Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy began the year holding a video conference with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as his state was awarded the third best performing state in Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Urban (PMAY-U) mission. But his cordial equation with the Centre has not stopped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Andra Pradesh (AP) unit from making an issue out of Reddy’s Christian background.
Opposition parties in AP – the BJP and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) – have accused Jagan of failing to prevent temple desecrations in different parts of Andhra.
To dilute the issue, Reddy, who is a member of the Church of South India, has taken up – what seems to be – a calculated effort to perform Hindu religious rituals to retain the faith of his Hindu vote base. This is being done as Panchayat Raj elections in the state are scheduled on 5 February. While the state High Court has cleared the deck for the elections, Reddy is expected to appeal to the Supreme Court for a postponement. Also, by-elections are just round the corner for the Tirupati Lok Sabha seat.
The Quint takes a look at all the ways in which Jagan Mohan Reddy has recently tried to look more Hindu-friendly than usual. Will the tactic help the Chief Minister retain and consolidate his reach among Hindu voters?
Nagging Jagan With 'Christian' Tag
Right before his swearing-in ceremony on 30 May 2019, Jagan Reddy visited the Tirumala Venkateswara Swamy temple amid much fanfare. He then visited the the CSI Church in his hometown Pulivendula and Pedda Dargah in Kadapa. The attempt was to project a secular image by visiting varied religious places.
The impact of this posturing was, however, short lived. The BJP soon accused him of appointing a Christian as the chairman of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) board. In 2019, YV Subba Reddy, Jagan’s uncle, who was appointed chairman of TTD, took months to clear his name and establish himself as a devout Hindu.
In December 2020, Jagan Reddy’s entry to Lord Venkateswara Swami temple in Tirupati was questioned by a plaintiff in the AP High Court, who claimed that the CM should have submitted a declaration at the temple that he is not a Hindu. While the court dismissed the petition, citing the CM’s right to perform his official duty of presenting silk robes at the temple, Jagan Reddy’s identity as a Christian continued to be called into question when alleged temple desecrations started occurring in different parts of AP.
Start With a Pooja
On 3 January, 2021, an idol of Goddess Sita at a Ram Mandir at the RTC bus stand, Vijayawada, was allegedly vandalised damaged by miscreants. Two days later, idols of Lord Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy and Goddess Chenchu Lekshmi were found damaged in Singarayakonda, Prakasam district.
In two related incidents, misinformation about two more alleged temple desecrations in Visakhapatnam and East Godavari started circulating on social media. The state had also witnessed two chariot burning incidents in the end of 2020.
While all the incidents attracted condemnation from TDP supremo Nara Chandrababu Naidu, BJP General Secretary Vishnu Vardhan Reddy had decided to hold a Rath Yatra on 4 February to condemn “attacks” on temples.
Close on the heels of the alleged temple attacks, on 8 January the Chief Minister performed bhoomi pooja by laying foundation stones for nine temples in the state. With a teeka on his forehead, Reddy listened to vedic hymns sung by the priests and announced temple development work worth Rs 77 crore.
Taking the visual narrative a step further, the CM – who had by then set up a committee to maintain religious harmony in the state and ordered a thorough probe into the alleged temple attack incidents – also decided to perform a Kamadhenu Gau pooja mahotsavam on 15 January.
The CM “performed the rituals as per Hindu tradition and presented silk robes to and garlanded a cow and calf", his press communiqué read. At the event, 108 cows were present. This year, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) officials have performed gau poojas at 2,679 temples.
While the spectacle seemed to have a design, the Chief Minister’s Office brushed it aside as a coincidence. “The decision to lay the foundation stones to temples were taken eight months ago. As for the gau pooja the CM went there because he was invited,” a spokesperson from the Chief Minister’s Office said.
However, could it be a coincidence that the CM, who met Home Minister Amit Shah in New Delhi on 19 January, presented him with a replica of the Venkateswara Swami idol?
Mounting Pressure on the CM
Though dates for Lok Sabha by-election in Tirupati are not yet declared, the BJP and its newly found member actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan are expected to launch a strong campaign in the temple town. As he made a public appearance on 5 January, BJP’s AP President Bandi Sanjay Kumar asked voters in Tirupati to “choose between Bible and Bhagavad Gita”.
Kumar followed up the dig aimed at Jagan Mohan Reddy with a question, “Do you want the party which humiliates Lord Venkateswara Swamy or the one which worships the Lord?” As the stage is set for elections – both Panchayat and Lok Sabha – the onus now seems to be on Jagan to take a stand on religion, political analysts say.
“When the BJP and the TDP have harped on the majoritarian sentiment, it is difficult for a non-Hindu CM to withstand the pressure. Jagan Mohan Reddy, who is a practising Christian, is left to prove that he is not ‘anti-Hindu’. For that, he has to perform tasks which make him look more Hindu than others.”C Ramachandraiah, Hyderabad-based political analyst
Jagan’s dilemma is similar to that of Rahul Gandhi, who took the rounds of temples before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Ramachandraiah said. Jagan cannot dismiss the religious rhetoric all together because of his equation with the Centre, he added.
“He may play into the BJP’s hand because he is constantly on the defensive in the state. With the Centre, he has little bargaining power and maintains a soft-stand on BJP’s policies,” Ramachandraiah explained.
In Andhra Pradesh, with the ruling YSR-CP going big on welfare measures catering to almost every section of voters, including women, the only way to wean votes away from the party would be to harp on religious sentiment, experts say.
“In Andhra Pradesh, there is a substantial Christian vote base which includes Dalit Christians. The opposition is trying to say that the CM caters only to them. Jagan Mohan Reddy’s effort now is to convey the message that he is a leader even for the Hindus,” Professor G Haragopal, a political scientist said. It is a way of playing to the gallery to reassure his voters in the wake of BJP’s campaign, he added.
Jagan Mohan Reddy has already asked the state police to penalise those spreading fake news about temple desecrations. Earlier last week, the Andhra Pradesh’s Director General of Police Gautam Sawang announced that a few temple desecrations were carried out by some TDP and BJP activists in parts of the state.