India's religious leaders look to influence general election

Concentrated numbers could equal powerful voting blocs in some states.

Yoga guru Ramdev has promised to deliver 200 million votes for the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party in upcoming national elections
New Delhi: 

As India moves closer to another general election, religious leaders look determined to play influential roles even before the announcement of poll dates.

The country’s best-known yoga guru Ramdev declared his support for the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), pledging to garner 200 million votes for the party. Ramdev might find the job difficult because although India has some 715 million voters, an average of 60 percent, or 364 million people, actually vote.

However, the guru plans to sponsor yoga sessions of 100,000 people each in several cities beginning March onward. During the sessions, he told media, he will encourage people to vote for the BJP in order to stem rising corruption in India.

Corruption and inflation were the major allegations against the current Congress Party-led government, whose five-year term expires on May 21. The party has pledged to empower women and make decision making more transparent.

In the last election, both the BJP and Congress, the two major parties, failed on their own to win 272 seats, the simple majority needed to form a government in the 543-seat parliament. But the Congress-led alliance along with several smaller parties later formed a 322-seat coalition that allowed it to form a government.

After 1984 general elections, when Congress swept polls and won 414 seats, no single party has won a clear majority, giving way to an era of coalition politics.

Experts say this trend will continue. James Clapper, director of US National Intelligence, said on Thursday that he expects the coalition trend to continue with the 2014 election. "The proliferation of political parties will further complicate political consensus building," he said.

Political parties, big and small, have begun speaking up for the poor, lower castes and religious minorities. This has allowed smaller parties and religious organizations to wield influence outside their normal circles.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, scheduled to meet in February for their biannual meeting in southern Kerala state, is expected to issue voting guidelines.

The CBCI’s office of the Justice, Peace and Development based in New Delhi issued a statement on Jan 28 urging people to make the right choices by selecting the candidates who work for a peaceful and corruption-free society.

Father Charles Irudayam, office secretary, told that they are asking people "to understand the candidate and vote for the person who upholds the secular Constitution of India.”

Christians, traditionally considered Congress voters, comprise about three percent of India’s 1.1 billion people but form a powerful voting bloc in some pockets of southwestern India and the northeast.

India’s 176 million Muslims, also comprise an important voting bloc. The head priest of the Muslim community in Delhi is organizing a meeting next month to discuss general elections.

“We have invited leaders of all religions … to deliberate on the elections and political parties,” an official of the Jama Masjid in Delhi, where the meeting would be held, told

Leaders of Christians and Muslims have expressed unhappiness with the BJP's attempt to establish Hindu orthodoxy, especially after the party named its controversial leader Narendra Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. Modi is accused of approving Hindu violence against Christians and Muslims in Gujarat state, where he is chief minister.

Modi also is touring India addressing gatherings to garner support. BJP officials told reporters the candidate is scheduled to meet Christian bishops in Kerala when he visits the state in February.

Another political party formed last year is expected to play the role of spoiler by taking votes away from the BJP and Congress. The Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man’s Party, and its agnostic leader Arvind Kejriwal, make no reference to religion but issued a vision document focusing on agriculture, industry, empowerment of women and lower castes and youth employment.

Ritu Sharma and Christopher Joseph are India-based journalists.


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