Polls, prayer and political largesse in Karnataka

Last Updated: Mon, Apr 29, 2013 11:23 hrs

Bangalore: Religious mathas, strewn across Karnataka, get political largesse in the form of huge funds. Will they have a bearing on the result of the Assembly polls to be held on May 5?

The hoardings pop up as you get closer to the Adichunchunagiri matha, located on a small hillock in the Mandya district around 120 km from Bangalore, and considered to be a power centre of sorts for Karnataka's Vokkaliga community. The first few are confined to those of recently deceased pontiff Balgangadaranath Swami, but at the entrance arch of the matha, others showing Janata Dal (Secular) President HD Kumaraswamy and sundry politicians appear. Inside the premises, there is a photo exhibition of Balgangadarnath Swami, organised by Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Ashwath Narayan, whose picture beams at you from each corner of the shamiana (both Kumaraswamy and Narayan, while belonging to rival parties, are Vokkaligas, a "backward" agricultural community that is numerically the biggest in the state after the Lingayats).

If religion and caste are inseparable from politics in our country, this intermingling gets another layer in Karnataka. Such is their importance that when Congress President Sonia Gandhi visited Karnataka last April, one of the few stops she made was at the powerful Lingayat matha at Siddaganga in the Tumkur district, to participate in the 105th birthday celebrations of head pontiff Shivakumar Swami. This was seen as a strategic move to woo the Lingayats, the community to which former BJP strongman BS Yeddyurappa belongs. Former prime minister HD Deve Gowda and son Kumaraswamy were once considered close to the late Adichunchunagiri pontiff, the only major Vokkaliga matha in the state, though the relationship soured, with Gowda actively encouraging the setting up of a rival Vokkaliga matha closer to Bangalore. With a new seer at the helm and Assembly elections next week, there might be a patch-up, as the hoardings suggest.

Mathas can broadly be equated with seminaries or ashrams, but in Karnataka, each is aligned with a particular caste, rather than a guru or "god-man", and in the caste-dominated politics of the state, no politician can afford to ignore them. But it's the BJP that has taken the relationship between political parties and the mathas to a new level. When Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar presented the Budget last month, he set aside around Rs 170 crore for various mathas. His predecessor, Sadananda Gowda, told the Assembly in a written reply that the government had disbursed Rs 110 crore to mathas and spent an additional Rs 189 crore on the roads to the mathas. And, according to reports, an RTI query has revealed that Yeddyurappa, the man who started the trend as finance minister in the government led by Kumaraswamy, had reserved over Rs 300 crore for mathas and religious institutions when he was the chief minister.

"Mathas have always received political patronage, even before BJP came to power. The difference is that previously, it was in the form of grants of land or licences to run educational institutions. It was never as obvious as allocations in the budget," says Sugata Srinivasaraju, editor of Kannada daily Vijay Karnataka.

The question, of course, is why do political parties woo the mathas and their pontiffs? "Mathas are a part of Karnataka's social structure and their leaders command a lot of respect, so there is a tendency to court them," says Narendar Pani, professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies. The dominant Lingayat community gives a lot of importance to the institution of mathas, right from their origins in the 12th century and the teachings of social reformer Basavanna. Apart from the one at Siddaganga, other prominent Lingayat mathas include the Suttur matha in Mysore and the Sirigere and Murugha mathas in Chitradurga. The Brahmins have had their own mathas, such as the Sringeri matha, patronised even by Tipu Sultan, and the Pejawar matha in Udupi.

Though no official figures exist, the number of mathas are estimated between 1,000 and 3,000, with backward castes and sub-castes having established their own in recent times. "Even the Banjara community, which is a few thousand strong, has its own matha," says Srinivasaraju, who ascribes this partly to a desire of smaller communities to come together for electoral gains at a time when victory margins are narrow.

The mathas have come to wield considerable influence by engaging with the local population in a number of ways, particularly in the case of Lingayat and backward caste mathas. Providing free primary education and accommodation for the rural poor is one. At Adichunchunagiri, a functionary informs me (with the request not to be quoted), that there are 120,000 students in the various institutions it runs - the ashram itself has 4,000 students, who are provided free accommodation. Shivkumar Swami, pontiff of Siddaganga, does not speak much. Questions are answered by the director of the Siddaganga Institute of Technology, MN Channabasappa, who says the ashram provides free food and accommodation to 9,000 students, of whom 2,500 are Lingayats.

