied closely to the role MLAs often play in community and church activities in Goa. The biggest currency any MLA in Goa has is their ability to provide jobs. Following this, they are valued by the sponsorships they give to village fests, football matches and other assorted donations, for the red-letter days of the social calendar of rural Goa. MLAs, especially of the ruling party, are able to provide the finances because of the perceived access to influence and power. These needs transcend ideology or party affiliations in Goa. An MLA who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said, “Many of us decided to join the BJP because no work of Congress MLAs was getting done.”

Though the defection has helped the MLA provide jobs and gain access to funding, it has also put him and the seven other Catholic MLAs in an uncomfortable situation due to the church’s impasse over the CAA. On 24 January, the Council for Social Justice and Peace—the social-justice wing of the archdiocese of Goa—called a rally against the act. Following the CSJP’s rally, the archbishop of Goa demanded the revocation of the CAA. The Diocesan Centre for Social Communications—the official communications arm of the archdiocese—issued a statement on 9 February which read, “The very fact that the CAA uses Religion goes against the secular fabric of the country.” The discriminatory nature of the CAA has led to the galvanisation of a chunk of the Catholic community against the CAA, and consequently the BJP, too. The defecting MLA recognized this and told me that his relationship with his constituents has changed.

The tone of this confrontation seems to be getting stronger. What might have political significance in Goa is that the statement purports to be not only on the behalf of the archbishop but the entire Catholic community. This would mean that the Church’s leadership is confident that their position is not different from that of most Catholics. Savio Fernandes, a priest and executive secretary of the CSJP told me, “The process of getting people to question their MLAs is on. But people have made their stand on the CAA and other issues clear.” The CSJP started a process to get voters from the constituencies of the defectors to speak to their MLAs and probe them on their personal views on the CAA and NRC. This is likely to further solidify the tussle. Savio said he was unsure of whether the Church’s stand and the public protests would affect the state’s 2022 legislative elections, though he said “We are sure of a clear stand people have taken on the issue.”

Sensing the shifting politics on the ground, a few ministers of Goa, including a senior minister from the Catholic community had spoken to the BJP leadership in Delhi. He had told me, “The idea is not to take on the Church. When Manohar Parrikar was Goa’s chief minister, he went out of his way to see that the requests from the archbishop’s office and other needs of Church bodies were looked at and the work done.”

In 2000, Parrikar, during his first term as chief minister, helped establish a cordial relationship between the Church and the saffron party that existed until recently. Parrikar had attempted to declassify Good Friday as a public holiday in Goa which had drawn the ire of Catholics, leading to a public outcry. Following this, Parikkar had undertaken a Sadbhavna Yatra—goodwill tour—and met Catholic priests and visited churches. Consequently, he won with a resounding majority, with the backing of Catholics in Goa, particularly in south Goa.

The Church, too, has been quick to admonish its own flock and even its clergy when hateful remarks have been made against the BJP or its leaders. In 2019, Conceicao D’Silva, a Catholic priest, had attacked Amit Shah, who was then the BJP president, and called him a “demon” during a speech. He had also referred to the late Parrikar’s cancer as the “wrath of God.”

The very next day, Olavo Ciado, the media director of the DCSC, in a statement said “We sincerely regret any pain or hurt that these statements may have caused,” followed by another condemnation by the Catholics Bishops Conference of India, the top body of the Catholic Church in India.

The minister who did not want to be identified agreed that the BJP’s view of the Church, too, has undergone a major change. He said, “The feeling now is that the government’s open and cooperative attitude towards church-affiliated bodies and with religious leaders has not really been reciprocated in terms of the Church or Catholics backing the BJP.” He added, “Moreover, on the issue of CAA and NRC, if they take such a strong stand against it, the current BJP will not treat them softly. That is evident. But it does cause unease in places like Goa.” He explained that the religious divisions in Goa had never been stark and the state’s socio-cultural milieu does allow for a lot of harmony and coexistence. He, however, opined that this coexistence would change if both sides continued to take hardline positions.

