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Swamis and friends

M Somasekhar | Updated on July 05, 2019 Published on July 05, 2019

Power point: Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao (second from right) and his Andhra Pradesh counterpart YS Jaganmohan Reddy (first from right) have both been seeking the blessings of Swami Swaroopanandendra of Sarada Peetham in Visakhapatnam. - V Raju   -  The Hindu

Separated they may be, but Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are now drawn together by political compulsions, as well as a mutual love for godmen and hatred for an old rival

Take a couple of political foes and a few new-found friends. Add a godman or two. What do you get? A fresh turn in the developing political story of the two Telugu-speaking states of Andhra Pradesh (AP) and Telangana.

The states, divided geographically by the Congress in 2014, have been politically united by a common rival — former AP chief minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu — and some swamis. YS Jaganmohan Reddy, who ousted Naidu in the 2019 Assembly elections, has the backing of Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao. And they both, in turn, have the blessings of the Visakhapatnam-based Swami Swaroopanandendra.

The rivalry between Naidu and Rao is an old one. For long years, the former opposed the latter’s dream of a separate state. Naidu was also at loggerheads with Reddy, who had been seeking to emerge as a political leader after the death of his father, Congress chief minister YSR Reddy, in 2009. So when Reddy took Naidu on in the Assembly election, Rao fully supported him.

As the line between politics and religion is increasingly blurring across the country, Rao, chief of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), and Reddy, president of the YSR Congress Party, are seen seeking the blessings of Swami Swaroopanandendra and frequently visiting temples in the two states.

“The State has to maintain its distance from religion. The Nehruvian model sought to promote a scientific temper and socialism to achieve this. However, things are moving in the reverse with State patronage growing and political parties using religion and culture to strengthen their stranglehold over the people,” says K Haragopal, a former professor at the University of Hyderabad and a leading civil rights activist.

Rao has never hidden his spiritual leanings. But of late, the 65-year-old political leader has seemingly upped his spiritual ante: He has been making pilgrimages to temples in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, West Bengal and, more often, in neighbouring AP. As long as Naidu was in power, AP was almost like a closed chapter to Rao. No longer.

The thaw between the two states is also turning rapidly into a phase of growing understanding and bonhomie.

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During the elections, Rao had not only given Reddy strategic advice but also sent a few of his ministers such as Talasani Srinivas Yadav, a former confidant of Naidu, to help him. But in addition to the political support that Rao lent Reddy, it now transpires that godmen, too, helped with their prayers in vanquishing Naidu.

Topping the list is Swami Swaroopanandendra of the Sarada Peetham in Visakhapatnam. Some of the images that are still fresh in the public mind are of Reddy’s visit to the Peetham and his presence, together with Rao, at a grand function held for the swami in Amaravati. Present at Reddy’s swearing-in function on May 30 in Vijayawada were Hindu, Muslim and Christian preachers. Swaroopanandendra is reported to have advised him on choosing an auspicious day for the oath taking, besides suggesting June 8 for cabinet formation.

Swaroopanandendra, whose father was an Ayurvedic practitioner in AP’s Srikakulam, has had a spectacular rise in the last year or so. Formerly known as Narasimha Murthy Sarma, he emerged as Swaroopanandendra 10 years after he moved to Haridwar at the age of 20 to lead an ascetic life. Among his first politician-supporters was Dronamraju Satyanarayana, a senior Congress leader of the late ’80s from Visakhapatnam. Years later, Rao reportedly introduced Reddy to Swaroopanandendra.

The Telangana chief minister is also said to have brought Reddy close to Tridandi Chinna Jeeyar Swamy, a popular but controversial ascetic, ahead of the 2019 elections. When Reddy met Swaroopanandendra in January, he had just completed his record breaking 3,400-km padayatra — a year-long walkathon to “expose the Naidu government’s failures”.

For Swaroopanandendra, the new chief minister’s interest in the Peetham opens doors. As CM, Naidu had no truck with the swami. Naidu was seemingly keener on vaastu — the ancient system of building principles that is believed to have an auspicious effect — and did the rounds of the Tirumala temple in Tirupati and the Kanaka Durga Temple of Vijayawada. He sought the company of more articulate and seemingly modern gurus such as Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, who conducted a workshop for Naidu’s MLAs in 2014 after his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) came to power. Later, the TDP government allocated him land in Amaravati.

His master’s voice: Former AP chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu (right) favoured gurus such as Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. - Ch Vijaya Bhaskar

 

One reason for Swaroopanandendra’s relative eclipse during the Naidu years was the lack of patronage from the then chief minister. Similar was the case of Swami Paripoornananda, another self-proclaimed godman with a base in Kakinada, AP. He too had political supporters. Many in the Bharatiya Janata Party thought he would help spur its growth in Telangana during the 2018 Assembly polls. The party, however, failed to make a mark.

