What Chandrababu Naidu’s public embrace of Hindutva politics means for Telugu states?

Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief and the former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu launched a scathing attack against the current Chief Minister, YS Jaganmohan Reddy, last week, during his visit to Ramatheertham Temple in Vizag where a 400-year-old statue of Lord Ram was beheaded by unknown miscreants.

Naidu accused YS Jagan of disregarding the sentiments of Hindus and facilitating conversions to Christianity in the state. He called it a betrayal of Hindu voters and repeatedly targeted Jagan’s faith. He added that throughout his political career, he had only upheld secularism but the current events in the state have pushed him to make such statements.

The political climate in Andhra Pradesh is heating up with people expressing concerns over reported attacks on temples across the state. But what seems to be alarming is the rise in Hindutva political rhetoric by mainstream political leaders. With a major leader like Naidu publicly endorsing such rhetoric, religious politics have officially become the dominant political discourse in the state. We take a look at its significance on politics in Andhra Pradesh and why the situation is graver than it looks.

The targeted attacks on Jagan’s secularism have been going on ever since he came to power in May 2019 but only started receiving major traction in September when a temple chariot was set ablaze in Antarvedi, East Godavari district. TDP, BJP, and Jana Sena Party (JSP) have all targeted Jagan’s faith referring to the attacks on temples across the state to be a planned conspiracy. Andhra Pradesh Director General of Police (DGP) D Gautam Sawang held an emergency press conference to sound off an alert as two more temples have been vandalized in Vijayawada.

DGP also added that they have been working round the clock to track the miscreants and have placed temple management on alerts across the state. However, he said that they found many of these to be isolated incidents and such attacks did not begin under Jagan’s regime. There were several reported cases even during the TDP’s rule. From 2015 to 2019, there were over 1500 reported attacks on temples in the state but this couldn’t stop TDP leaders from politicizing the issue.

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JSP Chief Pawan Kalyan, who is an ally to BJP, was among the first people to launch attacks on Jagan. He openly endorsed BJP’s Hindutva politics and marked the official entry of religious politics into the state. But due to JSP’s weak political cadre and lack of electoral strength, many brushed off their major ideological shift as insignificant to the state politics. With TDP and Chandrababu Naidu endorsing similar rhetoric, it can be said that religious politics are now mainstream.

TDP and BJP have been allies earlier but have split following TDP’s displeasure towards the central government’s negligence concerning the state’s special status. But the three parties seem to have reached an unofficial unison in their attacks on YS Jagan’s Christian identity. BJP and TDP have together sat down for a dharna at Ramatheertham last week.

When the Late actor and politician Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao (NTR) founded the party in 1982, one of the goals was to challenge the centralization of power by Congress and uphold the federal structure of the country. During Chandrababu Naidu’s time, however, party rules have changed.

As the focus shifted from populist schemes to economic welfare and pro liberalization policies, Naidu, who was referred to as the Chief Executive Officer of the state maintained friendly relations with the Centre. He extended support to BJP’s National Democratic Alliance in an attempt to put an end to Congress rule.

Relations between the two parties have withered in 2018 but a recent report suggests that attempts to rekindle the alliance are in full swing.

But the current coalition, when materialized, will hold particular significance as it marks a shift in TDP’s ideological leanings. Their earlier alliances with BJP were principally formed to challenge Congress at the Centre. This time, however, TDP seems to publicly endorse the Hindutva political rhetoric of BJP. TDP supported the most highly debated moves of BJP, the revocation of Article 370, and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Parliament. The party also expressed their support for the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.

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After a huge defeat in the Legislative Assembly Polls in 2019, TDP has been waiting for opportunities to hit back at Jagan’s Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP).

BJP, on the other hand, has been attempting to expand into southern states. Although it managed to win 4 Lok Sabha seats in Telangana, AP has been a difficult territory. Their alliance with JSP may not be able to make any significant impact. But with TDP, the chances are high.

TDP has a large voter base in the state irrespective of its huge loss in the legislative assembly elections. Unlike JSP, TDP can actually make an electoral impact. Additionally, TDP has massive support from the media in the form of Eenadu & ETV Network and Andhrajyoti & ABN Network.

Eenadu, owned by media baron Ramoji Rao played a monumental role in TDP’s rise in the state. Rao has successfully maintained a close association with Naidu over the years. Additionally, Rao has also managed to build a cordial relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even meeting him before the general election in 2014.

In 2012, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited, the majority owner of News18, acquired a 100 percent stake in regional Hindi news channels of ETV and a 50 percent stake in entertainment channels (rebranded as regional versions of Colors) and a 24.5 percent share of ETV Telugu and ETV Telugu News.

TDP support brings BJP what it needs to spread its religious politics on a large scale in AP. With a strong voter base, the possible alliance could give a tough fight to Jagan’s YSRCP in the next general election.

Additionally, BJP’s South ambitions get one step closer. With already growing support in Telangana as seen in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) elections and the 2019 Lok Sabha election, BJP’s Hindutva agenda has officially taken center stage in the politics of Telugu states.

Only time will tell if BJP could manage to translate this influence into electoral impact, but there is no denying that large-scale attempts to spread divisive propaganda will have severe long-term effects on the social fabric of both the states.

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