Catholics in India are praying as they vote in the midst of five weeks of the nation's parliamentary elections, now going on in the world's largest democracy.
“We are very hopeful that the general elections underway will be conducted in a free and democratic way,” Bishop Henry D’Souza of Bellary told CNA earlier this month.
More than 814 million Indians are registered to vote in the polls, which take place in nine rounds from April 7 to May 12.
The Indian bishops issued a pastoral letter Feb. 11 anticipating the elections, saying that Catholics in the nations “must pray ardently for a good government.”
“The Catholic Church does not identify herself with any political party. But we have a responsibility as bishops to urge every eligible citizen to exercise his/her right and duty to vote and (to) do so prudently, carefully and judiciously.”
“We owe it to ourselves, our children and our country not to let go of this opportunity to get involved in bettering the history, culture and destiny of our nation.”
Noting the profound changes facing India, including a widening gap between rich and poor, the decreasing place of ethics as a “guiding principle for society,” and observing that “God is slowly being pushed to the periphery,” the bishops wrote that “it is in this context and at this moment in history that we are going into the elections.”
The bishops wrote that India needs leaders who will “uphold the secular character of our nation and promote communal harmony and a spirit of inter-religious dialogue and understanding; care for the minorities and weaker sections of society … safeguard the rights of tribals over land, water and forests; and grant equal rights to dalit Christians, equal to those given to other dalits; work for an economy that seeks in particular to help the poor and the under privileged” and ensure a “safe environment for all people, particularly women and children.”
They urged the faithful to "spend time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and at home, so as to be able to discern what is best for the common good … with the Lord’s strength and guided by the Spirit we can all work unitedly for a better India."
April 6, the day before the elections' beginning, was dedicated as a day of prayer “for the peaceful conduct of the general elections and for the divine assistance for all the citizens of India,” said Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, Syro-Malankarese Major Archbishop of Trivandrum.
Bishop D’Souza told CNA that “voters should vote for suitable candidates who can work selflessly, free of corruption, promoting peace, prosperity, and freedom of religion.”
“I feel … people will be able to elect suitable candidates to be the lawmakers of this great country,” he added.
“We should be able to work with all governments, provided they respect the secular character of the Indian Constitution and the freedom of religion every citizen.”
“I am sure people will rise to the occasion and elect suitable lawmakers for this great country.”
Considering the current elections, Bishop D’Souza said that “the whole condition is blurred; anything can happen and any government may be elected.”
The leading parties in the elections are the ruling Indian National Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist movement.
Narendra Modi, the BJP candidate for prime minister, has been associated with economic prosperity but is also accused of failing to stop anti-Muslim rioting in Gujarat, where he is chief minister.
Key issues in the elections include corruption, economic issues, women’s safety, and national security.
Bishop D’Souza said voter turnout has thus far been very encouraging and citizens are voting enthusiastically, and that voters have also been “sensitized” to the evils of “corruption and communalism.”
The bishop expressed concern over the little representation of Catholic leaders to protect and voice concerns of minorities among the vast population.
Some 80 percent of Indians are Hindu, but there is a 13 percent minority of Muslims, and Christians, Sikhs, and Buddhists each account for one to three percent of the population.
Bishop D’Souza, who is the Indian bishops’ youth commission chair, also added that “India is young, and 50 percent of the population is young.”
“Our Catholic youth must take leadership and bring in change and transformation in the society,” he emphasized.
He reiterated that “as the chairman of the National Youth Commission, my priority is to make our Catholic youth the disciples of the Lord, deeply committed to Christ; they must take up leadership role in public life, in any political affiliations or party with which they desire to affiliate.”
He suggested that Catholic youth to join public administration, qualifying through public examinations and also being entrepreneurs in agriculture and industry.
Once voting in India concludes May 12, they will be counted May 16. Any party or coalition needs at least 272 members of parliament to form a government.