Karnataka polls: As Rahul Gandhi skips Udupi's mutts, Narendra Modi, BJP eye success in 'Hindutva laboratory'

Where Rahul Gandhi refuses to tread, Narendra Modi rushes in. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will kick off the final leg of its Karnataka campaign on Tuesday, with three rallies planned for the prime minister, one of them in Udupi, well-known not just for the ubiquitous Udupi restaurants all across the country but also for its famous Krishna temple and ashta mutts (eight mutts).

Modi will seek the blessings of the Pejawar pontiff Vishwesha Teertha Swamiji, said to be close to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and will address a public meeting in town. Reports say top police officials have asked the mutt to restrict visitors after noon on Tuesday.

 Karnataka polls: As Rahul Gandhi skips Udupis mutts, Narendra Modi, BJP eye success in Hindutva laboratory

File image of Narendra Modi with HH Sri Vishvesha Tirtha Swamiji. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The highly venerated ashta mutts take their lineage from the 13th Century philosopher Madhwacharya, who set them up to propagate his 'Dwaita' philosophy of qualified non-dualism, and are the spiritual centre for the relatively small number of Madhwa Brahmins in Karnataka. Modi's visit will also be a morale booster for the council which handles the day-to-day administration of the eight mutts given the recent controversies surrounding it.

One of the mutt chiefs, Lakshmivara Teertha Swami of Shiroor Mutt, caused a major flutter when he decided to contest the elections as an Independent candidate (he tried in vain for a BJP ticket), and admitted to having a family on the side and accused some of his fellow swamis of similar violation of their celibacy vows, one of the strictest rules of this order for its swamis.

The mutt's governing council has taken a serious view of this charge and is considering handing over administrative control of the Shiroor Mutt to one of the other mutts. However, it glossed over his decision to contest elections as a "personal one and his constitutional right as a citizen".

Unlike the Lingayat mutts that Rahul Gandhi and Amit Shah have been visiting in recent weeks, the Udupi mutts, while respected and venerated, have little political influence in terms of generating votes. Rahul Gandhi did not make a visit, as this mutt has been at loggerheads with Siddharamiah from the time the chief minister was with the JD(S).

In fact, Swami Vishwesha Theertha had accused Siddaramaiah last November of not visiting the mutt due to "pressure from some intellectuals".

And where Rahul will not go, the BJP, of course, has to. The mutt visit will no doubt be part of the Hindu unity and Hindutva push the BJP is using, especially in the coastal Karnataka region, which includes five seats in Udupi district (Karkala, Byndoor, Kundapura, Kaup and Udupi). Siddaramaiah's differences with the ashta mutts will also probably be highlighted as part of its campaign of painting the Congress as "anti-Hindu". The BJP had set this in motion in mid-February when Amit Shah visited the homes of two slain Hindu activists in the region.

Consolidating the Hindu vote is a key part of the BJP's strategy in the state as a whole, especially so in coastal Karnataka, which is viewed as BJP's Hindutva laboratory, and where it seems to be succeeding.

Udupi is not the communally volatile district that some of the other districts in the region are. Yet, it is significant, given its hoary past and the temple and its mutts which draw pilgrims from all over. It's also the home of one of the great trinities of past Hindu philosophers — Adi Shankara, Ramanujacharya and Madhwacharya.

The BJP had lost badly to the Congress here in 2013, winning just one of the five seats in the district to Congress' three, despite the BJP's strong showing earlier. Now it has set its sights on getting back to its earlier winning ways, and chose its candidates purely from a winnability angle. Its candidate in Udupi, Raghupati Bhat, is a person who was embroiled in a sex controversy and was shown the door. The Kundapura candidate, Halady Srinivas Shetty, a four-time winner, had rebelled and contested as an Independent earlier. The Kaup candidate, Lalaji Mendon, is a two-time winner who lost to Congress in 2013. The other two seats too have veteran party workers. V Sunil Kumar, the Karkala candidate, being its only sitting MLA.

Udupi is also of sentimental value to the BJP, as it was here that the Jan Sangh, BJP's preceding avatar, had won control of the municipality way back in 1968, from where it has expanded its presence considerably today.

Rahul Gandhi's non-visit to Udupi will no doubt be a major talking point in the BJP campaign, with local party leaders claiming that even the district Congress members were not keen on his visit. But it will have to contend with strong competition, with the Congress too fielding past winners from these seats. Rahul may not be speaking to the Udupi mutt chiefs but is meeting with Shringeri Shankara mutt pontiff. And his tour of the state's coffee belt will be reinforced by Siddaramaiah's 10-day campaign tour which will cover 10 important districts, where in most places it will be a straight fight with the BJP.

— The author is former editor-in-charge, The Week

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Updated Date: May 01, 2018 08:28:25 IST