Lok Sabha 2024: Mutt politics and the pontiff paradigm in Karnataka

Yogi Adityanath is inspiring many saffron-robed swamijis in Karnataka mutts to enter politics but none is developing into a political leader.

ByDr Asha Krishnaswamy

Published Apr 23, 2024 | 3:00 PMUpdatedApr 23, 2024 | 3:00 PM

Sri Kanchugal Bandemutt in Ramnagara district, Karnataka.

Let it be any election in Karnataka; it has to be entwined with caste, religious institutions, money power, and dynasty politics. The ongoing Lok Sabha poll season in Karnataka is no different. Powerful castes backed by religious mutt politics and their pontiffs have been dictating terms to the prominent political players.

This is a season to witness political leaders prostrating before religious leaders in saffron attire. Political leaders seem to be competing to visit mutts of various denominations.

Adding a twist to the poll battle, Fakira Dingaleshwara Swami, head of a Lingayat mutt till 24 April, was hell-bent on contesting as an independent candidate against Union Minister Prahlad Joshi from the Hubballi-Dharwad Lok Sabha constituency.

He detests Joshi, a Brahmin because he has systematically and politically killed many Lingayat leaders, including BJP leader Jagadish Shettar. However, after filing the papers, he withdrew them. He has not assigned any reason.

Also read: Seer withdraws papers

The Panchamashali mutt politics

However, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah tweeted, saying he had requested the Swami to support Congress by withdrawing from the fray.

Swami Vachananda Guru, known as Shwaasa Guru, belongs to the neo-Lingayat mutt class. He can also be grouped with youth Internet-savvy saffron influencers. He is a yoga expert.

He heads Veerashaiva Lingayath Panchamasali Jagadguru Peeta. He has been making media statements criticizing the BJP for not giving primacy to Panchamasali Lingayats while distributing LS tickets.

While fielding nine Lingayat candidates, the party has given tickets to one Panchamasali, one of the many sub-sects.

Related: Panchamashali pontiff for quota

Idiga mutt leader attacks CM

Idiga community religious leader Pranavananda Swami has attacked Chief Minister Siddaramaiah for not releasing sufficient funds for the Idiga Development Board. He has named a couple of Idiga politicians and said both the BJP and Congress have failed to make them MLCs.

Idigas, called Billavas in the coastal districts, belong to the category of Other Backward Classes.

Dingaleshwara Swami is a good orator and organizer. In 2021, when the BJP was about to remove BS Yeddyurappa, the face of Lingayat political leadership, from the chief minister’s post, the swami took the initiative to bring hundreds of Lingayat pontiffs to pressure the BJP central leaders not to destabilize Yeddyurappa.

However, that could not save his post. He was brought back to the centre stage only when the BJP realized it could do little in Karnataka without a mass leader like Yeddyurappa.

The BJP used to be primarily backed by Veerashaiva-Lingayats, who account for nearly 17 percent of the total population in Karnataka. However, the equations changed in the 2023 legislative assembly elections, and the community supported the Congress to come to power.

Vokkaliga stakes

There is a verbal fight between BJP and Congress Vokkaliga leaders over who should be blessed by Sri Niramalanandanath Swami of the Sri Adichunchungiri Mutt. This mutt is the voice of Vokkaligas, who are said to be 11 percent of the population.

The combined JD(S) and BJP had marched all 11 LS contestants in South Karnataka to meet the seer. The pontiff, an IITian, is not openly supporting any party or individual. But Vokkliga leaders in all three prime parties are trying to own him up.

HD Kumaraswamy, a prominent Vokkaliga leader and son of former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, had to resign as chief minister in 2019 after losing a trust vote on the floor of the House. He was heading the JD(S)-Congress coalition government. At that time, no Vokkaliga mutt could save his chair. He was ousted in the number game of democracy.

Kuruba pontiffs silent

Interestingly, the Kuruba community, about 10–12 percent of the population, has openly not expressed any grouse this time about tickets. This is despite KS Eshwarappa, a senior Kuruba leader in BJP, and his son not getting a Lok Sabha ticket.

No Kuruba religious seer has raised his voice favouring Eshwarappa, who has entered the fray as a rebel candidate. Kurubas seem to be happy with their community leader, Siddaramaiah, who is occupying the chief minister post.

All three new-age seers—Dingaleshwara, Vachananda, and Niramalanandanath—are in their 40s.
Besides these major castes, even Muslims and Christians have their own religious leaders to guide them. So far, they have not openly endorsed any party, though a majority supports Congress.

Related: BJP vs Lingayat issues

Saffron power(less)

One question arises with all these and more: whether religious mutts have the clout to decide the outcome of political battles. The question can never be a closed-ended one. In recent years, a caste census data report has been submitted to the government, but it has not made it public.

However, the combined population of OBCs outnumbers the population of Lingayats and Vokkaligas. While Lingayats constitute 15–17 percent of the population, Vokkaligas are 13–15 percent, and Kurubas are in the range of 10–12 percent. The rest comprises many other castes, mainly Muslims (12–14 percent). Again, these are guesstimates only.

