Over the last week, Andhra Pradesh politics was completely dominated by the visit that Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy took to the Tirumala hills to participate in the Brahmotsavam festival of the famous Balaji temple.

On September 17, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam, the board that manages India’s richest temple at Tirupati, invited Reddy to offer silk clothes to the deity. It has been a tradition for some years that the chief minister of the state participates in this ritual, a sort of a throwback to previous centuries when kings patronised temples to assert the legitimacy of their rule.

The visit, however, turned controversial due to a rule that non-Hindus who visit the temple should declare their faith in the deity. While Jagan Reddy offered the silk clothes to the deity on September 23, it is still not clear if he made this declaration.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and other Sangh Parivar organisations latched on to this controversy to mount a campaign that sought to project Reddy, a Christian by faith, as anti-Hindu. The principal Opposition, the Telugu Desam Party, went after Reddy separately over the matter, with its chief Chandrababu Naidu claiming that violating traditions would not bode well for the state.

In this campaign against Reddy is a glimpse of the long-term strategy the Sangh Parivar seems to have devised for the southern state, where the BJP is still just a bit player.

Importance of Tirupati

The Venkateshwara temple in Tirupati is one of the ancient temples in southern India dedicated to Vishnu. It is perhaps the most important religious place for the Vaishnavite sect after the Srirangam temple in Tamil Nadu and is one of the 108 divine abodes where the Vaishnavite medieval Bhakthi mystics, the Alwars, have sung poems in praise of the deity.

In Andhra Pradesh, the temple holds an important cultural position and is treated almost like the state’s family deity. Most prominent politicians make frequent visits to the temple. It is also considered the richest Hindu temple in India, with footfalls reaching almost a lakh on important festival days.

Politically too, Tirupati has occupied an crucial space in Andhra Pradesh. When states were re-organised in 1956 on linguistic basis, Telugus demanded that the city of Madras should be annexed with the new state of Andhra Pradesh. This found great opposition in Tamil Nadu. In fact, Tamil Nadu leaders wanted Tirupati too to be part of the new Madras state as it was known then, given the several mentions in ancient Tamil texts that the Tamil land occupied the region between Kanniyakumari and Tiruvengadam, the Tamil name for Tirupati.

In the end, Madras was retained by Tamil Nadu and Tirupati went to Andhra Pradesh. But this controversy has still not been forgotten in either state. When Andhra Pradesh was divided into two states in 2013, Pattali Makkal Katchi founder S Ramadoss demanded that Tirupati be given back to Tamil Nadu through the reorganisation.

Given its spiritual and political importance, any controversy around the temple attracts much attention. And it is this importance that the BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations are hoping to tap into, putting it at the centre of a campaign trying to sell the idea that Hindus in the state are suffering at the hands of a Christian chief minister.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy carrying silk clothes for the deity at the Tirupati temple on Wednesday. Credit: Andhra Pradesh Governnment

Sustained controversies

The controversies centered around the Tirupati temple began as soon as Jagan Reddy took over as chief minister in May last year.

In June, 2019, he appointed his uncle YV Subba Reddy to the management board. This immediately led to accusations that a Christian has been made member of the board, violating rules. Subba Reddy was forced to defend his Hindu faith to ward off the political attacks. The matter was even brought up in the Rajya Sabha, with members of the TDP questioning Subba Reddy’s declaration.

Subba Reddy again found himself at the receiving end of criticism last week, when he said non-Hindus need not declare their faith. He then clarified that he was talking about logistical problems of asking thousands of non-Hindus to declare their faith in the deity.

The matter got further aggravated when state minister Kodali Nani questioned the very basis of the rule and arguing that other temples do not ask for such declarations. “If a non-Hindu visits the temple without declaring their faith, will that pollute the temple?” he asked.

In May this year, Jagan Reddy had to stop a proposal of the Tirupati temple board to auction parcels of land donated by devotees in Tamil Nadu. The BJP, the TDP and the Jana Sena hit the streets against this decision, after which a government order was issued putting the proposal in abeyance.

But the controversies are not new to the Reddy family. Even when Jagan Reddy’s father YS Rajasekhara Reddy was chief minister between 2004 and 2009, allegations of allowing Christian evangelism on the hills considered sacred by the Hindus were constantly brought up.

Hindutva and Tirupati

Given this context, the BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations seem to believe that Tirupati could become a launching pad for a larger campaign against Jagan Reddy. The importance of the holy site means that other Opposition parties like the TDP cannot ignore these campaigns and have also waded into the debate vociferously.

However, speaking to Scroll.in, BJP state president Soma Veeraraju said minority appeasement was a feature of both the TDP and the YSR Congress and the BJP is not in anyway an ally to the TDP in this episode.

“TDP and BJP may have taken the same line with regards the chief minister’s Tirupati visit. But TDP has no locus standi,” he said, adding that BJP did not rake up the problem of faith declaration when Jagan Reddy accompanied Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the temple last year. “We are only saying now since many Hindus have expressed dismay and want the tradition followed.”

The BJP leader added that the party has not held street protests over this episode. The YSR Congress too has primarily focused on the TDP in its rebuttals. Advisor to the state government Sajjala Ramakrishna Reddy slammed the TDP in media statements, alleging that Naidu was trying to use communal politics to divert attention from corruption allegations in the building of state capital Amaravati.

Veeraraju said when former President Abdul Kalam visited the temple, he signed the declaration.

Last year, the BJP took up the issue of the state government hiking grants to Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem and other sites mentioned in the Bible. Yet again, the TDP led by Chandrababu Naidu was only too happy to join in. Even the proposal to increase the prices of laddus at the Tirupati temple was converted into a communal problem.

In the meantime, Naidu also raked up the question of Hindus and their religious places being targeted after a temple chariot was gutted in early September in East Godavari district. Jana Sena leader Pawan Kalyan, an ally of the BJP, asked women of Andhra Pradesh to light diyas to highlight religious harmony and condemn the attacks on “Hindu dharma”.