Did ‘Orange’ counter ‘Saffron’ in Karnataka?

In solidarity: Seers from the Lingayat community gathering to show support for Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa in Bengaluru on Sunday.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Why was it so difficult, but necessary, for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to retire an old warhorse such as B.S. Yediyurappa? After all, he clearly defied all that the party publicly stands for. He shows no distaste for engaging in old-style corruption, and has even paid the price for it. He makes no bones about extending his ‘rule by next-of-kin’ in promoting the de facto power of B.Y. Vijayendra. But above all, he showed a degree of fairness to the Muslim population of the State (approximately 13%) when he categorically stated, at the height of the pandemic in 2020, that ‘no one should say a word against Muslims; this is a warning’. Such fairness is quite alien to many other members of the party, which obliges its members to foster a hatred of Muslims. His warning flew against the successful ethnic profiling of Muslims following the Tablighi meeting at Nizamuddin Markaz in March 2020. Naturally, it only earned him greater displeasure.

He has symbolically ended two years of a troubled time as Karnataka’s Chief Minister in a blaze of advertisements recounting his achievements. As he counts his days to the Margdarshak Mandal, or to a safe sinecure elsewhere, Mr. Yediyurappa has revealed his capacity to rally support from the local men in orange – the mathadishas (head of mutts) of several Lingayat (and a few other) mutts, of which Karnataka has a dense and active network. Small groups meeting in his support coalesced into a gathering of about 450 who convened at Bengaluru’s Palace Grounds on Sunday. They put up the smokescreen of discussing ‘the problems of the present and their solution’, but Mr. Yediyurappa’s continuation in power was indeed their proposed solution.

Generous grants

Mr. Yediyurappa had inaugurated his last victory in 2008 with generous grants to these mutts. Between 2008 and 2013, the BJP government had granted at least ₹152 crore to 20 named institutions, a practice that his successors have found difficult to entirely avoid. In his new, though illegitimately obtained, time in power, he steered Karnataka’s enviable and decades-long legacy of development in completely new directions through the creation of caste-based development corporations (or ‘special purpose vehicles’ as the government submitted in court) – one of which was the Veershaiva-Lingayat Development Corporation that was endowed with ₹500 crore last year. Mr. Yediyurappa made development all about caste.

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But did the men in orange come out on the streets of Karnataka to express their gratitude for this largesse? Did they monopolise the media to protect their formidable empires of educational institutions and hospitals? The public engagements of the mutts, particularly in the world of education, have been about a century in the making, when Lingayat mutts first began to build institutions to serve those of their own caste, and later, a much larger community of Kannadigas. From the 1970s, they have expanded their educational engagements to set up professional colleges and related facilities. Today, for instance, the Jagadguru Sri Shivarathreeshwara (JSS) group of institutions number close to 350 educational institutions, while the Sree Siddaganga Mutt at Tumkur has an enviable 125. Many others are in the same league.

To add to their institutional strength, there has been an increased involvement of mutts and mathadishas in all parts of Karnataka in the developmental works of their regions. This may range from building bridges and irrigation works, to protecting livelihoods endangered by new technologies such as mechanical granite quarrying. They are even involved in establishing a balance between new livelihoods and ecological sustainability. For example, making iron ore mining companies in Chitradurga more accountable to the communities that they have thoroughly ravaged.

The Karnataka mutts have been, as M.M. Kalburgi so well described it, an ‘unauthorised government’. Wielding a moral, rather than a legal authority, mathadishas of especially the Lingayat mutts have long established themselves as the arbiters of everyday life in Karnataka.

What of their engagement with the world of electoral politics? Here, too, there has been engagement. It could consist of nudging adherents towards a particular candidate. Former Karnataka Chief Minister S. Nijalingappa was a ‘victim’ of this process. Participating in public protests became common as mathadishas and political representatives together demanded Other Backward Class (OBC) reservation for the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats in the late 1980s. In 2017, they demanded separate religious status for the Lingayats.

This engagement has gone further today. Attempts are being made to reduce the cacophony and expense of electoral politics, particularly in local body elections, by urging electorates to ‘unanimously’ choose one or another candidate, who then wins without a contest. This does not bode well for a democracy, but reveals the mutt’s formidable local political power.

Current assertion

What of the current assertion by the men in orange in support of Mr. Yediyurappa or another Lingayat leader? Is it to enlarge the powers they already enjoy, free of the accountability of the elected representative? Why have they not been able — or willing — to take that short step to electoral politics themselves?

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Or has the promised ‘double-engine sarkara’, in fact, shown signs of disobediently pulling in a direction quite opposed to the Union government? Ironically, the power of the mathadishas, strengthened no doubt by the wider political climate that privileges all men in orange, may precisely be that which undermines the homogenising Hindutva project. It was the dangerous threat to Hindu unity that was exposed in the 2017 campaign for the recognition of the Lingayats as belonging to a separate religion, a demand that was successfully beaten back — at least temporarily — by the Union government.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chief Minister were able to get away with yoking ‘sanatana’ (eternal or absolute dharma) to ‘pragathipara’ (progressive) when inaugurating the renovations to Anubhava Mantapa at Basavakalyan in Bidar – a move that sent up a futile cry of protest among those who saw this as a contradiction of Basava’s ideals.

But again, it was the radical heterogeneity of the mutts that came into public display for three months after January 2021, when the mathadishas of a sub-sect of the Lingayats, the Panchamasali Lingayats, marched towards Bengaluru, demanding a rearrangement of reservation categories to better represent their sub-caste. Leaders of other mutts, too, (such as the Kuruba mutts) joined the chorus for realigning the reservation orders. Their padayatras included those from the ruling party. Despite the finger-wagging from party seniors, ‘dissident’ MLAs marched, promoted and participated in these demands for ‘backwardness’.

Mr. Yediyurappa was himself besieged in this war that broke out between the castes and sub-castes. The second wave of COVID-19 arrived as a grotesque succour, but he still had to claw back the dangerous tilt in power towards the men in orange when he physically rapped the wrist of Vachananda Swami, after the latter publicly asked him to accommodate more Panchamasali Lingayats in his Cabinet. He went along with the appropriation by the Prime Minister of Basava’s Anubhava Mantapa as India’s testament to democracy, predating the Magna Carta — but he knew full well, as cries of the Lingayat sub-castes rent the air, that this was only a surface imperative.

We have, therefore, witnessed the contradictory process by which the unity that the Union government strives for is continually undermined by the fractious struggles of the region and its castes. As the Sanganabasava Swamiji of Bijapur presciently noted, “The RSS’ Brahminical narrative won’t work in Karnataka”.

Karnataka’s mathadishas – whom no political party can do without – are a mixed bunch. Some such as the then Nidumamidi Swami, and the current Nijagunananda Swami, have publicly campaigned against the BJP’s communal politics. Their commitment to their caste ironically staved off the precipitous plunge towards the Uttar Pradesh ‘model’, which other members of the party have eagerly embraced. For some time, Basava tattva’s orange may well run counter to Hindutva’s saffron.

Janaki Nair taught Modern Indian History at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2021 7:34:11 AM |

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