When it comes to the influence of religion on state affairs, it would be difficult to trump Telugu twins Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
Last week, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao briefly snuck into the national news cycle by fulfilling his personal religious mannat or promise by using taxpayers’ money. KCR, as the Telagana Rashtra Samithi head is known, donated jewellery worth Rs 5.6 crore to Tirupati’s Venkateshwara temple to give thanks for the creation of Telangana, which was carved out of Andhra in 2014.
Undeterred by criticism, he proceeded to donate a gold moustache to the Veerabhadraswamy temple in Kuravi near Warangal. Although, at around Rs 65,000, the moustache had a lower commercial value, KCR’s second religious charity in a week was a deft balancing act. While Tirupati’s appeal and fame are universal, the temple town falls under the territory of rival Andhra and is a bearer of the Vedic or Brahminical tradition. On the other hand, the Kuravi Veerbhadra Swamy (a form of Shiva) and his consort Bhadrakali, have a strong tribal following.
Since 2014, when they came to power in Andhra and Telangana respectively, Telugu Desam Party’s Chandrababu Naidu and Telangana Rashtra Samiti’s KCR have been locked in a fierce battle of one-upmanship while also constantly clashing over the sharing of resources between the states. But the battleground has extended far beyond foreign investments and infrastructure projects – their displays of cultural superiority and competitive religiosity are without parallel in contemporary India.
In the last two years, both states have funnelled thousands of crores of public money towards overtly religious purposes. Much of the spends, like the donation to Tirupati, do not even have notional public utility.
For instance, in 2015, KCR performed the Ayusha Chandi Mahayagna, presided over by some 1,000 priests from Andhra and Telangana, a grand pooja to appease the rain gods and break the spell of drought in the state, in his Medak farmhouse. He claimed that the ritual, which reportedly cost upwards of Rs 15 crore with invitees such as the president of India, the state governor and Andhra chief minister Naidu, was a personal affair funded by KCR, his family and his well-wishers. But the five-day jamboree involved state machinery, including 2,000 policemen.
Telangana is also perhaps the only state in India to employ a vaastu and astrology consultant. That year, Suddala Sudhakar Teja, KCR’s trusted man in matters astrological, was appointed the architecture consultant to make the offices of the newly formed state vaastu-compliant. Teja’s monthly salary was reportedly Rs 75,000 and the perks included an official car.
KCR refused to use the existing office-cum-residence complex in the state capital Hyderabad, built by former Andhra Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy, for its inauspicious architecture. Till KCR moved into the home-office approved by Teja and costing Rs 50 crore (with features such as bullet-proof bathrooms) in November, his farmhouse had become the de facto state secretariat.
Post bifurcation, almost all places of religious importance in the region such as Tirupati, Srisailam, and Kalahasti fell under Andhra Pradesh. To rival its spiritual status, KCR planned to invest large sums in promoting places of worship in his state. He has promised Rs 500 crore to develop the Lakshmi Narasimha temple in Nalgonda district’s Yadagirigutta and Rs 100 crore for the Rama temple in Bhadrachalam.
In response, Naidu wants to promote a Rama temple in Kadapa district in Andhra’s Rayalaseema region at an estimated Rs 200 crore.
Between 2015 and 2016, the two states, despite their parlous financial condition especially after the division, spent more than Rs 5,000 crore in organising the Krishna and Godavari river festivals or Pushkaralus. Opposition parties have pointed out that the Rs 3,000 crore Naidu had spent on the festivals could have been used to construct major office buildings in the state’s new capital, Amaravati. The inauguration and bhoomi puja for the capital alone is estimated to have cost Rs 600 crore.
In search for a cultural identity distinct from the other, the two Telugu states are also in a race to offer state sanction to (mostly Hindu) religious festivals. So, Bathukamma, Bonalu and the tribal festival of Samakka and Sarakka are the state festivals of Telangana, while Andhra has awarded this tag to Sankaranti and Ugaadi.
This tag allows governments to offer generous discretionary funds to various religious organisations and select social groups. For instance, the Telangana government gave Rs 12 crore for the global promotion of the flower festival of Bathukamma festival to Telangana Jagruthi, a cultural organisation floated by K Kavitha, KCR’s daughter. Naidu spent some Rs 350 crore in distributing Chandranna Sankaranti Kanuka or freebies named after himself to 1.3 crore poor Hindu families in Andhra. Upholding secular credentials meant the distribution Ramzan tohfas (free flour, vermicelli, ghee etc) and similar Christmas gift hampers at a further Rs 100 crore.
That’s not all. Both chief ministers also have their own trusted spiritual aides who they turn to for philosophical guidance. If Chinna Jeeyar, a Srivaishnavite monk, is KCR’s rajaguru, Naidu has accorded the most favoured gurus status yoga preachers Jaggi Vasudev and Baba Ramdev.
Chinna Jeeyar presides over all the Hindu religious ceremonies (personal and state- sanctioned) that KCR promotes. While inagurating his new official residence, KCR insisted his guru sit on the chief minister’s chair before he could use it himself.
To prepare his minister and bureaucrats for the tough job of reconstructing the newly partitioned Andhra, Naidu insisted they undergo a three-day Yoga camp organised by Jaggi Vasudev’s Isha Foundation in 2015. Under his guidance, Naidu last year also made Yoga compulsory at all government schools in the state. The Andhra government had also offered 400 acres of land to the Isha foundation near Vijayawada to develop spiritual institutions, a proposal that hit rough weather after protests by Opposition parties.
Similarly, the state is set to become the southern hub for Ramdev’s yoga-cum-buisness empire. Patanjali Trust is in the process of setting up a huge manufacturing base in the state as well as a giant yoga and ayurveda centre at Tirupati.
“The tsunami of competitive religiosity and recourse to godmen is an attempt to mask the huge social justice issues and rampant corruption prevailing in the two states,” said professor S Simhadri of Osmania University and the author of Development Politics In The Shade of Caste. According to Simhadri, the spoils of the gargantuan infrastructure projects pursued by both states are neatly divvied up among the three dominant castes, Kammas, Reddys and the Velamas, who are roughly equal numerically. The material benefits for other communities, who stand to lose both land and employment opportunities in the agricultural sector thanks to mega projects, remain meagre.
“The refurbishment of temples in backward regions and pandering to the religious sentiments of Dalits and backward castes is an inexpensive way of keeping them distracted and contented,” said Simhadri.