An odd pairing from the outset, the informal alliance is now showing signs of disintegration. All the classic signs of a union falling apart are on display: the two parties are washing dirty linen in public, bickering and accusing each other of not keeping promises.
A major factor in the souring of the relationship has been Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meteoric rise to power. Last week, Chief Minister Parrikar launched a scathing attack on the Ahmedabad-based priest Father Cedric Prakash, a Modi critic who has been campaigning for justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Parrikar said that Prakash was “in the same category” as Pramod Muthalik, chief of the Ram Sene, a Hindutva organisation that has been involved in, among other things, attacks on pubs in Mangalore. “I count Father Cedric and Pramod Muthalik as the same,” said Parrikar. “People who use religion as an electioneering tool are dangerous.”
While the Church has not responded formally to this attack on Prakash, a layperson’s organisation called the Catholic Association of Goa has expressed “deep disappointment” at Parrikar’s statement.
“Parrikar should have certainly been able to comprehend that those who seek high public office can expect criticism and varying shades of adverse public opinion,” said the association’s spokesperson, Brigadier Ian da Costa.
An official at Bishop’s House in Panaji, the headquarters of the church in Goa, told Scroll.in on condition of anonymity that Modi’s elevation as PM had changed equations between BJP and the Church drastically.
“The attack on Prakash wasn’t warranted,” this person said. “But we aren’t surprised. It’s something we should learn to expect now. This makes our duty to expose camouflaged communalism forces more crucial.”
During his first stint as chief minister in 2000, Parrikar had repeated confrontations with the Church. His decision to remove Good Friday from the list of public holidays was the biggest source of contention.
But two years after losing the state elections in 2005, Parrikar and his team initiated an ambitious political evangelisation project to increase the party footprint in Salcete, the coastal sub-district with eight Catholic-dominated assembly constituencies. His initiative was dubbed Mission Salcete by local politicians.
Catholics form approximately 26% of Goa’s population of 1.5 million.
According to BJP vice president Dr. Wilfred Mesquita, Parrikar was spending so much time and energy in Salcete that it had virtually become his “second home”.
Said former party secretary Arti Mehra, one of the principal agents of the BJP’s win in 2012, “Our focus was reaching out to the vibrant Christian community here. It was my endeavour to meet fathers [Catholic priests] and teachers and members of the community during my visits here.”
The effort paid off magnificently. The BJP won 21 of the 40 seats in the Goa assembly. All the eight Catholic candidates they fielded were victorious. In this year’s Lok Sabha elections too, the BJP won both the state’s constituencies.
When he became chief minister, Parrikar worked on policy allowing state grants to Church-run schools had English as a medium of instruction, even as conservative Hindu groups demanded the same for Marathi- and Konkani-medium schools.
However, Parrikar’s energetic support of Modi’s prime ministerial bid has damped the Goan Church’s enthusiasm for their chief minister. This became evident during the election campaign, when the Church advised Catholics to vote for a secular party. The Church has also been consistent in its charge that Parrikar’s government is close to Goa’s scam-tainted mining lobby.
Just before the Lok Sabha polls, Deputy Chief Minister Francis D’Souza acknowledged the edginess between Catholics and a Modi-led BJP. “Minorities will have an apprehension [about Modi],” he said. “It will always be there.”
The next day, the BJP made him change his statement. But the truth is now plain to see.