On December 25, senior clergymen of the Christian community, business leaders, an actor and an athlete streamed into the Ashok Hotel in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri to celebrate Christmas with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

As the invitation requested, they carried proof of identity, especially Aadhaar cards, for “in-person verification” at the event. Half an hour later, they were shepherded to a complex nearby – 7, Lok Kalyan Marg, the prime minister’s residence.

In his address to them, Modi drew a link between his government’s policies and the message of Jesus Christ. “In a Christmas address, the Holy Pope once prayed to Jesus Christ that the people who are trying to abolish poverty should be blessed,” he said. “These words of the Holy Pope are in line with our mantra of development. Our mantra is ‘Sabka saath, sabka vishwas, sabka vikas, sabka prayas’.”

Seated during the event to Modi’s right was Oswald Gracias, the Indian cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, the largest denomination among Indian Christians, and an advisor to the Pope. To his left was Anil Couto, the archbishop of Delhi. Also present was Paul Swarup, the Delhi bishop of the Church of North India, which serves the Anglicans, the second largest denomination among Indian Christians.

Key to facilitating the attendance of high-profile members of the Christian clergy was 38-year-old Anoop Antony Joseph, who was central to organising the event. He was photographed milling among the dignitaries, even introducing some of them to Modi.

Antony is the former national secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party. In 2021, he had contested from Kerala’s Ambalappuzha seat on a BJP ticket and lost, but not before the Indian Express called him the party’s “most prominent Christian face” in the polls.

Antony now “coordinates” work at the Modi Story, said an employee of a Gujarat-based trust, who told Scroll that he, too, works for the website. The Modi Story is dedicated to projecting the prime minister as a larger-than-life politician. In a social media post in March 2022, Antony described the site as a “volunteer-driven effort” that focuses on the “inspiring life of Shri Narendra Modi ji”.

The trust linked to the site shares an address with the BlueKraft Digital Foundation, run by advocate Hitesh Jain, the vice president of the BJP in Mumbai. The foundation has produced hagiographic books about Modi with mainstream publishers like Westland, Rupa and Prabhat Prakashan. Antony is a part of this network dedicated to bolstering the Modi personality cult.

Anoop Antony introduces a dignitary to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: Anoop Antony/Facebook.

Antony’s invitees

Photos and videos from Modi’s Christmas event were circulated on mainstream media and through the social media handles of the prime minister and the BJP. The guest list also included well-known Indian Christians such as athlete Anju Bobby George, who participated in the 2004 Olympics, and actor Dino Morea.

One of the guests at the event was Thomas Mar Anthonios, a bishop of the Kerala-based Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in Gurugram, Haryana. Anthonios told Scroll that it was Antony who invited him to the celebration. “I’ve been in Delhi for the last two years,” said Anthonios. “Ever since, he has been in touch with me.” Anthonios praised Antony’s “enthusiasm to serve, especially to be in good relationship with our community”.

Anthonios said that Antony sees to it that he has “a good relationship” with the people in Delhi and with the BJP. “I take it in a positive way and not in a partisan spirit,” he said.

Roby Kannanchira, the director of the Chavara Cultural Centre, a Kochi-based Catholic cultural institution with a Delhi branch, presented a framed collage to Modi at the event. Kannanchira had also been invited to the event by Antony. “I have known him for four years and he is a good friend of mine,” he said. “He called me last week to extend an invitation.”

Roby Kannanchira with Narendra Modi at the event. Credit: Narendra Modi @narendramodi/X.

Antony had also invited a seven-member delegation of the All India Association of Catholic Schools to the event. Shinoj Kizhakemuriyil, the president of the association, said he had not met Antony before the event. “He asked me to introduce him to heads of some leading schools,” he said.

One of those heads was Julie Joseph, the principal of St Mary’s Convent School in Ghaziabad, who told Scroll that she received an invitation from Antony over the phone on December 22.

Kuriakose Bharanikulangara, the archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Faridabad, was formally invited to the celebration by the Indian Minorities Foundation. “But it was Anoop who got in touch with me for all the practical things – where to come and how to travel,” he said. “He introduced himself at the event and said that he had been in Delhi for several years.”

Antony’s association with the clergy in Delhi goes back to the first Modi government. In 2019, he was part of a BJP delegation that met Delhi archbishop Couto and John Mor Irenaeus of the Believers Eastern Church to clear “certain misconceptions” about the Citizenship Amendment Act. Both Couto and Irenaeus were at Modi’s Christmas Day event.

So was Eusebius Kuriakose of the Delhi Diocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church, who had hosted Antony as a chief guest at his church’s youth conference in 2018.

Not all the clergymen at Modi’s event were Antony’s guests. Deepak Valerian Tauro, the auxiliary bishop of Delhi, for instance, had been invited by a junior secretariat assistant at the Prime Minister’s Office. AC Michael, president of the Federation of Catholic Associations of Archdiocese of Delhi, was invited by Anil Antony, a BJP spokesperson who joined the party after ditching the Congress earlier this year. However, Michael declined to attend the event.

