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Rubber Prices, The Church, BJP's Kerala Ambitions

April 10, 2023 15:44 IST
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With elections elsewhere in India showing that multi-pronged contests usually work to the BJP's favour, the party can gain if it hangs on stubbornly.
In the meantime, any additional support helps.
That is why the archbishop's comment attracted political traction in Kerala, observes Shyam G Menon.

IMAGE: A rubber plantation in Kerala. Photograph: Kind courtesy Aruna/Wikimedia Commons

In March 2023, in what has become a trend in Kerala, a senior functionary of the Christian church left political parties guessing with a controversial remark.

Addressing the Catholic Farmers Conference, Thalassery Archbishop Mar Joseph Pamplany said that the church will help the Bharatiya Janata Party get a Member of Parliament from Kerala if the Centre raised the procurement price of rubber to Rs 300 per kilo.

As the news spread, the archbishop clarified that he wasn't referring specifically to the BJP but any party willing to raise rubber price. It was too little, too late.

The BJP has been struggling to get a toehold in the big league in Kerala.

Aside from seats secured in local body elections and one seat in the legislative assembly (secured in the 2016 assembly election and lost in the 2021 polls), the party has had no success.

The party has never won a Lok Sabha seat from Kerala although its support base has been slowly growing in proportion to the public's disenchantment with the state's main two political formations -- the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Left Democratic Front (LDF).

With elections elsewhere in India showing that multi-pronged contests usually work to the favour of the BJP, the party can gain if it hangs on stubbornly.

In the meantime, any additional support helps. That is why the archbishop's comment of March 19, attracted political traction in Kerala.


Kerala is the biggest producer of rubber in India.

Many rubber growers hail from the Christian community and therefore its procurement price and the welfare of those dependent on it have periodically influenced the community's politics.

It is a subject the church finds hard to ignore.

In 2023, however, there is another competitor to such pulls.

In some parts of India, the Christian community faced attacks during the tenure of the BJP at the Centre.

Not just the church, but civil society organiSations too have pressed the government to take remedial action.

It is a major issue before the community; an hour demanding solidarity from its fold for the purpose.

As news spread of the archbishop's speech, it was soon apparent that in a state, which has long rallied to keep its vote secular, disappointment with the archbishop's view was not confined to political circles.

Within hours, discussion panels on television, featuring analysts and commentators from the Christian community, hit out against selling votes as implied in the suggestion of a vote to the BJP if rubber price was revised to Rs 300.

The angry response drew on the incident immediately at hand, representations to the central government demanding an end to the violence against Christians and the backdrop of other controversies the church in Kerala harvested in the past.

To complicate matters, news reports surfaced, which pointed to the archbishop having met BJP leaders ahead of the farmers' conference.

The bishop's office clarified that the party members had come to invite church representatives for a sitting of the Minorities Commission. It helped little to change impression.

On March 20, reported that Father Suresh Mathew, a priest of the Capuchin church, had said that the archbishop's statement cannot be taken as the stand of Christians in Kerala.

'Mathew said that many Christian religious leaders in Kerala do not have an idea about the ideology of the BJP, which is just the political face of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,' the report said.

Four days later, on March 24, The New Indian Express reported that Sathyadeepam, the mouthpiece of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, had rejected Archbishop Pamplany's comment.

'In a hard-hitting editorial, Sathyadeepam -- the mouthpiece of the archdiocese -- accused Pamplany of 'belittling' the larger farming community and 'nullifying' all the efforts made so far by the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council and the synod to the cause of farmers. It also asked the bishop to retract the controversial remark,' the newspaper said.

According to the editorial in Sathyadeepam (as reported by The New Indian Express), the archbishop's comment was a dangerous simplification of the issues faced by farmers in Kerala.

There were import policies to address; not to mention - the challenges varied regionally.

The issues a farmer faced in Malabar (where Thalassery is) are different from those faced in Idukki or Alappuzha.

