Behind dropping prominent Lingayat faces: RSS-BJP’s long game to curb influence of mathas

BJP's communal pitch around 'Uri Gowda-Nanje Gowda' in the Vokkaliga heartland was given a quiet burial after a Vokkaliga matha's intervention.

ByAnusha Ravi Sood

Published Apr 17, 2023 | 1:35 PMUpdatedApr 17, 2023 | 1:41 PM

Karnataka BJP lingayat matha

Ending his lifelong association with the BJP, former Karnataka chief minister Jagadish Shettar resigned from BJP and joined Congress on Monday, 17 April.

He made no secret about what he thought the party had done to him. “Humiliation”, “hurt”, “ill-treatment” were the words he used to describe his feelings while speaking to reporters on Saturday night after announcing his resignation, even from the primary membership of the BJP.

Shettar, a senior Lingayat leader, is the second prominent face from the community to resign from the BJP in less than one week.

Laxman Savadi, another Lingayat leader who was consciously propped up by the central leadership of BJP — especially national general secretary (organisation) BL Santhosh — as an alternative to former chief minister and Lingayat strongman BS Yediyurappa when he was made deputy chief minister, not just quit the BJP last week but also joined the Congress and is now set to contest from Athani Assembly constituency on the party’s ticket.

Changing ‘static politics’

Both Shettar and Savadi were miffed that they weren’t given tickets by BJP.

Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai on Sunday deemed the decision to deny ticket to Shettar by the central leadership of BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as a new system in the party to “change static politics”.

He was referring to the practice of replacing senior and experienced leaders with new faces.

The BJP, that has announced 212 candidates so far, has patted itself on the back for giving tickets to 60 new faces — although, an overwhelming majority of these “new faces” are in constituencies the party lost the 2018 Assembly elections. Only about 15 incumbent MLAs have been replaced with new candidates so far.

Replacing old candidates with new ones, it seems, is not the only “static politics” that BJP and its ideological head, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), hopes to change.

The Congress in Karnataka was quick to term the BJP’s rejection of Shettar and Savadi’s candidature as “mistreatment of Lingayats”

However, a closer look at how things have panned out in Karnataka over the last few years suggests a bigger pattern.

For the central leadership of the BJP and RSS, it isn’t as much about sidelining prominent Lingayat faces as it is about curbing the influence the mathas (monasteries) have on the community through decades-long association with these leaders.

Forcing out Lingayat strongman like Yediyurappa from the chief minister’s chair in 2021, to now denying a ticket to Jagadish Shettar are only a minuscule part of the BJP-RSS’s long game to slowly wean politics in the state away from the influence of mathas.

The mathas — especially of the two dominant communities of Vokkaligas and Lingayats — are power houses of political influence in the caste-fueled race of Karnataka politics.

“The RSS and the mathas both vie for the same target group — community members — to influence and control.

As long as the mathas have influence over the community, the RSS-BJP will not be able to sway them at will,” points out Prof Narendar Pani, dean, School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru.

Also Read: Progressive, secular: Why the Murugha Matha is important

Influence of mathas

Take for example the BJP’s carefully crafted narrative of ‘Uri Gowda- Nanje Gowda’ to communalise the Vokkaliga heartland in the Old Mysuru region.

Vokkaliga leaders of the party — like Union MoS Shobha Karandlaje, national general secretary CT Ravi, Minister Dr CN Ashwath Narayana — have, for months, pushed the narrative of two Vokkaliga chieftains, Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda, killing Tipu Sultan — a claim deemed as “fake” and “distorted” by historians and academics.

BJP leader and Minister Muniratna even announced a movie about the “fictional assailants” of Tipu Sultan.

But the issue got a quiet and firm burial after Nirmalanandanatha Mahaswamiji, the chief pontiff of the influential Vokkaliga matha, the Sri Adichunchanagiri Mahasamsthana Math, asked the BJP to put an end to the story citing lack of historical evidence.

With his one statement, the Vokkaliga seer was able to undo a whole narrative spun carefully for months by BJP.

Mathas have also played a crucial role in contributing to Yediyurappa’s stature as a mass leader. Throughout his career, Yediyurappa has been the bridge between the RSS and the mathas, especially the Lingayat mathas.

So much so that on 20 and 21 July, 2021, as speculation of the BJP “high command” replacing Yediyurappa as chief minister became stronger, dozens of seers of various mathas gathered at his residence in a show of solidarity.

