Why Andhra is touchy about the faith of Tirumala temple board chief

Tirupathi
The TTD would continue to allow entry of devotees less than 12,000 in number into the temple daily. Representational image: PTI

When the reports first surfaced that Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy had decided to appoint his uncle Y V Subba Reddy as the chairman of Tirumala temple board, right wingers took to social media to question his Hindu credentials.

Claiming that Subba Reddy is a Christian, they questioned how he could preside over the affairs of the world’s richest Hindu shrine. A string of memes flooded social media, mocking the Chief Minister’s choice.

Some media outlets picked up the fake news and played along the narrative that Subba Reddy is a converted Christian. However, the fact is that he is a devout Hindu married into a family of mixed faith. The truth got drowned in a flood of fake narratives on social media.

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Finally, when the official announcement about his appointment as chairman of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) came over the weekend, his supporters went on a counter-offensive on social media, posting his pictures in traditional Hindu attire, performing homam and visiting temples. Reddy is also an ardent devote of Ayyapa. The pictures showing him wearing black robes on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala flooded internet.

Subba Reddy is married to Swarna, the younger sister of Jagan’s mother Vijayamma. Both the husband and wife are devout Hindus while Vijayamma is a Christian. Subba Reddy hails from Prakasam district in coastal Andhra and had no connection with the YSR family till he was married to Swarna.

Faith comes first

The faith of the person heading the Tirumala board often becomes a discussion point in Andhra. As per convention, the governments in the past, irrespective of the party in power, took care not to appoint atheists to the posts of the TTD chief and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Tirumala temple.

The appointment of Jagan’s family friend B Karunakar Reddy as the TTD chairman in the past had also triggered a similar controversy.

Karunakar Reddy, a close confidant of Jagan’s father and former Chief Minister of the combined Andhra Pradesh Y S Rajasekhar Reddy, who served as the TTD chief during 2005-09, had faced criticism because he was perceived to be “Christian-friendly” and an atheist.

Despite being a devout Christian, YSR had visited Tirumala temple several times. He was the most charismatic Congress leader who steered the party to power for two successive terms in 2004 and 2009 and was credited with contributing the highest number of MPs from Andhra to the UPA’s kitty in both the terms.

“It is unfair to restrict our family to a straightjacketed identity, be it Christian, Hindu or Reddy community. We have inter-faith and inter-caste marriages in our family,” YSR had once declared on the floor of the Assembly.

His tenure was also rocked by a controversy over alleged evangelical activities at Tirumala where propagation of other religions is not allowed.

The Hindu organisations raised a furore over YSR government’s attempt to develop a part of the Seven Hills of Tirumala into a tourist centre comprising multiplexes, food courts, commercial, sports and entertainment infrastructure, including a ropeway to reach the top of the hills. The High Court struck down a government order in this regard.

Controversies

If there is any position of power in Andhra Pradesh that is more sought after than a cabinet berth, it is the post of the chairman of the TTD, an autonomous body responsible for the administration of the popular hill shrine in Chittoor district.

With an annual budget of over Rs 3,100 crore, the Tirumala Board is a high-profile and influential body. The chairman and board members are appointed by the government.

There have been several controversies surrounding the appointment of the chairman, regardless of the party in power. One such instance was the appointment of a liquor baron D K Adikesavulu Naidu as the TTD head by the Telugu Desam Party government. Subsequently, he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Chittoor in 2004 on TDP ticket. However, he switched loyalties and backed the UPA-I in the floor test in Parliament in a no-confidence motion moved by the Left parties on the Indo-US nuclear deal. In return, he was rewarded with the TTD chairman’s post for the second term by the Congress government.

Political rehabilitation

Subba Reddy’s choice is more driven by political compulsions. He was earlier denied party ticket to contest the Lok Sabha elections. There has been pressure from within the family to accommodate him. He was in the forefront of the agitation in support of the demand for special category status to AP. Along with other MPs from the YSR Congress Party, he had resigned from Lok Sabha last year to protest against the denial of special status by the NDA government.

Traditionally, the chairman and other members of the TTD board are the political appointees of the government of the day. As per the convention, they quit their posts when there is a change in the government.

The TTD Chairman is considered a high-profile post as the incumbent gets to preside over abundant riches in the coffers of the temple board since Tirumala is the richest shrine in the country.

As per the convention, the TTD will have a representative from Telangana as a Board member. Given the friendly equations between Jagan and his Telangana counterpart K Chandrasekhar Rao, a Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) nominee could be accommodated.

Soon after swearing in as the temple board chief, Subba Reddy vowed to preserve the spiritual sanctity of the sacred abode of Lord Venkateswara. “I will strictly adhere to the age-old customs and traditions of the temple. And, there will be no deviation from the prescribed agamas,” he said.

Budget for 2019-20

Nestled among a picturesque string of seven hills in Chittoor district, Tirumala attracts over 50,000 pilgrims a day from all over the country and abroad. On festivals and special occasions, the inflow crosses the one-lakh mark. The temple receives offerings from devotees in the form of cash, jewellery, gold, silver, property deeds and demat share transfers.

According to the budget proposals for 2019-20, the TTD expects an overall revenue of about Rs 3,116 crore during the year. The income from Hundi collections was projected at Rs 1,231 crore.

The revenue from the interest on deposits in nationalised and private banks was estimated to be about Rs 846 crore.

The temple body expects Rs 292 crore from the sale of tickets for various forms of worship and another Rs 270 crore from the sale of ‘laddu prasadam’.

Auction of human hair offered by the devotees as fulfilment of their vow is also a source of revenue and the temple expects to earn Rs 10 crore from it.

The expenditure on salaries to over 6,000 staff and outsourcing personnel and other commitments is expected to be Rs.965 crore.

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