The ‘guiding force’ of the church in Goa’s assembly election

The church doesn’t directly tell voters who to vote for, but it explains policies and what might be wrong with them.

WrittenBy:Nidhi Suresh& Saeeduzzaman
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The white walls of the Chicalim Church in south Goa gleam under the sun as around 40 Goans file into a high-ceilinged hall with chandeliers. At 7 am, before morning mass begins, Father Bolmax Pereira walks up to the altar and says a quick prayer in Konkani for the 12 parties and 301 candidates contesting the upcoming poll.

As Bolmax later sits down for breakfast, a woman interrupts him. “We must have a prayer for elections. Hardly a few days left,” she says; he agrees to let her know.

In this election and the others, the church has been open about its “guiding role”, considering the significance of the community’s vote. In Goa, Christians form 25 percent of the population, and 43 percent of the assembly – 17 MLAs of the total 40 since the 2017 election.

Goa has 12 Christian majority constituencies, of which three have incumbent MLAs from the Bharatiya Janata Party. Two are first-time MLAs and the third, Chandrakant Kavlekar, is the only incumbent Hindu MLA who has won four times from the Christian-dominated constituency of Quepem.

In the upcoming election, the BJP – which fielded six Christians in 2012 and eight in 2017 – has fielded 12 candidates from the community. Its tally had increased to 15 Christian MLAs in 2019 when 10 legislators left the Congress to join the party.

In Congress, 17 of the 37 candidates fielded this year are Christian. And while the AAP has projected a CM candidate from the Bhandari community, it has assured Goans that the deputy CM would be Christian. The TMC has announced Luizinho Faleiro, a Christian, as the CM face.

Parties understand that the word of the church matters, says Cleofato Almeida Coutinho, a political analyst and advocate in Goa. “If you want to be a party here, understanding that much is basic.”

“Every year, right before the elections, every politician, be it Christian or Hindu, will try to meet the priest in their area. They come to take blessings, they take photos, they make contributions and put it on WhatsApp and social media,” says Bolmax. “In fact, AAP had sent priests from Delhi to meet us.”

The construction of the political message

In the last few years, the BJP and RSS have often criticised the Catholic clergy in Goa for their political activism and “interference” during elections.

In 2018, Filipe Neri Ferrao, the archbishop of Goa and Daman, wrote a strong letter to the Goan priests explaining that political candidates “confuse the minds of people with false promises” and today “our constitution is in danger”, calling for a year-long prayer campaign to save India from the “turbulent political atmosphere”. This was deeply criticised by both the BJP and RSS, and ministers Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh warned against mobilising masses based on religion.

Father Lucio Alexandre Dias, priest at the St John’s Baptist church in Benaulim, tells Newslaundry that such criticism holds no ground. “The church exists within the state and every single church member, including the clergy, is a voter. And with the amount of political corruption and defection in Goa, Goans have been increasingly hopeless. So, during that time, we consider it our responsibility to help people make the right choice.”

But how does the church do this?

There is a strict hierarchy. First there is the archbishop, then the vicar general who is second in command; the two have jurisdiction over the entire state and the clergy in it.

Then there are the three episcopal vicars, who are bishops assigned to the pastoral supervision of the dioceses in charge of north, south and central Goa separately. There are multiple deans, each with 10 parish priests under him, and each priest responsible for their parish – the area and the people where that particular church is located.

Father Lucio is the episcopal vicar of south Goa. Father Bolmax is a priest in charge of the Chicalim parish.

Bolmax explains that the political message comes directly from the archbishop. “But when I say bishop, I don’t mean that he unilaterally takes this decision. There’s a process to this,” he said, pointing to the archdiocese’s social work wing called ‘the council for social justice and peace’.

The website defines its role as striving “to alert and motivate all people to obtain their rights and to fulfil their obligations in the society. It accompanies them in their struggles whenever and wherever they are denied opportunities for their healthy development.” The members of this wing, Bolmax says, begin working three to four months before the elections, spending time on the ground, speaking to people, activists, local priests, political analysts, and once this ground work is done the council writes a message to the archbishop.

“This message is then read and approved by the archbishop. Once this is done, the letter signed by him is sent to all the priests across Goa who then disseminate information to the people,” he says.