Ironically, education is also the money-spinner for the mathas, many of which run engineering and medical colleges where admissions under the "management quota" require the usual hefty "donations". Some, such as the Adichunchunagiri matha, also run hospitals. Apart from this, The mathas also distribute food to the poor. And while many people approach the gurus for advice on all sorts of problems, some mathas run their own parallel courts. For a certain section of society, mathas have been a provider of welfare services, says Aya Ikegame, a researcher at the UK's Open Univerity who has been studying the emergence of caste-based mathas in Karnataka. "It seems as if the network of mathas comprises a parallel local state, supplanting many of the functions of elected local governments."

There have even been instances when powerful pontiffs have taken on the government in the interests of their flock. The BJP government was forced to abandon the acquisition of 3,000 acres of land in Gadag for Posco's steel plant after a farmers' protest led by Tontadarya matha's Siddalinga Swami. Earlier, it had to drop plans to acquire over 2,000 acres for the special economic zone in Mangalore after Vishweshateertha Swami of Udupi Pejawar Matha threatened to go on a fast-unto-death.

The pontiffs exercise their power a little more subtly than a mullah exhorting his congregation to vote for one candidate or the other after Friday prayers, says Srinivasaraju. The generous allocations made by Yeddyurappa, for example, have stood by him in good stead - when he was facing corruption charges, the Lingayat seers closed ranks and expressed support for him, going so far as to warn BJP against his removal. When he was hospitalised, various seers, including Shivakumar Swami, visited him. Similarly, when a massive "Guruvandana" for Balgangadhar Swami was held in Bangalore, it was inaugurated by none other than then chief minister, Sadananda Gowda, who shared the dais with fellow Vokkaliga Kumaraswamy. And in January, in a bid to prevent BJP MLAs from crossing over to Yeddyurappa's new Karnataka Janata Paksha, Shettar met over 60 pontiffs of various mathas to solicit their support for his government. "It is a fact that mathas command a lot of respect and they are willing to use that for political purposes," says Pani.

BJP's overt courting of the mathas, however, has not escaped the Comptroller and Auditor General. In its report on the government's spending on the social sector tabled in the Karnataka Assembly last month, the auditor pointed out that grants to religious institutions, including 23 mathas, exceeded the entitled amount by Rs 72.05 crore. The cap for the amount that can be sanctioned to religious institutions is Rs 50 lakh. However, says Srinivasaraju, mathas mostly claim the funds only after building infrastructure such as hostels or schools, since they are then able to claim larger amounts as reimbursement rather than allocations. Officials at the Siddaganga matha inform me that the Rs 10 crore allocated by Yeddyurappa when he was finance minister was used to construct hostels. "But we have never approached the government for funds," claims Channabasappa.

It is hard to quantify the support that a seer can provide a benefactor. Ikegame points out that the SM Krishna-led Congress could not return to power in 2004, despite his campaign kicking off with the 60th birthday celebration of the Adichunchunagiri pontiff. This could be because the caste matrix of Karnataka dictates that to win, a party would need not just the support of one single community but a combination of one dominant community along with two smaller sections, says Srinivasaraju.

Such considerations, however, have not stopped Yeddyurappa from promising Rs 500 crore to mathas if he is elected back to power next month. The seers must surely be waiting for May 8, when the counting of the votes takes place.


Rs 300 crore BS Yeddyurappa, 2008-11
Rs 75 crore Sadananda Gowda, 2012
Rs 170 crore Jagadish Shettar, 2013


Rs 5 crore Sri Siddaganga matha, Tumkur; Sri Veerashaiva Lingayatha Panchamasali Jagadguru Peeta, Harihar
Rs 2.5 crore Sri Muruga matha, Dharwad
Rs 2 crore Sri Jagadguru Murusavira matha, Hubli; Dasoha Bhavan at Sri Muruga matha, Chitradurga; Kudalasangama Panchama Peetha; Swarnavalli matha, Sirsi
Additional Rs 50 crore for hostels, educational institutions, community centres run by mathas, caste organisations and religious leaders

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