The New Indian Express quoted the editorial further: 'How can the BJP, which has adopted an anti-farmer stance as its basic policy, be the saviour? The Church leadership should stand with the farmers, not the other way around. It is irresponsible to risk their self-esteem for just Rs 300.'

The Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese is an influential entity.

As periodically reported in the media, it has its share of issue-based, distinct views.

As of late March, few responses similar to Sathyadeepam's and Father Mathew's, on the Thalassery archbishop's comment, had been heard from elsewhere in the church in Kerala.

A possible explanation for this is how important rubber farmers are to religion and politics around the state's Christian community.

It is hard to publicly disagree with the need to protect farmers' interests.

IMAGE: Thalassery Archbishop Mar Joseph Pamplany. Photograph: Kind courtesy Mr Don Carlose/Wikimedia Commons

While the archbishop's comment may have raised eyebrows within the Christian community, outside that religious fold, the worry was less founded in shock and more in what such tendencies may mean for the BJP's political fortunes in Kerala.

The question wasn't why the archbishop said so but given its inevitability (as gleaned from the past conduct of sections of the church), what could it mean for a state fighting to keep the BJP out?

The reason for this line of thinking may be traced back to the considerable contributions the church made in sectors like education and health facilities.

Thousands of people from all religions have benefitted from the service offered by these institutions.

To the envy of other religions, the church in Kerala is a giant enterprise of sorts especially when the faithful add their businesses too to the cluster represented by the church.

What must be understood is that as the business side of anything zooms in size, its credibility in opinions pertaining to other areas becomes thin.

For a non-Christian listening to the archbishop's comment mixing commerce and politics, it may have appeared the trend to expect.

It is important to note in this context that political observers will likely add the archbishop's comment to the list of similar overtures to the BJP and expressions of concurrence with the Hindu Right-Wing that have emanated from the church in Kerala, in the past.

Further, it won't be incorrect to say that in Kerala, the ordered structure of the church and other religions patterned so along with the material benefits linked to such arrangement, are among factors making Hindus think they too should order themselves similarly.

It has helped the slow growth of the BJP-RSS in the backdrop.

A comment, which suggests to the church's faithful that they may vote for the BJP should the Centre revise rubber procurement price to Rs 300 only reinforces the perception that the church and its followers work as a bloc.

The real problem in this model exceeds the church.

By highlighting the strategic importance of well-placed points of contact to influence the whole, such architecture progressively emaciates the individual's significance in community.

For example, will a rubber farmer who feels that procurement price shouldn't be what decides his/her vote, be heard once an archbishop has suggested otherwise?

On the other hand, the very nature of the church's organiSation, from parish upward, makes it inevitable that the struggles of its followers will be known to the clergy and will become part of what they deal with.

The early story of Kerala's hill farmers -- their arrival in forested lands, their contest with nature to survive -- is entwined with the church's role as provider of faith and succor.

Over the last several months, far away from Thalassery, senior officials of the Latin Catholic church have anchored the agitation of fisherfolk against the Vizhinjam port project in south Kerala.

As one panelist on television pointed out in a discussion on the archbishop's speech; to their credit, the clergy associated with the Vizhinjam protest hasn't openly advocated connecting votes to how their problems are addressed.

Therein lay perhaps the mistake committed by the archbishop.

His oversimplification of a vote in 2023 -- a year from a period witnessing authoritarian government by the BJP, Right-Wing intolerance, aggression towards minorities and systematic hunting of the opposition; with economic development, nationalism and even diplomacy used as fig leaf to distract from excesses -- has been terrible to say the least.

There is a lot that is overlooked in vote pegged to rubber procurement price.

On March 24, reported that the vice chairman of the Rubber Board had called on the Thalassery archbishop.

Quoting sources, the report said that both reportedly held talks on how to ensure stable rubber price in the state.

Shyam G Menon is a Mumbai-based columnist.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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