What kind of message is given by the archbishop?

Bolmax and Lucio say the church never names politicians or parties but agree that there is a collective understanding within the clergy about who to support or not. The messaging is tweaked accordingly. This prime dissemination is done before and after the Sunday mass.

Father Lucio, the episcopal vicar of south Goa.
Father Bolmax, the priest in charge of Chicalim parish.
Chicalim church in south Goa.

Besides, priests are also part of WhatsApp groups with their communities, says Bolmax. “So we also send them guidance through social media. During Covid we started recording and live streaming the mass, so we’ve continued to also upload our election guidance on our YouTube channel. All of this helps us reach more people.”

‘Not happy with BJP’

“Right now, the church is not happy with the BJP government. They’re trying to divide people along communal lines, they don’t have any good policies for education or women. We cannot directly tell people who to vote for so we do it indirectly. We show them the problems with the current policies and tell them to think before voting. This makes the message clear,” explains Lucio.

He says while parties and politicians are not named within the church, the conversation is more direct when people approach priests.

But it is the same church that also helped BJP come to power in 2012. Analyst Cleofata Almedia says clergy members “kept telling people not to vote for corruption, that is Congress, so then this also meant vote BJP to power. These were the only two real parties to choose from.”

Back then, Bolmax says, the biggest problem was corruption. “Goans were very aware that corruption is synonymous with Congress. So we had given the message that one should not vote for corruption.”

But now, Bolmax and Lucio think they would “prefer Congress instead of a party that communalises people”.

However, the church and BJP did not always share this antagonistic relationship, and resentment has grown with rising attacks and speech targeting Christians, and the change in BJP leadership in the state after Manohar Parrikar’s death in 2019.

Bolmax and Lucio say Parrikar understood and respected the church. “He knew how to take the church along. He listened to us. Whenever we called him, he would speak to us, invite us and consider what we say. The current chief minister doesn’t have any regard for us,” says Lucio.

According to the United Christians Forum, there were 486 crimes against Christians in India in 2021 – almost 75 percent more than the 279 cases recorded in 2020. While none of these crimes took place in Goa, locals told Newslaundry there is an undercurrent of anti-Christian sentiment. In January, for instance, members of the Bajrang Dal allegedly threatened officials to stop the feast of St Joseph Vaz.

A comment by chief minister Pramod Sawant further drove anti-incumbency in December last year, when the BJP leader, while giving a speech on the 60th year of Goa’s liberation, said that temples destroyed during the Portuguese rule need to be rebuilt in Goa.

In the run-up to the elections, three key Christian candidates from the BJP quit the party – Micheal Lobo, Alina Saldhana and Carlos Almedia. They were Parrikar loyalists.

Carlos Almedia, who is now a Congress candidate, tells Newslaundry that everything changed for the community in Goa after Parrikar’s death. “For example, during municipal elections, when a selection of heads of municipal corporations had to be made, Pramod Sawant held a meeting but he made it clear that we needed a Hindu candidate. This is one example. I was very put off by this.”

Cleofata Almedia explains that this time the BJP is aware that it will not sweep the elections. “Very few parties risk upsetting the church but the BJP has done this with confidence and at the same time fielded double the number of Catholic candidates than last time. They are depending on these candidates to pull the Christian vote. They know that people might not vote for BJP but may vote for the Christian strongmen fielded by BJP.”

While the messaging from the church is focused on remaining anti-BJP, both Bolmax and Lucio say that people are struggling to decide who to vote for. “The main thing we are telling people is not to split votes because this will only help BJP,” says Bolmax.

When asked which party the church would prefer if not the BJP, Father Lucio says, “Well, we are also not in favour of the Revolutionary Goans Party because of their affiliation to the RSS. The AAP and TMC are both too new and I don’t think they understand Goa. With whatever choice is there, I feel MGP and Congress might be the best option. They’ve been here for long, they understand Goa. For Goans, that’s important. But either way, even though this is our preference, we only tell them to think and vote wisely. Like I said, we can’t take names.”

Hesitation to speak on church’s involvement

While the church is open about its “guiding role” within elections, the people Newslaundry spoke to were more hesitant to openly acknowledge this.

