Catholic Principal Election Email Triggers Backlash in India

BANGALORE, India (CNS) — An election email from the principal of St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai set off a national political storm and triggered a fresh debate on the development model India needs.

Before the elections in Mumbai on 24 April, Jesuit Father Frazer Mascarenhas, principal of St. Xavier’s College, sent out an email to its 3,500 students highlighting the development models being followed in the country and urged the students — most of whom are first-time voters — to “choose wisely,” taking into consideration “inclusive development.”

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliates cried foul over the email Father Mascarenhas sent out to his students for criticizing the “Gujarat model” of development. Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, is the BJP candidate for Indian prime minister and is expected to win the election.

Other political parties and advocates of a social development agenda praised the unprecedented action, leading to some intense TV debates on the topic.

While the BJP deplored the email and some scholars described it as inappropriate, Father Mascarenhas told Catholic News Service on 28 April it was necessary because the students had been on vacation for a month.

“I have no vested interest in this,” he said.

“I have not favored any political party. Most of my students are first-time voters. As a development anthropologist, I wanted to draw their attention to various models of development in the country,” he said.

While pointing out the “flaws in the Gujarat model of development,” he reiterated that he has “not spared the flaws” in the economic development model followed by the ruling federal government, which is seen as an underdog to the BJP-led opposition coalition in India’s protracted election.

The national election to choose India’s 14th Parliament is staggered into nine phases, from 7 April to 12 May, with 814 million voters eligible to participate.

While polling in nearly two-thirds of the constituencies was completed by the sixth round of polls on 24 April, voting for 194 seats was scheduled for 30 April, 7 May and 12 May.

“Father Frazer has done an excellent job. He has been able to bring national attention back to the Modi model of development,” said Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, a human rights activist and critic of Modi’s model of development.

Father Prakash, who is based in the Indian state of Gujarat, said, “Contrary to rise in economic data, the social indicators [are] bad here.”

The English daily Indian Express has published stories raising doubts about Gujarat’s alleged growth, and several magazines have carried critical articles exposing gaping holes in the Gujarat model of economic progress at the expense of the poor.

“State is high on growth, low on development,” noted the daily, pointing to low growth rates of the state in alleviation of poverty, malnutrition and farmer’s health.

In February, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India issued voter guidelines reiterating that “the Catholic Church does not identify herself with any political party.”

The guidelines called for casting votes in favor of parties and candidates that would “uphold the secular character of our nation and promote communal harmony” and “care for the minorities and weaker sections of society, protect their rights and work for their uplift.”

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