Regardless of the mathas’ support to Yediyurappa, he was replaced by the BJP central leadership with Basavaraj Bommai. The party had hoped that replacing the Lingayat Yediyurappa with Bommai, also a Lingayat, would placate the community, but that was not to be.

The RSS attempted to bypass Yediyuappa and establish a working relationship with the mathas directly, but the efforts haven’t yielded the desired results.

The BJP once again had to relent to influence of the mathas.

Yediyurappa, who had been deliberately sidelined even until as recently as January this year, was suddenly made the face of the poll campaign, and wooed by Prime Minister Modi himself, after the BJP’s internal surveys showed that the party was slated to lose Lingayat votes.

If the agitation by Panchamasali Lingayats over a reservation hike — led, again, by a seer, Jayamruthyunjaya Swamiji — was one reason, the firm backing of Lingayat mathas to Yediyurappa was another.

Also Read: Why BJP just can’t do without Yediyurappa in Karnataka

Mathas and Hindutva

The state leadership of the BJP is fully aware of how different it is for the party in regions that are driven by ideology and regions that are dictated by castes which are, in turn, influenced by mathas.

“The candidate list we have put up this time will work wonders in coastal Karnataka where votes are cast on the basis of our ideology. But the same list is risky in districts of North Karnataka where caste is the primary factor. We have to work very hard to consolidate, and the infighting in the party is not helping the process,” a national general secretary of BJP told South First.

While Brahmin-led mathas like the Udupi Sri Krishna matha have ideological similarities with the RSS-BJP, the same is not true of Lingayat, Vokkaliga and other community mathas whose central function is still about Dasoha — service of food, shelter, education.

This is one of the reasons why the Congress has also utilised the Shettar-Savadi incident to accuse the BJP-RSS of treating Brahmin and Lingayat leaders differently.

“One of the reasons that BJP has been able to communalise coastal Karnataka is because of the absence of these two dominant castes — Vokkaligas and Lingayats in the region,” opined Prof Muzaffar Assadi, dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Mysuru, at a recent panel discussion moderated by this reporter.

The assertive identity of the two dominant castes leaves little space for ideological dominance by the BJP.

But why would BJP-RSS even attempt to ruffle features of a community that is its core vote bank?

SM Jamdar, former bureaucrat and general secretary of the Jagatika Lingayat Mahasabha, provides context.

“This feeling that RSS is conspiring to wrest away control the mathas have on the community by going after leaders has been around since Yediyurappa was forced to resign the first time as chief minister and sent to jail in 2011. Several recent happenings have only made the feeling stronger,” he said.

Jamdar was referring not only to Yediyurappa’s ouster as chief minister for the second time in 2021, but a series of incidents around Lingayat mathas, including the arrest of Chitradurga’s Murugha Matha seer Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru in a POCSO case and suicides of three seers of Lingayat mathas since December last year.

Jamdar added that while many within the community felt such incidents depleted the faith members have in the mathas and its seers, others viewed it as a conspiracy against Lingayats and mathas.

Communal statements by Lingayat leaders

“Lingayats backed the BJP not because of faith in their ideology but because the community had become orphans since the Congress and JD(S) both had become inimical. Since BJP was then a growing party, Lingayats backed it the whole-hog as an alternative. BJP, too, gave the community representation with three chief ministers,” Jamdar told South First.

“It was never about ideology, but a political alternative. Ideological overtones started appearing only after the entry of BL Santhosh in the state BJP,” he added.

Explicitly communal statements from Lingayat leaders like Basanagouda Patil Yatnal, Arvind Bellad, even Basavaraj Bommai, are a recent phenomenon.

Yediyurappa and Jagadish Shettar, on the other hand, are regarded as ideological, but non-communal. They are not any longer in the mainstream electoral politics of BJP. The second generation leaders do not share the same relationship with the mathas, as the first line of leadership from the community does.

“Lingayat ideology can never fit into BJP’s ideology, and BJP-RSS leaders feel suffocated by their influence over the community. When MC Jayadev, a Lingayat himself, was the bridge between Yediyurappa and the RSS headquarters in Karnataka Keshava Krupa, everything was smooth between the community and the party. The suspicion now is not without foundation,” Jamdar said.

Given the influence mathas have over the community, the BJP fully understands that it is a long game and no changes can be brought about overnight.

Cozying to mathas directly bypassing the current structures of engagement, and the slow removal of the “go-betweens” is one step in the process.