The honeymoon period between Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and the BJP leadership appears to be coming to an end sooner than expected. For, the saffron party has opened a new front to attack the YSR Congress president, invoking his Christian faith.
The latest provocation came following the state government’s decision to sanction a monthly honorarium of ₹5,000 to pastors across the state. The Minorities Welfare Department has asked district collectors to take up enumeration of pastors in their jurisdictions for payment of the monthly remuneration.
“How can the government spend public funds to pay Christian pastors, especially when pastors mock and proselytise the deprived and poor people of other religion?” BJP national secretary Sunil Deodhar tweeted.
Targeting the Chief Minister’s faith may well become the template of the saffron party’s political strategy in the days ahead as the party is keen on making inroads into the two Telugu states of AP and Telangana.
Bonhomie to bitterness
The political bonhomie between YSRCP and BJP was never publicly declared but was an open secret. In the run-up to the April 11 elections, the two parties were bound by a common objective of defeating the Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party.
It is no secret that the BJP wants to spread its wings in Andhra Pradesh by using Jagan’s shoulders to fire at the TDP and then occupy the opposition space before the next assembly polls.
On his part, Jagan cannot afford to antagonise the BJP leadership with the illegal assets case still hanging over his head.
However, the latest political developments signal a possible early end to the friendship between the two parties. More worryingly, the BJP has been picking on issues that have communal overtones, and is constantly involved in reminding the people of Jagan’s “religious bias”.
A controversy was triggered by the BJP last month when it accused Jagan of refusing to light the traditional lamp during an NRI event at Dallas in the USA. A video of the event went viral on social media with the Chief Minister coming under attack from the BJP and its supporters for “hurting the sentiments of Hindus”.
However, the organisers of the event later clarified that the convention hall where the function was organised did not permit lighting of a fire and hence, the lamp was electronically lit.
Yet again, the BJP charged the YSRCP government with ‘propagating’ Christianity following a row over an advertisement for pilgrimage to Jerusalem printed on bus tickets meant for Tirumala-Tirupati route. There was also outrage over the alleged evangelical activities in and around Tirumala, the popular hill shrine. The advertisement, printed on the back of the tickets, was commissioned by the Minorities Welfare Department.
However, it later emerged that the ads were printed in March when the TDP was in power and the bus tickets were meant to be distributed in Nellore-Kadapa zone. And the ads pertained to all kinds of social welfare programmes of the government and were not restricted to the schemes concerned with pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The State Endowments minister B Srinivas has asserted that he would order an investigation into how bus tickets meant for Nellore zone found their way into Tirumala-Tirupati route.
Earlier, when Jagan appointed his maternal uncle YV Subba Reddy as the Chairman of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), he was accused of foisting a Christian on the temple board. However, Subba Reddy and his family members clarified that he is a devout Hindu.
Jagan is a practising Christian but regularly visits temples and is an ardent devotee of Sri Swaroopanandra Swamy of Sarada Peetham in Visakhapatnam.
Family of mixed faiths
Jagan’s critics say that his temple-hopping stems more from political compulsion and the need to demonstrate his respect for Hindu rituals to gain wider acceptance.
He comes from a family of politicians who virtually rule the roost in Kadapa district of Rayalaseema region, notorious for factional violence. His great grandparents had embraced Christianity.
Jagan’s mother YS Vijayamma, wife Bharathi and sister Sharmila are never seen accompanying him to the temples or participating in Hindu rituals. They are devout Christians. Sharmila is married to P Anil Kumar, a Brahmin who converted to Christianity post marriage and is now a popular evangelist. By and large, the women in the YSR family are practicing Christians while the men have mixed faiths.
Vijayamma, who was elected unopposed to the Assembly from Pulivendula in the December 2009 bye-election following the death of her husband in a helicopter crash, used to carry the Bible in her hands while addressing public meetings. She had unsuccessfully contested from Visakhapatnam Lok Sabha seat in 2014. One of the reasons attributed to her defeat, at the hands of BJP candidate K Hari Babu, was her ‘overt demonstration’ of Christian identity.
Jagan’s father and former Chief Minister of combined Andhra Pradesh YS Rajasekhar Reddy was a devout Christian too. However, it never deterred him from visiting temples. He used to pay regular visits to Tirumala temple. YSR, as he was popularly known, 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 Pradesh 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. Following his death, the Congress went to the brinks, as the Telangana statehood movement gained traction, paving the way for the division of the state. Jagan too broke away from Congress and formed the YSR Congress party.