Modi’s man moves UP: the firebrand priest in charge of India’s most populous state

Firebrand priest Yogi Adityanath is now chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, but his ‘Hindu rashtra’ nationalism is likely to inflame division in India’s most populous state.

People in Yogi Adityanath’s hometown Gorakhpur gather on March 25 to welcome the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, but Adityanath faces a battle to revive the economy. Deepak Gupta / Hindustan Times via Getty Images.
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

India’s tinderbox politics has just got a little more combustible with the surprise appointment of a firebrand Hindu nationalist priest, Yogi Adityanath, as chief minister of the northern state of  Uttar Pradesh (UP), the country’s most populous state.

It capped a dramatic and historic victory for prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the assembly elections on the back of a dog-whistle campaign aimed at consolidating the core Hindu vote and marginalising Muslims. With about 40 million Muslims in a 220-million population, UP has more Muslims than many Muslim-majority countries. But the BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate in any of the 403 seats it contested, arguing that it could not find any “winnable” nominee.

“It is difficult to think of political parties in civilized societies that deliberately reject a group who form a fifth of the electorate,” wrote Aakar Patel, head of Amnesty India.

Adityanath’s selection has alarmed minorities and liberal Hindus who see it as a logical culmination of a deeply-divisive campaign. An emboldened BJP, they fear, is likely to replicate the “UP model” in other states, as well as at the next general election in 2019. As Fali S Nariman, a distinguished constitutional expert, put it: “As I see it, we are on the threshold of a Hindu state. We are moving not towards the soft Hindutva [Hindu way of life, as defined by the Supreme Court] but the hard Hindutva – Hindu rashtra [Hindu nation].”

BJP voters, however, have hailed his selection as a victory for his “development” agenda while neutral Hindus say they would wait to see whether he is able to deliver on his promises.

BJP’s campaign, fronted by Modi himself, focused on portraying Hindus as victims of Muslim/minority “appeasement” in the name of secularism. He claimed Hindus were even denied proper facilities to cremate their dead, while Muslims were freely allotted land for burial grounds.

“If a kabristan [graveyard] is constructed in a village, then a samshanghaat [cremation ground] should also be set up ... If one gets electricity during Ramadan, then one should get electricity in Diwali also.” It has been reported that the line was fed to him by Adityanath, who raised the issue in his own speeches.

A problem state

For Adityanath, however, getting the top job may have been the easier bit. Governing UP will prove more difficult considering he has no administrative experience. It is the largest and one of the poorest, lagging behind in most areas – literacy, per capita income, agricultural production, manufacturing, infrastructure, health, law and order, and women’s safety. Plus it’s rife with corruption and a politician-criminal nexus. In the 1980s, it was among the four north Indian states classified as “Bimaru” (sick) states. The other three – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar – have since moved on while UP remains stuck in the slow lane with an unemployment rate way above the national average. About 40 per cent of its population remain below the poverty line; industrial growth is rated in the bottom five states; and agricultural production is significantly below potential.

Does Adityanath have the skills and the vision to measure up to the scale of the challenge? His record as an MP inspires little confidence: his parliamentary constituency of Gorakhpur remains one of the poorest regions in the state; and little is known about his plans for UP's economic development. Beyond his sectarian politics, he is an untested entity. "To put the economy back on track and ensure law and order, it is imperative the new chief minister puts divisive issues aside," The Times of India said.

Many in his own party will be waiting to see him fail given his often prickly relationship with the BJP. He is known as a loose cannon with little respect for party discipline. And his penchant for shooting from the hip has frequently embarrassed the leadership. The party has used him when it has suited it, while it has also been quick to distance itself from his more controversial views, dismissing him as a “fringe” figure, not to be taken seriously.

Initially, he was kept out of electioneering but brought in later to secure the crucial Hindu caste vote. He did the trick, with the BJP registering its biggest-ever victory in the history of UP elections, and giving it the much-needed momentum ahead of the 2019 general elections. Having delivered, Adityanath was said to have insisted on being rewarded with chief ministership. Fearing a revolt by his supporters, the party gave in.

Who’s Adityanath?

Son of a forest ranger and a mathematics graduate, Adityanath’s real name is Ajay Singh Bisht. In 1994, at the age of 21, he renounced his family to become a disciple of the chief priest of a well-known temple – Gorakhnath Math – in Gorakhpur, eastern UP. He changed his name, shaved his head, started wearing a saffron robe and calling himself a “Yogi” (monk). Rising quickly through the ranks, he took over as head priest after the death of his spiritual mentor.

His rise to fame, however, is not on account of his spiritualism. It’s his aggressive Hindu nationalism and his “mission”, as he has described it, to see India become a “Hindu rashtra” where religious minorities will live at the pleasure of Hindus.

“I will not stop until I turn UP and India into Hindu rashtra,” he has repeatedly said. He is also at the forefront of the campaign to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya on the site of a 16th-century Mughal Babri Masjid mosque forcibly demolished by Hindu fanatics in 1992 and which sparked nationwide riots in which hundreds of people were killed. “The hurdles on the path of construction of a grand Rama temple will be gradually removed, and the construction will soon start,” he declared at an election rally.

Another of Adityanath’s pet campaigns is enforcing the beef ban in the state through his private youth militia, Hindu Yuva Vahini. It has been involved in numerous cases of “cow vigilantism” – including the mob lynching of a Muslim man suspected of storing beef in his fridge. Adityanath has promised to extend the ban to the slaughter of all animals and to shut down abattoirs, despite these being an important source of revenue for the state and for employment generation. Since he took office, scores of abattoirs and meat shops have been forced to close after being suddenly declared illegal, allegedly at the instance of Yuva Vahini vigilantes. Meat sellers have gone on strike in protest.

Adityanath sees himself as a protector of Hinduism and “Hindu values” which, he believes, are threatened by “outsiders”. He accuses Muslims and Christians of conspiring to “Islamise” and “Christianise” India through proselytisation. He called Mother Teresa part of “a conspiracy to convert Hindus to Christianity”.

He has also outlandishly accused Muslim men of waging a “love jihad” – seducing Hindu girls and converting them to Islam.” He has praised United States president Donald Trump’s efforts to ban travel from a number of Muslim-majority countries and has compared Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan to a Pakistani terrorist. Adityanath also faces several pending criminal cases, including charges of attempted murder linked to Hindu-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar, western UP, four years ago.  He denies the charges.

‘Will govern for all’

Adityanath has promised to govern for all and has included a Muslim in his cabinet. “Josh mein aake hosh nahi khona chahiye [don’t get carried away by passion],” he told supporters. But the mood has already darkened. Posters have appeared in a village telling Muslims to “leave immediately” and warning of “dire consequences”; demands are being raised for the famous Islamic seminary town of Deoband to be renamed “Dev Vrand”, after a Mahabharata-age town; and his administration’s launch of “Anti-Romeo squads” – an election promise – to check harassment of women has quickly morphed into moral policing with reports that genuine couples, including foreign tourists, are being targeted.

BJP says, ultimately, he will be judged on his performance, not by what he said in the heat of the campaign. While the jury is out on him, the BJP is widely seen to have made up its mind to stick to the UP script in the 2019 general elections when it is likely to face the combined might of all opposition parties, in what is anticipated as a “Modi versus the Rest” contest.

Hasan Suroor is a writer and commentator.