They wanted a party of their own.
In a Pentecostal church in a village in northwestern India, a well-known pastor announced earlier this year that the time had come. Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims all have their respective political parties, and now Christians would too.
As the number of Christians has grown in Punjab, a northern Indian state bordering Pakistan, they’ve faced increased scrutiny, criticism, and false accusations, not to mention insulting public statements about Jesus. Christians have existed in Punjab for nearly 200 years, but Pentecostal ministries with an emphasis on signs and wonders have drawn new crowds, new converts—and a new need for political representation.
In April, pastor Harpreet Deol at Open Door Church said the United Punjab Party (UPP) would be launched under the auspices of the Pentecostal Christian Parbandhak Committee, organizing Christians into an electoral force. They would start with state elections before going national.
“Christians in Punjab aim to forge a collective voice, advocating for their concerns and promoting harmony,” the president of UPP, Albert Dua, who is Catholic, told CT. “The launch of the United Punjab Party by Christians in Punjab represents a significant step forward in the quest for political representation and protection of the rights and interests of the Christian community.”
The UPP, however, was not welcomed with open arms by Christians across the country. Some Christians in India think that politics is dirty and that Christ followers should stay out of it. But even believers who are actively involved in winning elections and advancing an agenda did not greet the creation of this new party with joy.
Pushpanathan Wilson, a Christian member of Parliament from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, said he expected the UPP to make things worse for Christians in India.
“Fighting elections by forming a Christian political party is disastrous,” he said. “Starting a separate party would only weaken the secular forces who are strong enough to fight Hindu fundamentalists. … We will be putting our future generations at risk of being isolated and ignored in our country.”
Ruling federally for nearly a decade, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has largely been perceived as being ideologically opposed to India being a pluralist, secular democracy, where everyone has equal access to the public square and equal rights, regardless of religion. BJP members promote “Hindutva,” or Hinduness, and advocate for a Hindu nation, which may or may not tolerate cultural and religious differences.
Christians are a distinct minority in India, making up less than 3 percent of the population. There are some pockets where Christians have concentrated numbers, including Goa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and now parts of Punjab—but not enough to make them a potent political force.
“If success is measured in getting a Christian candidate elected, we [will] fail,” said Atul Aghamkar, director of the National Center for Urban Transformation, which is a wing of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. “Christians are a scattered minority and lack the consolidated numbers needed to win elections.”
Where they have been politically successful in India, Christians have, for the most part, worked in secular parties. In the early days of the independence movement, many Christians were active members of the Indian National Congress. Many continue to show loyalty to the center-left party, and Christians are generally seen as a reliable bloc of voters for the Indian National Congress.
There have been, however, a number of efforts to launch specifically Christian political organizations over the years. Some have managed to have success at the state level. In Tamil Nadu, there’s the Indian Christian Front, the Christian Democratic Front, and the Christian Munnetra Kazhagam. In Telangana, the Indian Christian Secular Party. In Andhra Pradesh, the Indian Christian Party.
Most of these are very small and have not managed to exert any significant influence, especially when it comes to national politics. Organizing believers in India in any effective way on a national scale is incredibly difficult.
Ashish Shinde, a Christian politician from Maharashtra who belongs to the Hum Bhartiya Party, said that Christian modes of organization just don’t lend themselves to voter mobilization. Hindus support other Hindus, Sikhs support Sikhs, and Muslims, Muslims; but Christians do not always believe their interests will be best represented by fellow believers.
“There is not only a very strong denominational divide but also membership divide,” Shinde said. “A Methodist will not worship in any Methodist church; he will go to his own specific Methodist church which he is a member of. So, when one Christian who represents the entire community wants to fight an election, he is not accepted by the entire community.”
Practically, according to Shinde, it makes more sense to build coalitions with non-Christians who share a vision of India that will allow Christians to flourish along with everyone else.
“They should work with like-minded politicians,” he said.
John Dayal, the spokesperson of the All India Catholic Union and a veteran news editor, agrees. He thinks it’s important for Christians to get involved in politics in India. But they can do that by forming alliances and seeking out common ground.
“Indian Christians are duty bound to exercise their franchise and to seek political office,” he said. “They may remain independent political activists or join any political party whose ideology they agree with.”
There’s really no chance a Christian party would win a significant number of seats, according to Dayal.
“Unless they have a candidate of real caliber and some real resources, they will not get the results they have been hoping for, even praying for,” he said. “It is not a good idea to start a party unless one is convinced that they have the numbers to win the elections.”
This is a practical consideration, but also better ideologically, according to many Christians involved in politics in India. By embracing secular parties and working with religiously diverse coalitions, Christians can show they are seeking not just their own selfish interests but the common good of all Indians.
Which is what the party in Punjab ended up doing. For both practical and ideological reasons, the new Christian party decided to seek cooperation with another party ahead of the May election. Instead of putting up its own candidates for a parliamentary election in the Jalandhar Lok Sabha district, the UPP urged supporters to cast their votes for the Aam Aadmi Party (the Common Man Party). When the votes were tallied, the Aam Aadmi candidate, Sushil Rinku, won by a margin of more than 58,000 votes. And news reports gave some credit to the UPP’s Christian voters.
While the election did not likely “forge a collective voice” for Christians in Punjab, UPP leaders still hope it is the beginning of a big change in the way Christians engage in politics in India.
“While challenges remain, the UPP's endeavor is poised to shape the political landscape,” the president of the party, Albert Dua, told CT, “and contribute to the inclusive development of the state.”