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Political observers believe there is a pattern to the growing bonhomie between Rao and Reddy. The two leaders need allies, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi — whose BJP swept the 2019 general elections — clearly doesn’t. A regional alliance would help them bargain with the Centre, some hold. “In the case of KCR and Jagan, it appears that they are appropriating religion and cultural symbols to contain the rise of the BJP within their respective states,” Haragopal says.

With the two leaders sharing a common interest, seeking darshan and blessings has become a familiar feature at public events. Still, many were surprised when Swaroopanandendra announced in Amaravati in mid-June — when his successor was anointed — that Reddy was his atma (soul) and Rao, his praana (life). He predicted the two would rule for 15 years and offered to pray and do tapas (sacrifice) for their wellbeing. Swaroopanandendra also said he had foretold Reddy’s grand victory.

No one was greatly surprised when Rao, at a June 18 cabinet meeting, decided to allocate the Peetham 2 acres in Kokapet at one rupee an acre. The land price there is believed to be upward of ₹20 crore an acre.

A little over a week later, Rao handed over the deeds to the swami at an event on the banks of the Hussain Sagar lake in Hyderabad. The swami was honoured with a ‘Pushpabhishekam’ (floral puja) and several top TRS leaders and Assembly Speaker Pocharam Srinivas Reddy were present at the event.

The presence of influential godmen in the states in not new. The most noted — and powerful — among them was Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi. However, what is raising concern is the increasing admixture of politics and religion.

“While public representatives, including CMs, can exercise their personal choices of religious practice, what is objectionable is State patronage and allocation of public resources,” says K Nageswar, political analyst and former Member of Legislative Council in the erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh.

There was an outcry in 2017 when Rao offered gold and jewellery worth ₹5 crore to the Tirumala temple. Opposition leaders and activists had objected to the use of public funds for the donation.

Chief ministers should not give official patronage to godmen and religious practices, and religious leaders must not publicly support politicians or parties, Nageswar argues. “The strange KCR-Jagan-Swaroopanandendra triangle is disconcerting,” he says.

Rao’s dependence on Chinna Jeeyar Swamy has also raised eyebrows. During his entire first term in office, Rao took most major decisions and performed yajnas (fire rituals) with the blessings and concurrence of the swami. A five-day yajna at his spacious farmhouse in Erravalli, Medak, in January 2015 attracted considerable attention. The state administration came to a virtual standstill with most elected members and bureaucrats marking their presence at the yajna.

The swami is also said to be overseeing the development of the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple and the restoration of Yadagirigutta (Narasimha Swami deity) at Yadadri, some 60km from Hyderabad. The temple is being developed on the lines of Tirumala at an estimated investment of ₹750 crore.

Jeeyar Swamy created a stir in 2016, when Rao moved into his palatial, fort-like office-cum-residence at Pragathi Bhavan. Visuals went viral of the swami being symbolically offered the CM’s chair first, to evoke blessings for the TRS leader. Congress leaders such as Uttam Kumar Reddy have alleged that the CM spent ₹50 crore on the bungalow and stayed away from the secretariat because of its supposed unfavourable vaastu.

The stories about the 62-year-old swami, also the son of an Ayurveda practitioner, are the stuff of legend. A Vedic pontiff, preacher of Vaishnavism and tech aficionado, he is said to be a Marxism-inspired atheist. He claims lineage to Saint Ramanujacharya, whose followers are known as Jeeyars. Jeeyar had earlier courted controversy by accusing the authorities at the Tirupati temple of violating tradition.

Some top businessmen also follow him. Among them is J Rameshwar Rao, the promoter of the ₹5,000-crore conglomerate My Home. Under the supervision of Jeeyar Swamy, Rameshwar Rao built one of the tallest statues in the country — called the Statue of Equality — of the 11th-century Vaishnavite saint Ramanuja in Shamshabad, near the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad.

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The political-religious ties are expected to strengthen as Reddy and Rao serve their term. What is, however, clear is that the two CMs’ cordial relationship may end up benefiting the states.

AP and Telangana have a common governor in ESL Narasimhan, who has been able to bring the two leaders together to iron out pending issues of bifurcation and hold meetings in an amicable atmosphere in the past month. While Narasimhan shares a good rapport with Rao, he did not have a smooth relationship with Naidu, which led to many issues remaining unresolved.

Rao and Reddy, clearly, are going from strength to strength — with a little help from their friends.

Published on July 05, 2019
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