Every time elections loom over Karnataka, politicians across party lines queue up to meet the heads of influential mutts to seek the blessings of its chief pontiffs, which, in turn, sends a strong message to their followers on who their religious leader favours.
Chitradurga’s Murugharajendra Mutt has been one such institution.
The Chitradurga mutt is a Lingayat institution and influential among the community the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) enjoys immense support from. The Lingayats form close to 17-18% of Karnataka’s voting population.
When one visits the mutt, the meeting room of chief pontiff Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru, now an accused in a Protection of Children against Sexual Offences (POCSO) case, is filled with his framed pictures with former prime ministers and chief ministers of Karnataka. These pictures speak of the clout and reach of the mutt politically and the role it plays in creating favourable conditions for a leader or party that comes to power in the southern state.
The BJP government in Karnataka has had to walk the tightrope when it came to handling the case. While it faced criticism for dragging its feet before the arrest of Sharanaru, six days later, party insiders tell News18 that it was a calculated step.
CASE IN POINT
The BJP, in its internal meeting to take stock of the pontiff’s case, had decided that it needs to be handled by law and that party leaders should not make any statements supporting him for now. Keeping a distance from the case would help the party take a balanced stand, if the Opposition decides to take it up as a poll issue in the upcoming elections.
“The party wanted to see how the Lingayat community would react to the case, which is quite serious. If not handled properly, a POCSO case could damage the image of the mutt and the BJP too. The party wanted to understand how the other Lingayat mutt leaders were reacting. At first, we saw them supporting the pontiff. But as the investigation went deeper, they began distancing themselves, which was also a signal for the party to take a firm stand,” said a party source.
“It was a calculated risk by the BJP to ensure they do not face flak from the Lingayats, who can help make or break governments,” said another senior BJP leader, on condition of anonymity.
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As Karnataka heads towards elections, the Basavaraj Bommai-led BJP government’s move to arrest Sharanaru and ensure that he kept his promise of “letting the truth come out” has given the party a firmer ground to stand on.
NOT AN EASY JOB
Political analyst Sandeep Shastri feels it is a tough job for the ruling party as it has to be seen as working with responsibility on the case, while keeping the Lingayat vote bank and support intact.
“The BJP has taken a strategic dual line. The people in the government said that the law will take its own course, while those outside the party said the pontiff was a prominent person who had done much for society in terms of social service. The party will keep its options open and ensure they say that as per the requirements of the law, they have booked him. Those in power will wait for the direction the case takes and as per the stand of the judiciary calibrate their strategy accordingly,” Shastri said.
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On the other hand, the Opposition Congress stayed silent, which, analysts say, was expected as the case would have turned into a double-edged sword. If they went hammer and tongs against the BJP on it, they would have had to face the wrath of the Lingayats. Their silence showed how they couldn’t afford to hurt the Lingayat community, which the Congess has been desperately trying to woo.
Shastri said: “One should remember there are rivals of the Swami who are equally powerful among the Lingayats. There is also an increased awareness that something appears to have gone wrong on the part of the chief pontiff (mutt). It won’t be surprising if the followers of the mutt continue to stand by the mutt and favour actio against the guilty.”
“The greater dilemma is for the Congress on how to handle the issue. There is much less room for the Congress to manoeuvre. Had they gone full throttle against the government, they would have been on a weak wicket, with worries about the Lingayat vote,” he said.
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