Making inroads in the Christian community is important for the BJP’s strategy in Kerala, where the party is yet to secure an electoral victory. The Malayali thrust of Modi’s guest list was hard to miss. Earlier in December, the BJP held a gathering with members of the Christian clergy in Kochi and adopted the “Kochi Resolution” to commit towards a “Developed India by 2047”.

At the event in Kerala, Anoop Antony had also launched a booklet titled “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Special Bond with the Christian Community”. He also posed with Modi holding the booklet during the event on Christmas.

Narendra Modi with Cardinal Oswald Gracias. Credit: Narendra Modi @narendramodi/X.

The Modi Story

The emphasis on Modi’s political achievements as well as his “special bond” with Christians in India is exactly the kind of messaging that the Modi Story focuses on.

Before Antony’s tenure as national secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, he was part of the Delhi-based Learn Foundation, run by Shailendra Sengar, the former national vice president of the Bharatiya Janata Kisan Morcha, the farmers wing of the BJP.

But Antony’s association with BJP’s affiliate organisations did not quite deliver on the ground when the party gave him a ticket in the 2021 Kerala elections: he came third in the Ambalappuza constituency – behind candidates put up by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front – securing a 16.3% vote share, lower than the 17% votes that the saffron party cornered in 2016.

In March 2022, the BJP announced the launch of the Modi Story website. Since then, the Modi Story seems to have interviewed anyone who has ever met Modi, including Olympian Neeraj Chopra, Tata Sons chairman Natarajan Chandrasekaran and former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott. All interviews have one thing in common: they contain only praise for the prime minister and project him as a great, flawless figure.

According to Newslaundry, the interviews are not copyrighted and are often broadcast by television news channels sympathetic to the prime minister.

In 2022, a user posted an opening for a “journalist” on LinkedIn, the professional networking website. When Scroll accessed it on December 25, his profile described him as an “administrator” at the Modi Story. A phone number attached to the post led to Vishnu Ramesh, whose LinkedIn profile says he is the human resources executive at Integrate M-Power Trust.

Ramesh told Scroll that he and Antony work at the Modi Story. “I manage the office work here,” he said. “Anoop coordinates the work we do.” Ramesh did not answer further questions about Antony, saying that he was “away due to a personal tragedy at home”.

Antony’s LinkedIn profile says that he has been a “consulting editor” at Integrate M-Power since November 2022. Another Integrate M-Power Trust employee’s LinkedIn profile, when Scroll accessed it on December 26, said that she works at Modi Story. Both the employee’s and the administrator’s LinkedIn profiles no longer mention their association with the Modi Story. Integrate M-Power Trust and the Bluekraft Digital Foundation share the same corporate address on Hanuman Road in Delhi’s Connaught Place.

Antony did not respond to a request for an interview or reply to a set of questions sent over text messages asking if he had helped organise the Christmas event and about the nature of his work at the Modi Story.

A profile attached with a job opening on the career website Joblum describes the Integrate M-Power Trust as an “intellectual think tank based in the capital city of New Delhi which has been active for the past five years”.

On Joblum, the trust lists research, policy advocacy, political analysis, diplomatic interventions and journalistic investigations as its functions. According to the Centre’s GST website, the Integrate M-Power Trust was registered in Ahmedabad in February 2022. The description of its work is “sponsorship services & brand promotion services”.

Earlier in December, the trust put out another job advertisement on the careers website Naukri.com to hire a journalist for a “project working on various govt. related project”.

On December 5, the Modi Story and the Bluekraft Digital Foundation had launched the book, Resilient India: How Modi Transformed India’s Disaster Management Paradigm, with Rupa Publications. It was followed by a massive marketing campaign on social media websites, with BJP leaders and Union ministers giving rave reviews over short videos shared on Facebook, Instagram and X.

Protest at Press Club

The political outreach to senior clergy, however, was met with scepticism by some among the Christian community. Prominent among them was Michael, President of the Federation of Catholic Associations of Archdiocese of Delhi, who had declined the invitation to Modi’s Christmas party.

On December 28, Michael was part of a group of activists and civil society members who protested against the Modi government’s perceived prejudice against Indian Christians and the dignitaries who attended the celebration.

“I did not go there because of the rising attacks against the Christian community,” said Michael. “The Modi government has refused to speak about it, including the violence in Manipur.”

Minakshi Singh, who runs Unity in Compassion, a human rights organisation, said that Hindutva messaging is bent on creating an impression that Christians in India are bent on mass conversion. “We are not treated like we are citizens of India,” said Singh.

Activist John Dayal, however, did not think that there was a political motive to the Christmas celebration. “Our prime minister wants to show the West that he is a good boy,” he said.