With the Tirupati Lok Sabha bye-poll fast approaching, the BJP is making efforts to make inroads into Andhra Pradesh through the temple town, where it has massively ramped up its campaign and presence, especially since the YS Jagan Mohan Reddy government came to power in 2019. The bye-election, scheduled for April 17, is being held after the death of sitting MP Balli Durgaprasad Rao in September 2019.
The BJP, which is in an alliance with actor-politician Pawan Kalyan's Jana Sena Party (JSP), has fielded retired bureaucrat and former Karnataka Chief Secretary Ratna Prabha from the constituency. The ruling YSRCP has fielded M Gurumoorthy, the family physiotherapist for Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and his kin. The TDP has fielded Panabaka Lakshmi, a former Union Minister, and hopes to break its streak of poor performances including in the recent local body polls in the state.
Historically, the BJP has only won the seat once, in 1999 when candidate Nandipaku Venkataswamy led the party to a victory by a slim margin. With the upcoming polls, the party wishes to bounce back and eventually grow into a powerful political force in Andhra Pradesh.
Speaking to TNM, BJP Chief Spokesperson Krishna Saagar Rao said, "We are number three in terms of earlier electoral outcomes in that Parliamentary segment. Last time, it was a bipolar contest between the YSRCP and TDP. We foresee that there will be a triangular contest this time and we are looking forward to it. We will fight to win."
Polarisation in Tirupati
Since the Jagan Mohan Reddy government came to power in 2019, the temple town has seen a series of controversies mostly led by BJP leaders, from the appointment of the Chief Minister's uncle YV Subba Reddy as the Chairman of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) to questions raised about the faith of employees in the religious body.
The BJP has also repeatedly raised the issue of Jagan's faith as a Christian, and accuses him of 'hurting Hindu sentiments', while the YSRCP accuses the BJP of polarisation.
Observers feel that the BJP's narrative is yet to find mass support on the ground.
"The BJP, time and again, has been aiming to make strong inroads into Andhra. With a weakened TDP, the BJP sees a window of opportunity to occupy the space and Tirupati bye-polls is an avenue for the party. However, the BJP does not have a strong narrative other than religious and divisive rhetoric," says Palwai Raghavendra Reddy, a political analyst.
"The Modi government's stance on Special Status, Polavaram project, capital region, and now Vizag Steel Plant, are only dissuading people from embracing BJP. So, it is unlikely Tirupati will witness anything different," he adds.
However, the BJP refutes the allegations.
"Our natural agenda from our inception is development which is inclusive. That's what we will try to deliver in Tirupati too. It's the only agenda. However, local issues will also play a part and the YSRCP's governance failures and the hurting of sentiments, especially of Hindus, will also be a part of the electoral pitch," Krishna Saagar Rao said.
"We don't need to polarise. The parties which polarise are those which are based on caste and religion-based votes. If anyone is polarising, it is the YSRCP as they have a caste-based vote bank. They appease certain communities among Hindus or particular religions. We don't. It happens that Hindu sentiments are impacted and we are protecting them. If it happens to another religion, we will stand up for it as well. We are not for appeasement," he added.
What's at stake
Analysts feel that the outcome of the election could dictate the tone of politics in Andhra Pradesh for the next Assembly and general elections in 2024.
"Historically, the BJP has found it difficult to make inroads. The caste dimension in the state did not yield space to religious politics. Since Modi came to power, the BJP has gained momentum across India, including Telangana. But the party could not find the right recipe to win seats in AP. The BJP's poor performance in 2019 is an indication. However, the party aims to change this situation now," said Raghavendra Reddy.
"Results of this election will set the tone for many things to come in the next three years, before the 2024 elections. This will decide how strong YS Jagan is. This will decide what is the future of TDP and Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra politics. This will decide if BJP has any scope in the state, in the short to medium term," he added.
The BJP too, hopes to first oust the TDP and emerge as an opposition, before having to take on the YSRCP in 2024.
"Anywhere in the country, where we are number three, we would want to be number two. We want to be the primary opposition party in this term in Andhra and certainly by next term, we want to run the government. That is the agenda," Krishna Saagar said.
Raghavendra, on the other hand, feels that the BJP may not be able to have such a big impact, at least not in the present bye-election.
"BJP is not offering anything new or constructive for people of AP to ponder on. Jagan's faith and Hindutva seems to be the only poll plank and this might not bring great votes for the party. On the contrary, TDP also taking an aggressive religious stance will only split the voters. The big hope for BJP in the upcoming elections is the popularity and following of Pawan Kalyan, which might help them increase their vote share since last election."