Modi Picks Hard-line Hindu Priest to Govern Uttar Pradesh

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Yogi Adityanath, center, is offered sweets after he was elected chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, during the party lawmakers’ meeting in Lucknow, India, on March 18. John Elliott writes that Adityanath, who has often fallen out with BJP leaders, is known as a firebrand with a string of legal cases against him, including criminal intimidation, attempt to murder and incitement to violence. Pawan Kumar/reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has unveiled what could turn out to be its vision of the future leadership for a Hindu-nationalist India with the March 19 appointment of a hard-line Hindu priest as chief minister for the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).

He will be backed up by two deputy chief ministers, one from the backward castes that form a crucial vote bank and the other a high-caste Brahmin professor of commerce.

There was widespread shock and surprise when Yogi Adityanath, a long-standing BJP member of Parliament from eastern UP who always dresses in saffron priest's robes, was unexpectedly chosen by the party's leaders following their landslide state election victory a week ago.

Other candidates, including the two who are now his deputies, did not get enough support for the top job, and no one had been named during the election campaign. Adityanath, who has no experience in government, was later endorsed by a meeting of newly elected state assembly members and was sworn in on March 19.

Known as a firebrand Hindutva (Hinduness) leader with a string of legal cases against him, including criminal intimidation, attempt to murder and incitement to violence, Adityanath has often fallen out with BJP leaders.

He stressed after being sworn in that he would follow a development agenda, but he is expected to revive the highly controversial construction of a Hindu temple at Ayodhya, where Hindu demonstrators demolished a Muslim mosque in 1991. One of his first tasks may be to fulfill an election manifesto pledge and close slaughterhouses that are mostly operated by Muslims.

Related: India's Modi sweeps four states in a landslide

Age 44, Adityanath is eight years younger that Amit Shah, the party's hard-line president, and 22 years younger than Narendra Modi, the prime minister. He has a clean image in terms of corruption and is a new type of face among the younger generation of BJP leaders.

Presumably, he could rise to the top if he succeeds in his first task of ensuring that the party does well in the 2019 general election, with UP returning at least if not more than the state's current 71 MPs, and is then re-elected as chief minister UP in 2022.

Communal Tensions

Arguably, UP voters, who gave the BJP its massive majority of 312 seats in the state's 403-seat assembly, expected a development-oriented chief minister to run the state, with its population of 220 million people, and not such an extreme and controversial Hindu nationalist who could inflame communal tensions. The challenge is to provide better government, less corruption and stronger law and order, compared with the dreadful record that recent state governments have managed.

Modi has projected a development agenda and has underlined this in recent statements, which he repeated on Sunday. Yet he probably agreed to the appointment of Adityanath, it is being widely suggested, under pressure from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP's extreme right-wing umbrella organization, to which he and Adityanath, and the two deputy chief ministers, have allegiance.

It may be that the leadership of the fervently Hindu-nationalist Sangh Parivar (a family of organizations), to which the RSS and BJP belong, felt that the opportunity to put a strong Hindutva stamp on such a big election victory should not be missed.

However, this has meant that a Hindu agenda has been stressed earlier in the life of the national BJP government than Modi seems to have intended. He successfully won the 2014 election by appealing to the frustrated aspirational young who wanted him to change the way that India is run.

The UP victory shows he has now won the support of the poor, who want to move on from the Congress Party's sops and corrupt aid schemes, mostly named after the Gandhi dynasty, to positive development policies and an attack on the rich and powerful, epitomized (wrongly) in their view by Modi's de-monetization note-ban project.

One of the two deputy chief ministers is Keshav Maurya, the BJP's state president for UP, who has a background in the Sangh Parivar's ultra-hard-line and sometime violent Vishwa Hindu Parishad as well as the RSS. He was elected an MP in 2014, after he declared that there are 10 criminal cases against him.

The other is Dinesh Sharma, currently mayor of Lucknow, the capital of UP. A commerce professor at the University of Lucknow, he is known for developing good relations with political opponents and others, including the Muslim community.

Muslim Fears

Adityanath's task, along with these two deputies, should be to bridge the gap between the Hindu and development agendas, and also to show that Muslims, who make up about 18 percent of UP's population, have little to fear.

Controversially, the BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate in the state's assembly election and made no attempt to woo Muslim votes, though there was one minister from that religion among the 47 Cabinet ministers and ministers of state who have been sworn in.

Adityanath, whose name originally was Ajay Singh Bisht, has led campaigns to convert (or re-convert) Christians and Muslims to Hinduism and to encourage "love jihad," where Hindus marry Muslims to convert them. He has run an activist and sometimes violent youth organization, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, and has been prominent in cow-protection and anti-beef-eating campaigns. He is even reported to have said that those who did not practice surya namaskar, a yoga practice, should leave India.

He has taken a strong line on Hindu dominance in India, and when asked recently on NDTV whether he was a Hindu first or an Indian first, he replied (speaking in Hindi):

I am a Hindu and, being a Hindu I am also an IndianHindu and Indian are two meanings of the same word.... The word Hindu is our cultural manifestation and the word Indian is our geographical symbol, so there is no difference.

As well as being a very active MP in the Parliament's Lok Sabha (House of the People), he is head priest of a temple in his constituency of Gorakhpur and was a mathematics graduate in his youth before becoming a follower of the then-mahant (head) of the temple. A strong public speaker, he reportedly wanted to be the BJP's chief minister candidate in the recent election, but Modi wisely deflected that and made himself, presidential-style, the focus the campaign.

So having voted for Modi, the electorate of UP have got Adityanath, a hard-line and sometimes ruthless Hindu priest, who has been appointed in the most daring controversial and transformational experiment that Modi and his fellow leaders have tried since they came to power in 2014.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins).