Bangalore: With elections in Karnataka less than a month away, politicians at both the regional and the national levels are making a beeline for the monasteries, or mutts as they are called in this part of the country.
It isn’t a suddenly acquired faith in the ability of gods and godmen to turn elections that is causing this, but a belief that people will vote by caste.
Political analysts here are making much of the fact that Congress party president Sonia Gandhi made a phone call to 101-year-old Shivakumara Swamiji of the Siddaganga Mutt, ostensibly to enquire about his health.
A file photo of B.S. Yeddyurappa (centre), the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, with party colleagues. Leaders are visiting mutts whose influence runs deep because of the progress they’ve brought about (Photo by: Hemant Mishra / Mint)
The swami, a venerable and influential Lingayat (a local community) religious leader, is well-known for his community-building activities. Any association with the mutt, therefore, could have a positive impact.
“The mutts constitute an important variable and that’s why all parties go to religious leaders thinking they can influence voters,” said S.S. Patagundi, former head of political science at the Karnataka University in Dharwad.
“These visits may have some impact on the electorate, but the reason candidates go to religious leaders is to get spiritual strength,” said Suresh Kumar, state general secretary of Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP.
Over 30% of the candidates the party has fielded to contest 224 assembly seats are Lingayats, who account for around 16% of the electorate. B.S. Yeddyurappa, the party’s chief ministerial candidate, is also a Lingayat.
When the Congress party faced its worse-ever election defeat in Karnataka in 1994, analysts attributed it to the anger of the Lingayats, the state’s biggest voting community, who felt “insulted” when Congress supremo Rajiv Gandhi announced the sacking of the then chief minister, Veerendra Patil, a Lingayat, at a press conference at Bangalore airport in 1989.
G. Karunakara Reddy, sitting BJP parliamentarian from Bellary, who is contesting the assembly elections from Harappanahalli in Davanagere where he faces M.P. Prakash, a former deputy chief minister and a Lingayat, is making the rounds of various Lingayat mutts to counter his opponent’s caste advantage.
Both Reddy and Prakash last week visited the Panchamasali Mutt that has a large following in north Karnataka. “I do not go by caste and I am working for the development of the region,” Reddy said, adding he has been visiting several religious institutions around Harappanahalli to seek the blessings of the seers, and not for votes.
“Politicians go to religious leaders for blessings, that’s all. It is customary to seek blessings before beginning an important task,” said Narayan Swamy, a priest at Adichunchunagiri mutt whose chief Balagangadhar Natha Swami is courted by all parties. The Adichunchunagiri mutt is a powerful institution of the Vokkaligas, the state’s next biggest community after the Lingayats, accounting for 14% of the electorate.
Siddaganga Mutt administrator C.S. Puttashankaraiah did not comment, but said it was normal for people to seek the blessings of elders.
But the influence of these monasteries runs deep because of the progress they have brought about through social service and education, said Sandeep Shastri, a Bangalore-based political analyst.
The mutts are strong financially and are their own masters. The state attempted to control them through a legislation in 1997, but the law is now struck in a legal quagmire.
While mutts have for centuries been associated with Brahmins and the upper castes, many other communities now have their own seers—a phenomenon academicians believe is reflective of caste assertion.
“It’s important to note that in spite of modernization, caste continues to be a political identity,” said Shastri.
So, while Lingayat mutts hold sway over north Karnataka, mutts belonging to the Vokkaliga community and also backward castes such as the Kuruba command influence in various pockets of the state.
Realizing the need for consolidation, the Idigas, a backward community with a population of over four million, appointed their first seer at a mutt near Bangalore last month. The mutt’s main objectives are to educate the community’s youth, organize people and impart to them the teachings of Sri Narayanaguru, a 19th century social reformer.
“We want to become a force that will influence political parties,” said J.P. Narayanaswamy, vice-president of the Karnataka Arya Idiga Sangha. He said parties have been neglecting the community which used to win them at least seven seats in coastal Karnataka. “We want to put up some independent candidates at least in the next election,” he said.
The Idiga community has leaders of the likes of S. Bangarappa, a former chief minister, and Janardhan Poojary, former Congress state president. Bangarappa’s Samajwadi Party is hoping to stitch together an alliance with the Congress to share some 20 seats in Shimoga and Uttara Kannada districts where the Idiga support has consistently ensured him victory in the past.
The state has over 830 registered mutts, according to endowment department data.
The beginnings of most mutts belonging to non-Brahmin castes could be traced back to the 1901 Census that indicated Brahmins were dominant in every field, said G. Thimmaiah, a former director of the Institute of Social and Economic Change and former Planning Commission member. “So they established mutts and expected the swamijis to mobilize resources for educating their people,” he said.
Today, the biggest mutts such as Siddaganga, Suttur and Adichunchunagiri run hundreds of schools and colleges that attract people from different castes. Their engineering and medical colleges have traditionally been among the well-known non-government institutions in the state.
The political involvement of mutts began only after the reorganization of states in 1956 along linguistic lines, Thimmaiah said. It brought into Mysore state regions known as Bombay Karnataka, comprising present-day Belgaum, Dharwad, Bagalkot and Bijapur districts, and Hyderabad Karnataka that consisted of Gulbarga, Bidar and Raichur. It effectively changed the caste dynamics of Mysore state till then dominated by Vokkaligas.
Vokkaligas, literally tillers of the soil, have well-known leaders such as S.M. Krishna, and H.D. Deve Gowda.
The Lingayat assertion saw a line of chief ministers from the community, starting with S. Nijalingappa in 1956 to Veerendra Patil in 1971. The period also gave the community considerable benefit such as government jobs, Thimmaiah said. The Lingayat domination changed in the 1970s, when D. Devaraj Urs came to power with the backing of the backward classes. Urs, who was chief minister between 1972 and 1980, ensured the backward castes become a force to reckon with by uniting them.
Although Thimmaiah said that caste rivalry has led politicians to seek the help of mutts, he added the political influence of mutts is diluting for the same reason.
“If there are many candidates of the same caste, it would be embarrassing for the mutts to endorse any one of them,” he said. Suresh Kumar of the BJP agreed. “Their impact was more earlier.”