With 82 percent Christians, Benaulim has the second largest concentration of Christians in Goa while Nuvem has a concentration of 84 percent. These constituencies never voted for the BJP but the party is still fielding candidates there – Damodar Narcinva Bandodkar from Benaulim and Datta Borkar from Nuvem. “This is the first time we’re fielding a candidate from BJP in Benaulim,” says a party source.

Benaulim resident Frankie Pereira at the St John’s Baptist church.
Benaulim resident Agnelo Fernandes.
John Barreto, resident of Benaulim.

Ashok Audi, 73, a resident of Benaulim, says, “BJP doesn’t stand a chance here...they’ve just fielded him to make sure they contest all seats.” He denies the role of the church in the election.

Benaulim residents Frankie Pereira, 54, Agnelo Fernandes, 73, and John Barreto, 81, say the church doesn’t directly get involved in politics. “They only guide people,” says Frankie.

Fernandes and Barreto claim Churchill Alemao, who is contesting from Benaulim after joining the TMC from the Congress, has made cash donations to a chapel close by. “And when we go there, the priest keeps taking his name...Alemao obviously knows the impact this will have on people.” Newslaundry could not independently verify this claim; Alemao was unavailable for comment.

Gina Pereira, an activist based in Benaulim, says that while all locals know how much they listen to the church, “people may not always openly admit it because they don’t want the church to be criticised”.

Cleofata Almedia says the church is also at the forefront of protests against environment-related issues such as mining and infrastructure projects threatening forest cover. “The church actually does a lot of good social work and raises its voice against human rights violations but the moment the clergy’s involvement becomes public, the BJP or RSS will turn it into a religious issue.”

All photographs by Aditya Varier.


