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Who to vote for in the Karnataka election? Just go with your mutt

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There are no official figures on the number of mutts belonging to different castes, sub-castes and sects in Karnataka, but they are estimated to be in the hundreds.

Mysuru/Udupi: It has become difficult to tell the temporal from the divine in Karnataka, with Hindu seers and spiritual gurus rubbing shoulders with politicians of all hues ahead of the 12 May assembly election.

Last Tuesday, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was addressing a rally in the temple town of Udupi, seated in the front row was a saffron-draped guru, Lakshmivara Tirtha Swami of the Shiroor mutt, one of the eight monasteries or centres of the Dvaita school of Hindu philosophy located around the Sri Krishna mutt in Udupi.

The swami, who reportedly has a keen interest in swimming, karate and music, had filed nomination papers to contest as an independent after the BJP denied him a ticket, but withdrew from the race later. He said he came to the rally to meet Modi, but couldn’t as there was limited space on the stage.

Other swamis at the mutts didn’t turn up, but their fondness for the temporal world was evident in the “deep disappointment” they expressed over Modi’s inability to visit the Sri Krishna mutt.

At least two of them — Vishwesha Tirtha Swami of the Pejawar mutt and Vidyadheesha Tirtha Swami of the Palimar mutt — had written to the Prime Minister, extending him an invitation.

‘No vote whips’

There are no official figures on the number of mutts belonging to different castes, sub-castes and sects in Karnataka, but they are estimated to be in the hundreds. Apart from their spiritual pursuits, they run scores of educational institutions, hospitals, and conduct a host of welfare activities, which give them tremendous clout over their followers.

Their heads are not known to openly give calls to followers to vote for a particular party — unlike, say, the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid — but they are quite hospitable to politicians, and many of them are known to work behind-the-scenes for a particular party or candidates during elections.

In the run-up to the election, BJP president Amit Shah and his Congress counterpart, Rahul Gandhi, have been driving from one mutt to another. The visits are more frequent to Lingayat mutts, whose views on chief minister Siddaramaiah’s ‘separate religion’ gambit might be electorally significant.

“Everybody knows politicians come here for publicity. Devotees are not always influenced by it,” said Amit Mehta, a businessman from Belgaum. He was at the Sri Krishna mutt last Monday to seek blessings for Adya, his six-year-old daughter, on her birthday.

Raghuram Acharya, brother of Vishwesha Tirtha Swami, claimed that although his brother might be associated with the Vishva Hindu Parishad, “devotees are never asked to vote for any political party”.

One should be careful to take these claims at face value, though.

The VHP had organised a ‘dharma sansad’, or a meeting of ‘saints’ from across the country, in Udupi in November last year to discuss the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, cow slaughter ban, and other issues of “interest to Hindus”. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat and the then VHP international working president, Pravin Togadia, were among the speakers.

Among the notable seers who attended was Nirmalananda Swami, the Vokkaliga head priest of the influential Adichunchanagiri mutt in south Karnataka’s Mandya district. The swami has had some prominent visitors of late, including Amit Shah, Rahul Gandhi and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, the head priest of the Gorakhnath temple in Uttar Pradesh.

Given that the Adichunchanagiri and the Gorakhnath mutts both belong to the Nath sampradaya (community), the BJP expects the UP chief minister to expand the party’s influence among the Vokkaligas (the community to which JD(S) chief H.D. Deve Gowda belongs), who constitute about 12 per cent of the state’s population, and, of course, to crystalise the hardline Hindu votebank.

There are, however, times when some of the mutt heads are confronted with a difficult choice — between caste and religion. Adityanath’s visit to the Adichunchanagiri mutt had made headlines in January.

However, the April edition of the mutt’s in-house journal has at least half-a-dozen pictures of Vokkaliga patrons, Deve Gowda and his son Kumaraswamy, splashed across the 28-page magazine, including one on the cover page.

“What’s there to choose? Everyone who is here (at Adichunchanagiri mutt) will vote for the JD(S),” said Harish Gowda, a Vokkaliga taxi driver.

Drive out of Gowda-land in south Karnataka to the coastal and northern parts of the state, and the devotees are not as clear about their options.

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