According to the Constitution, religion and the state are not meant to go hand in hand. But in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, both the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) are exploiting the entire government apparatus to officially sponsor and promote religious festivals to appease voters.
On October 9, Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR), on behalf of his cabinet presented the Bhadrakali temple in Warangal with an 11,700 kg golden crown worth Rs 3.65 crore. In 2015, he pledged Rs 5.59 crore worth of jewellery to the Balaji temple in Tirupati and other deities. Both donations were made out of the newly-formed state government’s Common Good Fund.
The nine-day Brahmotsavam festival at Tirumala which concluded on October 11 was sponsored by the Andhra government and is now one of the most expensive festivals in the country. “Nearly 5,000 policemen, 3,500 volunteers, 21,000 TTD employees toiled for several months to make it a success,” Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) executive officer and IAS officer Dr D Sambasiva Rao said.
The TTD, which is run by a band of hand-picked Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service officers, has a budget of Rs 2,670 crore this year. In June this year, the AP government announced a scheme to provide free pilgrimages , largely to Hindu members of the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, and Backward communities.
Both the TDP in Andhra and the TRS in Telangana have captured power on the planks of regionalism and religion. If the mythological charisma of TDP founder NT Rama Rao, a film star who played various gods in films, destroyed the Congress bastion in united AP in the early 1980s, it was the open display of belief in supernatural powers and daily rituals of Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) that was an added advantage as the TRS overturned the Congress and TDP in Telangana in 2014.
So much so that KCR appointed his family astrologer as the Vaastu exponent to the Telangana government on a fat salary to ensure that all government buildings were Vaastu compliant. He also performed a Mahachandi yagya at his farmhouse in December 2015 and even invited President Pranab Mukherji, whose visit was cancelled at the last minute due to a technical hiccup.
During the 2014 general election, the Election Commission set a new record and confiscated around Rs 155 crore in combined AP, which accounted for almost 50% of the cash seizures in the country that year. “But that is only a small slice of huge election funds spent by each political party, as the major amount was in funding religious events, institutions and pilgrimages,” election analyst K Ravi said.
Ruling parties in AP and Telangana have become smarter than the Election Commission. Rather than dole out freebies during polls, they use religious events as opportunities for voter appeasement and official patronage. Be it Christmas, Ramzan, Guru Nanak Jayanti, Mahavir Jayanti, Bathukamma, Bonalu or Gangamma Panduga, successive governments have opened their coffers for organising festivals or sponsoring pilgrims. Now, it’s on a larger scale than ever.
Festivals and politics
While in combined AP, Ganesh Chaturthi was the only religious festival celebrations sponsored by the government, now both the Telangana and AP governments are doling out grants for multiple festivals, including Christmas and Ramzan.
At this year’s Brahmotsavam festival at Tirumala, lakhs were fed every day, cultural events were organised with bhajan mandalis and Padma Shri awardees like saxophone maestro Kadiri Gopalnath performing at Tirumala and Tirupati for the benefit of pilgrims. While Brahmotsavam is an annual event, the ruling TDP made a special effort this year. The AP government has also announced that the TTD’s mega kitchen will now be used to provide free food to pushkaram pilgrims as well .
The AP government has started giving a gift hamper called ‘Chandrannakanuka’, containing essential commodities worth Rs 1,000, to BPL families through the government PDS, as it did on Ramzan, Christmas, Sankranti, Ugadi, and most recently, Dussehra. Some enthusiastic AP ministers also gave gift hampers this year for the Varamahalakshmi festival in Anantapur, Krishna and West Godavari districts. Some Vijayawada TDP leaders handed out similar hampers on the eve of chief minister Chandrababu Naidu’s 65th birthday celebrations on April 20 this year.
Both governments organised the massive Krishna Pushkaram in 2016 - the AP government granted Rs 1,250 crore, and Telangana gave Rs 200 crore - and Godavari Pushkaram in 2015 for which the AP and Telangana governments granted Rs 1,600 crore and Rs 700 crore respectively, setting up bathing ghats, free food and other facilities in Kumbh Mela style. The Naidu government extensively utilised the TTD’s mega kitchen infrastructure and its cultural wing (Hindu Dharma Prachara Parishad) to give free food to lakhs of pilgrims and keep them entertained with bhakti music and discourses at both Godavari and Krishna Pushkarams.
“It is a once in 12-year occurrence and a holy event for 80% of the population,” Naidu told reporters at the time. “So what is wrong in facilitating with security, hygiene, transport and food?” he asked.
Where AP goes, Telangana cannot be far behind. In 2014 and 2015, the TRS government allocated around Rs 1 crore to each district for celebrating the Bonalu and Bathukamma festivals. This year each district will get Rs 15 lakh more . KCR is also promoting the hitherto neglected temple town of Yadagirigutta (renamed Yadadri), with its historic Narasimhaswamy temple, as the ‘Tirupati of Telangana’ with a corpus of Rs 100 crore. A new district has been carved out in its name as well.
The Telangana government’s publicity machinery went into overdrive to promote KCR’s daughter and Nizamabad MP Kavita leading the Bathukamma celebrations, parading the flower-decked Bathukamma pot on her head during the event.
In 2015, during Ramzan and Christmas, gift hampers worth Rs 1,000 were distributed for the first time by the Telangana government, including new clothes and food. Massive Christmas dinners, langars and shahi daawat or royal feasts were organised in all districts and attended by elected legislators. The CM personally attended and invited Muslim leaders from the Middle East for shahi daawats held as part of iftar during Ramzan. His ministers also attended the Christmas dinners in prominent churches of Hyderabad and Medak.
“What is wrong in celebrating festivals of all religions when we go seeking their votes community-wise?” Telangana home minister and Musheerabad MLA Nayini Narasimha Reddy asked. In the past, spending on Muslims was limited to Haj, where each pilgrim received Rs 8,000 (Telangana has a large Muslim population — around 15% of its people). Now, Ramzan is observed on a much larger scale , and the Haj allowance has gone up to Rs 12,000.
The flip side
Naidu has decreed that the model temple of Tirumala shrine should be replicated at all pilgrim centres during festivals to showcase TTD’s ‘dharmic activities’, which include temple-building and bhajan-promotion in all districts. Thus the Hindu Dharma Prachara Parishad, headed by Naidu’s handpicked retired revenue official N Mukteswara Rao, is all set to become the front office of the TDP to promote artists and followers of the party to participate in cultural events at Tirumala.
All the assets of TTD, including nearly 1,200 marriage halls spread over Telangana and AP, will be used for both party and administrative needs to host seminars and other such events. “We suggest that the TTD and Tirumala assets, which are huge and contributed by devotees from across the globe (not just from AP or Telangana) be turned into national assets and put to national services,” Major (retd) Venugopala Nair, a staunch Venkateswara devotee, who says he is vexed with political abuse of Tirumala, said.
After the bifurcation of the state, the AP government has promoted several national educational institutions – IIT and IISER, for instance — at Tirupati to utilise the base infrastructure provided there – hospitals, universities, and accommodation, in addition to the rail, road and air connectivity. TTD has already promoted six universities at Tirupati besides the latest SV Vedic University on a 200-acre campus. “While we appreciate the TTD as a harbinger of higher education, it also means the ruling party or government would have a vice-like grip on them,” Tirupati-based social activist Muniratnam Naidu s aid.
Appealing to voters’ religious side is not a new strategy for the two states carved out of the older Andhra Pradesh. But they certainly are outdoing each other to blur the lines between government and religion.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)