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Why playing up Jagan candidate’s ‘Christian faith’ didn’t work for BJP in temple town Tirupati

In Tirupati Lok Sabha bypoll, BJP’s K. Ratnaprabha finished a distant third, accounting for just 5.17% of the vote-share. YSRCP's Maddila Gurumoorthy is the new MP.

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Hyderabad: The BJP’s efforts to make inroads into Andhra Pradesh received a dent Sunday, when the party lost a Lok Sabha bypoll in the prominent temple town of Tirupati, despite running an overtly communal campaign.

Throughout the bypoll campaign, the BJP alleged that the ruling YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) candidate Maddila Gurumoorthy was a Christian and hence ineligible to contest from the seat reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs). The party has in the past attacked Chief Minister Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy over his Christian faith.   

Gurumoorthy, however, cruised to a comfortable victory, beating the Telugu Desam Party’s Panabaka Lakshmi by around 2.7 lakh votes. The results of the 17 April bypoll were declared Sunday.

Gurumoorthy ended up with 6,26,108 votes while Lakshmi secured 3,54,516 votes. 

The BJP’s K. Ratnaprabha finished a distant third with 57,080 votes, accounting for just 5.17 per cent of the vote-share. 

The BJP’s final numbers are an improvement from the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when it had 1.22 per cent of the vote-share and finished behind NOTA (None Of The Above) but that is because in these elections, it tied up with actor-turned politician Pawan Kalyan’s JanaSena Party (JSP), which has influence on the Kapu community in the constituency. 

Experts say the BJP had little concrete to offer and hence paid the price.  

“There is no qualitative change in the politics of Tirupati. It has been the same since 2019 and so the trend repeated itself giving YSRCP a majority again,” political analyst Purushotham Reddy told ThePrint. 

“The TDP had no new strategy except attacking Jagan the same way. So, what did not work before will not work now too,” he added. “And if BJP is talking about Christianity or the CM’s faith, it’s not something new. That’s been the issue for the last few years. So, why will people react differently to the same narrative?”   

He was referring to the BJP, ever since Jagan took over as chief minister in 2019, making his Christian faith the centre-stage of its politics. The party, along with the TDP, had also attacked Jagan over a spate of temple attacks in the state. 

“Locals do not get carried away with these issues. They have been there for decades; they understand better how these temple attacks are happening. How they abruptly start and stop,” Reddy said. “And when communities on the ground have no issues with each other, how will they relate to these attacks?”

A JSP leader also admitted that the Kapu community did not back the alliance.

“The Kapu community vote bank is approximately 37 per cent. Not all the votes transferred to BJP, else the result would have been different,” Suresh Pasupuleti, the JSP Chittoor district leader told ThePrint. “Looks like people did not prefer JSP going with BJP.”

Also read: Covid norms go for a toss at huge rallies of TRS, BJP, Congress in Telangana for civic polls

The CM’s & his candidate’s faith

The bypoll to the reserved Lok Sabha constituency of Tirupati was necessitated following the death of YSRCP MP Balli Durga Prasad Rao in September.

The constituency is spread across Chittoor and Nellore districts and covers seven assembly segments, including one that hosts one of the country’s richest temples. 

For the BJP, known for its polarisation politics and which is desperately trying to make inroads in Andhra Pradesh, a poll in the temple town seemed like a chance where its politics could have an impact. 

After all, the town’s significance is the temple which has an average daily footfall of 65,000 visitors from across the country.

And it did not take long for the party’s campaign to become religion-centric — the BJP had initially attacked the “corrupt” YSRCP government and even accused the chief minister of piling up a debt of around Rs 4 lakh crore due to his welfare schemes and freebies.

But it then began playing up Jagan’s Christian faith.

It then moved onto questioning the faith of YSRCP candidate Maddila Gurumoorthy — alleging that he was a practising Christian and hence was ineligible to contest in a constituency reserved for an SC candidate.  

BJP’s national secretary Sunil Deodhar, also the party’s co-in charge of Andhra, questioned why Gurumoorthy did not visit the famous Lord Venkateshwara temple in Tirupati. 

“YS Jagan, let people know the actual religion of Dr. Gurumurthy, your Tirupati bypoll candidate. Why didn’t he take God Balaji’s darshan till now?” Deodhar tweeted in mid-April. “Is he also a Christian masking himself as a Hindu SC, like your HM (home minister)? If so, then you’re cheating people & Christ too.” 

Calling him a “fake SC”, Deodhar also tweeted a photograph of Gurumoorthy purportedly taking blessings from a pastor before filing the bypoll nomination. 

Deodhar went a step further, saying the state government was hiring pastors for Rs 5,000 a month to call Hindu gods as ‘Shaitans’ at a time Andhra’s economy is “on ventilator”.   

YSRCP Congress leaders clarified that Gurumoorthy belongs to a Hindu Mala family. They also put out photos and videos of the candidate’s visit to the Tirumala temple. 

Fight of new faces & ministers

A political novice, Gurumoorthy was Jagan’s personal physiotherapist during his 3,648-km walkathon, Praja Sankalpa Yatra, ahead of the 2019 Assembly polls. The party fielded Gurumoorthy and not late MP Rao’s son, Kalyan Chakravarthy. 

The BJP also fielded a rather new face in Ratnaprabha, a former IAS officer who retired as the chief secretary of Karnataka. 

A native Telugu speaker who served in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh for a brief period, Ratnaprabha was also making her poll debut. The party reportedly also tried to convince the voters that Prabha could emerge as prospective union minister from a state that currently has no representation in the Modi cabinet. 

BJP’s reason to contest in Tirupati was to do something similar to Hyderabad — polarisation. But Tirupati does not have an AIMIM. The Hindu-Muslim factor cannot be an issue there, so it became more of an anti-Christian thing,” senior political analyst Prof Nageshwar Rao said. “But the town has never had a history of Hindu-Christian hostility, and there is no Christian political force. The dynamics are such that one will not even know who is a Christian, or which person is a Dalit etc… In Andhra Pradesh, more than religious identity, it is all about linguistic identity.” 

Rao also said the TDP, which field former Union minister Panabaka Lakshmi, needed to reinvent its tactics.   

“If you look at Naidu attacking Jagan in his speeches, you will not know if that is the most recent one, or from a year ago or if it is two years old — they are all the same,” he added. “So, unless the party has some reinvention and comes up with new strategies on how to take on the Govt, they cannot attract people.” 

The Congress had also fielded another former Union minister, Chinta Mohan. He secured just 9,585 votes for a vote-share of a mere 0.87 per cent.

The constituency 

The Tirupati parliamentary seat, with 17.1 lakh voters, recorded an all-time low turnout of 64.29 per cent in the bypoll. 

The Mala and the Madiga community, both SC sub-castes, account for over 10 per cent of votes (individually), according to JSP leader Suresh.

Analysts say the YSRCP, apart from the trend that the seat is mostly won by parties in power, benefitted from the Jagan government’s 23 direct benefit schemes, on which it has spent Rs 80,000 crore since 2019 (up until February). 

“The working class lost income during the pandemic, so imagine getting money in the pocket in the form of freebies at that time,” Reddy said. “At the same time, there is dissent in the urban areas that too much is being spent on welfare schemes.” 

The YSRCP, however, has faced allegations of malpractices and bogus voting. The opposition parties have urged the Election Commission of India to conduct a re-polling saying that the YSRCP managed a lot of fake votes.

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)

Also read: How a land grab charge saw KCR strip health minister of his portfolio and take over


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