There is only one powerful mutt for Vokkaligas: the Adichunchungiri mutt. It has about two dozen branches. It has opened a centre in the US and will soon have one in the UK.

Its strength lies in education, as it has about 576 institutions under the Sri Balagangadaranath Shikshana Trust, including medical and engineering colleges.

AH Anand, BJP leader and a close associate of the Adichunchungiri mutt says, “The mutt is open to all. It doesn’t interfere in politics or support any individual. The focus is on imparting a very high-quality education. Students who have passed out of our institutions have a special affinity for the Mutt and its head.”

Anand says the mutt gets constructive support for its educational activities, irrespective of the party in power.

In contrast, at least 3,000 Lingayat mutts are belonging to various subsects. While the population of Vokkaligas is mostly spread out in about seven districts of South Karnataka, the Lingayats have a presence across the state, though more are in central and north Karnataka.

Their mutts are also spread out. Therefore, Lingayats are not under the sway of only one mutt or pontiff.

Also read: Caste-based mutt differences

Questioning the establishment

According to Sri Vachananda Swamy, there are two types of Lingayat-Veerashiva mutts: one that is interested in building their empire while not openly confronting or questioning any political leader.

Of course, many pontiffs of such mutts are highly respected because of their knowledge and service to society.

Another type is the common man’s mutt. These socio-religious organizations serve as a bridge between dharma and adharma.

They are politically active because they want justice for the voiceless sections of their community. “Our mutt questions the government or parties over any injustice. Such mutts are a recent development,” he points out.

He says, “We want to socially, economically, and politically empower our people, the Panchamasalis. There could be hardly two dozen vocal Veerashiva Lingayats and other community mutts. They are assertive. They are influencers in society because they question political parties and government.”

Also read: Mutt-politician link

Influence of mutts

However, he is candid enough to say that it is not easy to influence voters by any one seer or mutt. “No one mutt can claim they have sway over their entire community. There are so many mutts, each driven by its own goals. Mutts are exclusively for the SC/STs, Lambanis, Madiwalas, and Gollas.”

Lingayat seers pressured Sri Dingaleshwara pontiff to withdraw his decision to contest. However, he claimed that he was firm about his decision because it was ‘the circumstances’ that made him decide.

Will Lingayats en masse vote for him to defeat Minister Joshi? Before filing the papers, he had told this journalist, “I am sure Joshi will be rejected by his earlier supporters, irrespective of caste. If I say I am 100 percent confident of winning, I sound arrogant. So, I will say I am 99 percent confident of winning the seat.

“If the BJP had acceded to our demand to change its candidate, it would have been a different situation now. Nearly a lakh people listen to my discourses. They will support me in the poll battle,” he had said. But this was before he withdrew from the contest.

The swami’s decision to leave the fray comes after the murder of student Neha Hiremath, a Lingayat, in Hubballi. A student, Fayaz, allegedly stabbed her to death. Protests have become the order of the day since her murder on 18 April.

The Congress has been at the receiving end of a law-and-order situation, while the BJP has done its best to paint the ruling party as pro-Muslim. The murder has upset the Lingayats and polarized the poll battle.

Related: Lingayat, Vokkaliga quota hike

Flexible mutt loyalties

Education is a huge business for many religions and their spiritual leaders. There is a lot of ‘give and take’ between them and political parties in power and prime politicians. They often require shortcut methods to acquire land and permits for expanding the education business.

They look for government grants, too. Hence, institutions with religion and spirituality boards don’t want to antagonize politicians. Heads of mega-religious organizations function more like CEOs of MNCs. Together, they possess acres of prime land to run their education centres.

In the 2023 assembly elections, the Congress secured the OBCs’ votes as well as those of other major communities. Election dynamics change in every constituency unless there is a visible wave in favour of a party. That was not apparent in Karnataka to date.

Politicians and religious heads switch their loyalties. BJP MLA Basanagouda Yatnal, a Panchamasali Lingayat, has dubbed Vachananda Swami a ‘booking giraki’, meaning a booking agent. He used to take huge donations during the BJP regime.

Now he has switched loyalty to the Congress, the MLA alleges. On a Facebook post, the pontiff has hit back at Yatnal, ridiculing him that he has reduced to a taluk-level leader from the national level.

Long ago, Mata Mahadevi, a firebrand female Lingayat community spiritual head, unsuccessfully contested the LS polls from Dharwad. Unlike in Uttar Pradesh, in Karnataka, there are too many castes, sub-castes, and mutts.

Adityanath inspiration

There are no signs of Karnataka seeing an ‘encounter specialist’ in a saffron robe as representative of the public in the near future! UP CM Yogi Adityanath is inspiring the new generation of Swamijis to dream of tasting political power. However, the mutt cult and influence differ in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh.

The days of religious institutions or their heads functioning like remote controls during elections and political turmoil are slowly fading. But they come into the picture when somebody hurts their community’s sentiments.

A situation like the Neha murder case can make community leaders, as well as pontiffs, give a spin to an election in a particular constituency or region.

(Dr Asha Krishnaswamy is a Bengaluru-based journalist, political analyst, media trainer and content curator. Views are personal.)

(Edited by VVP Sharma)