13:15 GMT27 February 2021
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    Despite bagging massive mandates in the 2014 and 2019 general elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party is still considered a party of Hindi-speaking people. So far, the BJP’s only real electoral success in the south has been in Karnataka. Riding on Narendra Modi’s popularity, the BJP now aims to win states like Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.

    In a hope to gain a foothold in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh among Hindu voters, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is planning a political and religious public awareness campaign, referred to as Rath Yatra, in the state in the coming month.

    The development comes after a 400-year-old idol of Lord Rama in Ramatheertham village in Vizianagaram was found desecrated on 28 December last year. There have been several incidents of Hindu temples and idols being desecrated in different parts of Andhra Pradesh, currently governed by Jagan Mohan Reddy, a fourth-generation Christian. On 22 December, animal flesh pieces were found scattered at the sacred Krishna temple in Darsi, a town in the Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh.

    In September, 100-year-old chariot at the Antarvedi Lakshmi Narasimha Temple in East Godavari district was burnt. The same month, another Hindu god idol installed in a Shiva Temple in Chittoor district was found damaged.

    The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has claimed that more than 20 such incidents of temple vandalism have taken place in the state in the past 18 months.

    Besides the BJP, the state regional party Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which governed the state in the past, has accused the government led by the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) of not acting tough against the culprits.

    "One should not show such religious intolerance. The slogan Jai Sri Ram is resounding in Ayodhya at present. The Lord Rama temple at Ramatheertham has always been held in high regard in Andhra. In such a temple, miscreants beheaded the Rama statue. However, the government is not taking any steps to catch the culprits", TDP leader and former state Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu said.

    BJP convenor Sunil Deodhar told Sputnik, “The ruling chief minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy is Christian. And now he’s focusing on converting Dalits ('untouchables') and reserve class Hindus into Christianity, and desecrating temples is one of the steps”.

    The Telangana Case

    Contrary to low-profile poll campaigns held in the past by all the political parties for local body elections, the BJP launched an unprecedented do-or-die battle in Hyderabad, India’s tech city, last December during the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation election. The party deployed all the top leaders, including Uttar Pradesh state chief Yogi Adityanath, known for divisive politics by poll watchers, for the election.

    The saffron party registered a stunning performance as it emerged as the second-largest party, dislodging the state's governing Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) from half the seats it had held. The BJP won 48, a 12-fold jump from the 2016 election.

    Poll watchers attributed this victory to a bipolar contest where the BJP relied on Hindu votes in the city, which has a Muslim population of 43 percent.

    This election sharpened the religious divide and consolidated the Hindu votes firmly behind the BJP. The party has now aimed to resonate this line in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, which has increasingly witnessed signs of religious polarisation since Jaganmohan Reddy came to power in May 2019.

    In the 2019 parliamentary election, the BJP didn't get a single seat in the state and its vote share dropped to 0.84 percent compared with three percent in 2014. However, rival Chandrababu Naidu, a former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, has of late been more proactive in responding to any communal clashes or demands from Hindus in the state, which poll watchers see as an attempt to consolidate Hindu votes — approximately 88 percent of the total population — against Jaganmohan Reddy.

    However, opposition parties of the state, including the BJP, claimed that religious conversion is at an all-time high under the Reddy government, and Christians now constitute over 12 percent of the total population.

    What Lies Ahead?

    Communal tension is high in Andhra Pradesh, and the BJP catches the attention of the people in the state by raising the temple and conversion issues, said Narendra Popula, a senior journalist who has been covering the state politics for the past 30 years.

    “Hinduism has always been dominating in the state. But then the state also has a large number of backward communities that are getting converted to Christianity by the missionary in the lure of a good education, jobs, and anything. The conversion is not a new concept in the state; it’s been going on here for the past 100 years. But now when the chief minister is Christian, it gives an option for the BJP to accuse the chief minister and call him anti-Hindu”, Papula, who is an editor with IANS said.

    In September 2019, the Jagan Mohan Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh decided to pay $70 as a monthly honorarium to pastors. The Reddy government also allocated a special fund to sponsor Bible tours across the state, including financial assistance for weddings of Christian girls, among others.

    “Not just BJP, but other regional parties are also targeting Jagan Mohan Reddy’s religion”, the senior journalist stressed. “It is too early to comment if all these temple vandalism incidents will help the saffron party or not, but, surely it will make a ground for the BJP in the state. Religion is a sensitive topic, and it holds the nerve of people”, he added.

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    Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh
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