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YOUR GOD OR MINE

That’s the essence of the unholy war being waged by the Congress and the BJP to woo voters of Karnataka as leaders of both parties go temple hopping

If Gujarat was the test case, Karnataka has seen the temple run being patented as an electoral strategy. In the run-up to the assembly elections on 12 May, the Congress and BJP leaders are engaged in furious temple and mutt-hopping. You will be forgiven if you thought the presiding deities are enrolled as voters as well.

It started during the BJP’s parivartana yatra when the Uttar Pradesh chief minister challenged Chief Minister Siddaramaiah to ban beef in Karnataka if he was a true Hindu. His counterpart retorted by questioning the credentials of those who were raising objections.

Who are these people to question our food habits? Many among Hindus consume beef. I do not eat beef because I don’t like it. But if I want to, I will. Who are they to stop me?” Siddaramaiah asked.

The BJP also accused the Congress government of looking the other way, tacitly encouraging the killing of 24 Hindu youths in Karnataka over the past three years. Though the list of the deceased was factually erroneous, the BJP’s intention was to push the ruling party into the Muslim camp and hope to gain from it in the communally sensitive coastal belt.

It was to rebut the BJP’s `Congress is anti-Hindu’ narrative that the temple run was dovetailed into the Rahul Gandhi’s election campaign. With the Congress hitting back at the BJP’s Lingayat votebank by according it separate religion status, thereby declaring it un-Hindu, the BJP too had a serious reason to go mutt-hopping to meet religious seers.

But do the optics of these temple runs determine the voter’s decision? Shouldn’t the vote be decided more by what the Congress has done in the last five years and what the BJP is promising to do if the party gets elected?

Mohandas Pai, Chairman of the Manipal Global Education and eminent Bengalurean, says voters largely do not care about the religious fixation of any of the leaders.

What I care about is their development agenda. Are they going to have peace and a non-discriminatory regime and protect life, property of people? Is rule of law going to prevail?” asks Pai.

But politicians have a different take on how temple visits help. The BJP calls temple visits part of its culture and dubs Rahul Gandhi an `election Hindu’. The Congress bristles at the label, pointing out that its president has been visiting temples since 2003.

Prof Sandeep Shastri, Pro Vice Chancellor of Jain University, says mutt and temple visits are part of an effort to reach out to a larger community, that the place of worship caters to.

I see temple visits or taking on a religious dimension more as an effort of a leader to identify himself or herself with a religious social group and being seen with important opinion makers in different religious groups. That is because heads of religious mutts play a role in influencing the minds of people,” says Prof Shastri.

But when the media speaks of a temple run, what is glossed over is the nature of these temples and the character of the presiding deities. What the Congress has done is to also visit temples where the deities are personal gods of the working class and not just Rama and Krishna temples. What this does is to recognise and respect the diversity of Gods, thus making a deeper, emotional connect with the faithful.

By visiting the Yellamma temple, Rahul Gandhi is trying to say that the Vedic Hindu tradition is not the only Hindu tradition. Or by Siddaramaiah saying there is Rama in my name but I am Siddharama is significant because Siddharama is not a mainstream god. There are lakhs of such personal gods in Karnataka which are being invoked. The BJP cannot counter that by saying you should worship only Ram or Krishna,” says Sugata Raju, political analyst.

This difference was highlighted when BS Yeddyurappa alleged that Rahul Gandhi had eaten chicken before he visited the Narasimha Swamy temple at Kanakagiri in Koppal district in February. Though the Congress denied it, the BJP template of vegetarian religiosity ran the risk of being seen as upper caste because backward castes make meat offerings to their gods and goddesses not just in Karnataka but across the country. The Congress template of Hinduism therefore has ended up looking more inclusive than the BJP.

Amit Shah has tried to nullify the perception by visiting Dalit seer Madhara Chennaiah in Chitradurga, in the hope that the optics of the meeting will help the BJP garner Dalit votes in central Karnataka where the seer has some influence.

Unlike Gujarat, where Rahul Gandhi steered clear of minority places of worship, Karnataka has seen visits by Congress leaders to churches and dargahs. This is also because of the presence of JD(S) in the fray — the Congress realised that an overtly pro-Hindu stance ran the risk of the Muslim vote tilting towards HD Deve Gowda’s party, more so after its alliance with the BSP.

This article was first published in Newslaundry.