This story is part of the NL Sena project which our readers contributed to. It was made possible by Abel Sajaykumar, Devaki Khanna, Subhrajit Chakraborty, Somok Gupta Roy, Sathya, Shubhankar Mondal, Sourav Agrawal, Karthik, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Uma Rajagopalan, HS Kahlon, Shreya Sethuraman, Vinod Gubbala, Anirban Bhattacharjee, Rahul Gupta, Rejith Rajan, Abhishek Thakur, Rathindranath Das, Farzana Hasan, Animesh Narayan, A J, Nidhi Manchanda, Rahul Bhardwaj, Kirti Mishra, Sachin Tomar, Raghav Nayak, Rupa Banerjee, Akash Mishra, Sachin Chaudhary, Udayan Anand, Karan Mujoo, Gaurab S Dutta, Jayanta Basu, Abhijnan Jha, Ashutosh Mittal, Sahit Koganti, Ankur, Sindhu Kasukurthy, Manas, Akshay Sharma, Mangesh Sharma, Vivek Maan, Sandeep Kumar, Rupa Mukundan, P Anand, Nilkanth Kumar, Noor Mohammed, Shashi Ghosh, Vijesh Chandera, Rahul Kohli, Janhavi G, Dr Prakhar Kumar, Ashutosh Singh, Saikat Goswami, Sesha Sai T V, Srikant Shukla, Abhishek Thakur, Nagarjuna Reddy, Jijo George, Abhijit, Rahul Dixit, Praveen Surendra, Madhav Kaushish, Varsha Chidambaram, Pankaj, Mandeep Kaur Samra, Dibyendu Tapadar, Hitesh Vekariya, Akshit Kumar, Devvart Poddar, Amit Yadav, Harshit Raj, Lakshmi Srinivasan, Atinderpal Singh, Jaya Mitra, Raj Parab, Ashraf Jamal, Asif Khan, Manish Kumar Yadav, Saumya Parashar, Naveen Kumar Prabhakar, Lezo, Sanjay Dey, Ahmad Zaman, Mohsin Jabir, Sabina, Suresh Uppalapati, Bhaskar Dasgupta, Pradyut Kumar, Sai Sindhuja, Swapnil Dey, Sooraj, Aparajit Varkey, Brendon Joseph D’souza, Zainab Jabri, Tanay Arora, Jyoti Singh, M Mitra, Aashray Agur, Imran, Dr. Anand Kulkarni, Sagar Kumar, Sandeep Banik, Mohd Salman, Sakshi, Navanshu Wadhwani, Arvind Bhanumurthy, Dhiren Maheshwari, Sanjeev Menon, Anjali Dandekar, Farina Ali Kurabarwala, Abeera Dubey, Ramesh Jha, Namrata, Pranav Kumar, Amar Nath, Anchal, Sahiba Lal, Jugraj Singh, Nagesh Hebbar, Ashutosh Mhapne, Sai Krishna, Deepam Gupta, Anju Chauhan, Siddhartha Jain, Avanish Dureha, Varun Singhal, Akshay, Sainath Jadhav, Shreyas Singh, Ranjeet Samad, Vini Nair, Vatsal Mishra, Aditya Chaudhary, Jasween, Pradeep, Nilesh Vairagade, Manohar Raj, Tanya Dhir, Shaleen Kumar Sharma, Prashant Kalvapalle, Ashutosh Jha, Aaron D'Souza, Shakti Verma, Sanyukta, Pant, Ashwini, Firdaus Qureshi, Soham Joshi, Ankita Bosco, Arjun Kaluri, Rohit Sharma, Betty Rachel Mathew, Sushanta Tudu, Pardeep Kumar Punia, Dileep Kumar Yadav, Neha Khan, Omkar, Vandana Bhalla, Surendra Kumar, Sanjay Chacko, Abdullah, Aayush Garg, Mukarram Sultan, Abhishek Bhatia, Tajuddin Khan, Vishwas Deshpande, Mohammed Ashraf, Jayati Sood, Aditya Garg, Nitin Joshi, Partha Patashani, Anton Vinny, Sagar Rout, Vivek Chandak, Deep Chudasama, Khushboo Matwani, Virender Bagga, Keyur Gokhale, Shelly Singh, Goldwin Fonseca, Upasana Gupta, Leslie Isaac, Stephen, Anupam Kumar, Nishanth Perathara, Sudin, Bhavin Ved, Sriram Arthanari, Sanjit Mehta, Shashank Shekhar, Somsubhro Chaudhuri, Pallavi Das, Animesh Chaudhary, Dr Avishek Ghosh, Bharat Kumar, Renain Safi, Kanhu Kishore Nanda, Shubham Wankhede, Jagbir Lehl, Bharadwaj Upadyaya, Mohamed Suhair, Keith Rebelo, Saurabh, Aman Seth, Himanshu Singh, Malwika Chitale, Mohit Chelani, Abhishek Thakur, Utpal Kar, Abdul Aziz Abdul Gafoor, Aditya Kumar Tiwari, Chanchal K Mitra, Subhojit Bakshi, Jitendra Kumar, Subhransu Panda, Vaibhav V, Neerja Jain, Muzamil, Parminder Randhawa, Aishwarya Ghaisas, Siddharth Kulkarni, Fadil Sherrif, Jomy Mathew, Asim, Senthil Kumar Sakthivel, Abhimanyu Sinha, Srinivas Addepalli, Pratul Nema, Varun B Kothamachu, Aarushi Mittal, Sushil Gulati, George Isaac, Sameer Naik, Saurabh Naik, Ragesh Vyas, Vishal Sodani, Muhammad Shafeeque, Vivek Ashokan, Rachita Dutta, Sayani Dasgupta, Ashutosh Singh, Shrinjay, Siju Mathew, Paul Lazarus, Thufir Hawat, Kruttika Samant, Shireesh Vasupalli, Kanwarjit Singh, Deepak Keshri, Venkateshwar Rangala, Nagarjuna Reddy, Ashutosh Tripathi, Umesh Chander, Sandeep Kalyanasundaram, Abhishek Thakur, Pratyush Adhwaryu, Janhavi G, Siddhant Agarwal, Rajnish Thanekar, Amol Jadhav, Sunny Sureja, Jotinder Singh, Chinmay Sharma, Roderick Anthony, Krutik Arekar, Bharat Thakur, Gaurav Kolekar, SS Marmat, Umesh Pai, Anupam Patra, Vedant Chavan, Abhishek Sharma, Harsha Shettigar, Simranpreet Kaur, Sudarshan K M, Prerna Tyagi, and other NL Sena members.

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