As Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted Pope Francis in the Vatican with a warm embrace and invited him to India – which the Pope is said to have accepted – memories of another papal visit 22 years ago that began in the early morning hours of Diwali on 7 November 1999 surfaced.
It was still dark, Delhi was still lit up with candles and diyas and the occasional fire-cracker, when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government welcomed its very special guest to the capital — Pope John Paul II. He was making his second papal visit to India, 13 years after he first came here in 1986.
The Vajpayee government was not very pleased. Most of India was on holiday, being Diwali, and it was felt that the Vatican was not being very sensitive to the sentiments of the nation’s Hindu majority. But New Delhi held its tongue. Between the nuclear tests the year before, when the world had rained sanctions on India, the brutal murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young children in Odisha earlier in February 1999 and the just-concluded Kargil conflict with Pakistan – when the “nuclear flashpoint” theory promoted by several Western capitals had scared large parts of the world – the BJP had had its hands full dealing with international criticism.
If Pope John Paul wanted to come to India on Diwali — despite some pushback by the ministry of external affairs – so be it. The Vajpayee government had received terrible press over the murder of Staines by the Bajrang Dal, considered part of the Sangh Parivar, so all protests within shouting distance of the Pope were banned.
Vajpayee, himself, admitted to the extreme fringe. “You know, Holy Father, that India is a land of religious freedom,” he said, “but we have some intolerant fringes.” Then-president K.R. Narayanan told the Pope he had briefly attended Catholic school. The ageing Pope was not fazed and remained true to his call to conversions and telling Bishops to ‘evangelise’ in the coming millennium. The New York Times quoted him as saying, “Respect does not eliminate the need for the explicit proclamation of the Gospel in its fullest.”
Then, as now, a meeting with the Pope is a political event. If you are Narendra Modi, where everything is thought through a hundred times – whether it is the summit meeting with the godless Chinese Communist leader Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram or Sri Lankan Buddhist abbots in Kushinagar last month – then you can imagine why the meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican was sought and carefully, but relentlessly, pushed through.
A win-win hug
First of all, with Modi, know that he leaves nothing to chance. There are the Goa elections coming up, of course, where the Catholic community is sure to be affected by the fact that the PM has met their holiest of leaders. Don’t forget that the BJP is under siege in Goa, with calls for Chief Minister Pramod Sawant to resign and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress throwing its hat in the ring.
Second, never forget that Congress president Sonia Gandhi was raised in a Roman Catholic family in Italy. Obviously, she is fully Indian now and celebrates all Indian festivals with particular gaiety and enthusiasm – but, lurking at the back of most BJP leaders’ mind is that meeting the Pope is one-upping the Congress.
Third, meeting the Pope gives Modi significant ballast with the Christian world. Several parts of the West are determinedly secular, but have strong Christian leanings – southern European nations like France, Spain and Portugal are very Catholic, the UK is mostly Protestant and the US is a mish-mash, although President Joe Biden himself is Catholic and also met the Pope in Rome around the same time Modi did.
Fourth, PM Modi’s embrace of the Pope is photographic proof that one of the world’s most powerful religious leaders is not averse to him. Several Indian cardinals and Christian groups have warmly welcomed Modi’s effort at meeting the Pope.
Fifth, the Modi visit to the Vatican allowed senior RSS leaders to insist that the matter of converting Hindus to Christianity or any other religion was still anathema. The RSS’ second most powerful leader, Dattatreya Hosabale, told the media over the weekend that while it was a “matter of happiness” when the PM meets important people in the world, “increasing the number by any method” cannot be accepted.
“The RSS has always said that conversion should be stopped and if a Bill (against it) is passed, we will welcome it,” Hosabale said. The RSS leader was pushing back on the 1999 Pope’s conversion agenda and in anticipation of any other leader in current times doing the same.
Lastly, let us remember that the Pope agreed to meet Modi – the photograph of Francis holding the PM by his arms sent the message across the world that Modi, often accused of turning a blind eye to inter-faith tension in India, is, indeed, acceptable to the Pope.
And that, as the BJP well knows, is a win-win message that will be certainly helpful in the coming weeks and months, in the run-up to the assembly elections and after it, when the party uses it to reinforce its favourite slogan, “vasudhaiva kutumbakam” (the world is one family).
By the time the PM returns from Rome and the climate summit in Glasgow later this week, when everything is said and done, one image will remain in public memory – when Narendra Modi met Pope Francis. Not much else will matter.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)