Karnataka polls: Seeking legitimacy, politicians make a beeline for mutts
With elections around the corner, the influential mutts (monasteries) in Karnataka have become centres of hectic political activity.
While Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah visited five mutts during his recent tour of the state, Congress president Rahul Gandhi also met pontiffs during his poll visit last week. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rallies in the state invariably include references to the mutts.
Historians and political analysts ascribe the political importance of the mutts to the enormous influence they wield over the constituencies where they are located. With the state set for polling on May 12, the three major political parties are likely to lobby with some of these institutions, as their backing provides legitimacy to the candidates.
In this context, the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government’s decision last week to notify Lingayats and Veerashaiva-Lingayats (those who follow the teachings of 12th century philosopher Basaveshwara) as a minority religious group is expected to yield political dividends. The sect, which makes up roughly 15% of the state’s population, could have a say in who comes to power in the state.
The Lingayat mutts, according to Aya Ikegame of the University of Tokyo, who has researched extensively on the role of mutts and pontiffs in Karnataka’s politics, have history on their side. Most mutts are specific to certain castes, with some even having branches to cater to different castes and sub-castes.
Explaining the influence of Lingayat and Brahmin mutts in the state, Ikegame said these maths’ influence is a product of their centuries-long existence. “Only Brahmins and Lingayats/ Veerashaivas have maintained these institution for centuries. Not other castes,” she said.
However, given their small numbers in the state, the influence of Brahmin mutts is limited when compared to the Lingayats. “The Adichunchanagiri is a relatively new mutt (about 100 years old) but they are practically the only Vokkaliga mutt in the state,” she said.
According to political analysts, the reasons behind this influence were the various outreach programmes of the mutts. “The Lingayat mutts, especially, enjoy support because of the educational institutions they run, among other things,” said Narendar Pani, faculty at the National Institute of Advanced Studies.
Shivamurthy Murugha Swamy, the pontiff of the Murugha mutt, said about 30,000 students were currently enrolled in the educational institutions run by the monastery. According to the Siddalinga Swamy, the junior pontiff of the Siddaganga mutt, around 40,000 students were studying in the various institutions run by them.
However, influence and legitimacy do not flow in one direction. Harish Ramaswamy, political science faculty at the Karnatak University, Dharwad, said the pontiff of the Moorusavir mutt in Dharwad had to abdicate for a brief period after a political battle broke out over choosing his successor. Two political leaders were said to have canvassed for different candidates, which forced the seer to step down.
BJP spokesperson S Prakash said seeking the blessings of seers was a traditional practice. “It is just an expression of respect to the pontiffs,” he said.
State law minister TB Jayachandra of the ruling Congress said mutts share a connect with people of particular areas that is beyond politics. “Visiting mutts is a signal to the people that their sentiments are respected. It is not that this will result in more votes. But not visiting a mutt can send the wrong message to the followers of that order,” he said.
“There is definitely a lot of prestige attached to the backing of some of the big mutts, like Siddaganga or Suttur or Tontadarya, despite such influence having been eroded by the emergence of newer mutts catering to specific castes,” said Ramaswamy.
Such is their influence that the state government was forced to withdraw a notification calling for public consultations on a plan to bring mutts under the government’s purview.