Analysis
Since the time Jagan Mohan Reddy was sworn in as Chief Minister in May, the BJP has been using his Christian faith to target him and his government.

The BJP hopes to find fertile ground to grow in Andhra Pradesh following the defeat of TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu, and the rise of his rival YSRCP’s Jagan Mohan Reddy after the recent elections. While the TDP was a part of the NDA during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure and during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s term until it quit the alliance in 2018, the BJP has found it a near-impossible task to storm into its former ally’s domain with the Hindutva agenda. But the poll outcome may have changed the political and communal contours of the state to the BJP’s advantage.

Since Jagan Mohan Reddy was sworn in as Chief Minister in May, the BJP has been using his Christian faith to target him and his government. BJP state president Kanna Lakshminarayana has led his party’s social media warriors to target Jagan, accusing him of using his official position as a propaganda tool for missionary activities.

The BJP was quick to label Jagan ‘anti-Hindu’ for failing to light a lamp at an event in the US. And while the YSRCP dismissed the allegation, stating that it was an electric lamp, the BJP went on to accuse Jagan of visiting temples in the run-up to the polls ‘for the sake of votes’.

The BJP has also jumped onto other recent controversies, including an advertisement of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on the back of an Andhra Pradesh Road Transport Corporation (APSTRC) bus ticket, which was plying from Tirumala to Tirupati. Jerusalem is a sacred city in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The fact that the ad was printed on a ticket meant for travel to the famous Hindu temple at Tirumala was taken up by the BJP. The recent row over engaging non-Hindu employees in the Sri Bhramaramba Mallikarjuna Temple at Srisailam has also been used to highlight Jagan’s faith.

Telangana MLA Raja Singh of the BJP also saw a conspiracy in the death of 101 cows in a village close to Vijayawada in Andhra, accusing meat traders of sabotage. And while animal husbandry officials blamed the deaths on the cows consuming fodder with excess nitrogen, a Special Investigation Team has been ordered to probe the deaths.

Christian tag in politics

Jagan’s faith has been no secret. His family embraced Christianity, beginning with his great grandfather Venkata Reddy, who was an employee of the Church of South India (CSI) in his home town of Kadapa district. The Church of South India is one of the largest churches in the country, and belongs to the Protestant denomination.

Jagan’s father YS Rajasekhar Reddy (YSR), Chief Minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh between 2004-09, however, played the ‘minority card’ to his advantage. He wooed Muslims to his side, by projecting his rival Naidu, who was an ally of the BJP then, as a supporter of the Hindutva politics.

Following YSR’s death in a helicopter crash in 2009, Jagan parted ways with the Congress and formed the YSRCP. But it has often been identified as a ‘Christian party’, after Jagan’s mother Vijayamma and sister Sharmila Reddy led the YSRCP’s election campaign in 2014 with copies of the Bible in hand. The YSRCP, however, appears to have tread with caution in the recent elections after the 2014 fiasco. His mother was conspicuously absent in the campaign for the most part in 2019. In addition, Jagan was seen attempting his best to undo his Christian tag for public consumption at least.

After his thumping victory, Jagan visited the Hindu shrine at Tirumala and offered prayers. He had a Pushkara snanam (holy bath) during the Godavari Pushkarams, a river festival celebrated by Hindus every 12 years, and took blessings from Hindu seers Sri Ramanuja Chinna Jeeyar Swamy and Swaroopananda Swamy of Sarada Peeth.

Jagan’s non-confrontational approach against BJP

Jagan has chosen to be silent on the BJP targeting him over his religious beliefs as he cannot afford to take a confrontational stand against the Narendra Modi regime. The reasons are many. Corruption and money laundering cases loom over Jagan, especially in the backdrop of former Union Minister P Chidambaram getting arrested in the INX media case. In his first term as CM, Jagan is also in a bind over performing better than his rival Naidu, in developing the state and it won’t be possible without the Centre’s liberal assistance.

It’s these political compulsions that seem to force Jagan to go soft on the Modi government. This could be the reason why he backed the NDA on the Kashmir issue and its pre-poll strikes on terror camps in Pakistan’s Balakot.

The TDP, however, has remained neutral in the war of words between the BJP and the YSRCP over Jagan’s religious faith, since it would amount to shouldering the BJP’s Hindutva agenda if it naively targets the CM.

Meanwhile, Jagan also appears to have toned down his rhetoric on special category status for his state after he came to power. His apparent inability to challenge the Narendra Modi government may help the BJP nurse hopes to make forays into Andhra in future. However, it is a big question whether the BJP with a mere 0.84% vote share in 2019 can realise its grand plans to make inroads into a state, which has largely been a picture of communal harmony.  

Gali Nagaraja is a freelance journalist who writes on the two Telugu states. Views expressed are the author's own.