One of the first indications of the BJP’s combative stance was when the police filed a First Information Report on 30 January against the CSJP. This was based on a complaint by an NGO called SCAN-Goa, which objected to the anti-CAA rally called by the CSJP in January. It argued that children were subjected to “psychological abuse” because of the speeches at the anti-CAA rally, and that the organisers misused children and exposed them to “political ideology and expressive language.”

Following the archbishop’s statement, Narendra Sawaikar, the BJP’s former member of parliament from south Goa and current commissioner of NRI Affairs of Goa,  attacked the Church in a set of tweets. Sawaikar stated, “If #CAA is discriminatory for Goa #Archbishop, than Article 30 of Constitution of India is more discriminatory. Don't claim benefits at taxpayers money by claiming minority status! #CAA@Pontifex.” He was referring to benefits given to educational institutions run by the archdiocese. These schools are partially government funded, as allowed for in the fundamental rights of India’s constitution. Article 30 grants minorities the rights to establish and administer educational institutions. The schools, however, do not discriminate by religion and allow students of all faiths to enrol, and thus do not violate Article 30, as Sawaikar alleged. Sawaikar tagged the official Twitter handle of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, in his tweet.

Sawaikar’s following tweets were aimed at the archbishop’s statement too. He stated that it was not the CAA that was divisive but the archbishop’s February statement. His third tweet stated “Let the Archbishops be informed that CAA is a law and that any law can be repealed or rescinded 1 by act of legislature or 2 the court striking it down. In present case challenge is already before SC.” 

This falling out can have a significant impact on the uneasy balance of power in the Goa legislative assembly. After the 10 July defections, of a total house of 40 legislators, BJP has 27. Of the 27, including those who fought their elections on BJP tickets, 15 MLAs are Catholics. Eight of these 15 MLAs are from south Goa, the part of Goa the Church has chosen for its recent ground mobilisation. Among the eight MLAs from south Goa, six are from the Salcete and Mormugao talukas, the heart of Goa’s Catholic belt.

Godinho made it fairly clear that the tough stand on the CAA by both sides would be a struggle for church-going BJP MLAs. He had left the Congress for the BJP before the last assembly elections and won on a BJP ticket, making his position different from the new defectors. He told me that if there is a sharp divide in voting along religious lines, the impact would be felt throughout the state. The Catholic BJP MLAs have to negotiate a tightrope between maintaining the favour of the Church and the mandates of their party command. He explained, “The contribution of minority institutions in Goa in the field of education and social service has been distinguished. I would only request the powers that be to give them due recognition and importance.”

However, following the archbishop’s statement against the CAA, Godinho reverted to the BJP’s stance and remarked, “It is wrong for religious institutions to make statements, which create communal divide.” But this was countered by his cabinet colleague, Michael Lobo, minister of ports and an MLA from the tourist belt of Calangute. Lobo, who is Catholic, said “Every religious leader has a right to guide his followers and I think politicians must not interfere in that.” 

It is clear that with the archdiocese in no mood to relent on their position against the CAA, there is a flux among the Catholic leadership of the BJP. The sense of discomfort among many Catholic MLAs is beginning to show. As for the new defectors, they are wearing their discomfort on their shirt sleeves. One senior member of the Goa Forward Party—a regional political party—who wished to remain anonymous, told me, “The other day I met an MLA who was part of the lot that defected last July to BJP from Congress. He simply said ‘I’m gone, there’s no chance of me coming back to power.’”

Currently, what is looming large over the politics of Goa is the prospect of the CAA and the public opposition to it—an extension of the general mood prevailing in the country. From the fears of BJP MLAs and senior leadership, this phenomenon is assuming greater significance than the basic developmental needs for which these mass defections took place. Some turncoat MLAs I spoke to expressed frustration that they could not be confident of the camaraderie they had with those who voted for them. Regretting the troubles that the BJP’s stance on the CAA had brought, Antonio in a rare candid moment told me “My body may be with the BJP, but my heart and soul is still with the Congress.”