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Controversial Hindu priest chosen as Uttar Pradesh chief minister

Yogi Adityanath’s appointment as CM cements the relation between religion and the state under the BJP

Yogi Adityanath, the new Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, is a well-known figure in the State. He made headlines in the past with his fiery brand of communal politics, promotion of the most virulent and masculinist Hindutva, the ups and downs of his relations with his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the activities of his Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV). This is perhaps the first time in India that a head of a religious institution has become the head of a political institution. This chief ministerial appointment can thus be seen as a metaphor for the cementing of the institutional relation between religion and the state under the BJP.

Lord of the east

In his mid-40s and a parliamentarian since the age of 26 from Gorakhpur, Mr. Adityanath is the mahant of the Gorakhnath mutt, or peeth, which for centuries has had a large following mainly among the marginal working sections. The mutt is the seat of the Nathpanthis, who were known for their reformist bent. In the Hindutva spectrum, if the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) occupies a position to the ‘right’ of the BJP, then Mr. Adityanath occupies a position which is far to the ‘right’ of even the late VHP leader Ashok Singhal. He would be placed on the same plane as Pravin Togadia, the VHP’s current chief, but unlike him, he is not confined to the VHP but is active in electoral politics through the BJP.

There are several criminal cases pending against him. He has issued bigoted and hateful statements like “if given a chance, I will install Ganesh statues in every mosque” and “if they take one Hindu girl, we will take 100 Muslim girls”. He is also reported to have said that communal tensions in U.P. are because of the rise in the numbers of the minority community. His HYV has used slogans like ‘U.P. Gujarat banega/ Padrauna shuruat karega (U.P. will become Gujarat, with Padrauna making a beginning) in Gorakhpur and Padrauna. In Gorakhpur it used to be said by his supporters, “Gorakhpur mein rehna hoga to ‘Yogi, Yogi’ kehna hoga (To live in Gorakhpur you will have to chant ‘Yogi, Yogi’).”

Mr. Adityanath personifies a politics which does not shy away from coercion, intimidation, threats and a ruthless unleashing of violence against opponents — a politics that cannot be categorised as anything but criminal. He represents the institutionalisation of rabble-rousing and brute force over informed debate and showcases a distinctly pugnacious strain of public activity and politics. He is akin to a feudal lord who maintains his grip on his people and his writ runs over his territory through a mixture of religion, terror and personal loyalty. Eastern U.P. is an area where such violence and criminality is not unusual.

Gorakhpur in eastern U.P., the heartland of Mr. Adityanath’s politics, is a backward region with a struggling economy. Stressed agriculture and stunted industrial development make Gorakhpur and its adjoining regions the site of an incomplete social transformation, where the mafia and ganglords made the public arena an extremely violent and crime-infested terrain. The growth of these vigilante or protectionist groups and individuals became a marked feature of eastern U.P. While growing up, we often heard elders referring to the eastern areas as the badlands of U.P. Some of this powerful mafia channelised itself into political and religious institutions, established its dominance over them, found social legitimacy and acceptance, and strengthened its foothold in mass politics. The abundant use of money and muscle power in this process goes without saying.

Eastern U.P. has seen large-scale livelihood-seeking migration driven by poverty and unemployment. Trains like Avadh Express that connect Gorakhpur to Mumbai are symbols of this distress migration to metropolises in the hope of a better future, a fact depicted most poignantly by Muzaffar Ali in his film Gaman in 1978. That was in the 1970s but even today this migration to Maharashtra, Punjab, Delhi and Gujarat is a pronounced reality as reports point out.

Steeped in Hindutva

Mr. Adityanath inherits the legacy of fiery politics of his guru and predecessor Mahant Avaidyanath, who passed away in 2014 and who represented a politics that combined aggressive majoritarianism, vilification of minorities, use of muscle power and protection rackets to sustain economic activity. He had a successful political career from Gorakhpur and joined the BJP in the 1990s.

The senior mahant was at the forefront of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, ever ready to launch an agitation for the construction of the proposed Ram temple at the site where the Babri mosque once stood. His presence in the VHP’s Marg Darshak Mandal as a prominent and vocal sadhu along with Mahant Ramchandra Paramhans of Ayodhya and some others gave weightage to the VHP as possessing religious sanctity through the blessings of sadhus. The VHP in turn gave the sadhus and sants a larger socio-political platform where they could perform their sacred role and also shape political opinion within the mould of Hindutva. They were expected to give society a ‘Hindu’ perspective on socio-political matters. The dreams of some of them that Bharat would become the ‘jagat guru’ once more and regain its ‘glorious past’ under their leadership could be actualised, as their belief went, in the VHP-BJP-RSS-steered Hindu rashtra. The Sangh Parivar brought this ‘ascetic force’ to a decisive political level which was mutually beneficial.

Under Avaidyanath, the Gorakhnath mutt of the Naths moved closer to the Sangh Parivar, eventually sealing the partnership between the popular mutt and Hindutva. This was a time when many monastic orders located in U.P. became politicised through their involvement in the Ramjanmabhoomi movement.

Why he was picked

What can be the factors that led to the elevation of Mr. Adityanath by the BJP as Chief Minister of U.P. over other front runners ? No one knows how Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and the RSS decide these matters, but the legacy, the personality, the context give us some clues. Mr. Adityanath is a fiery Hindutva ideologue who has beaten anti-incumbency and consistently led BJP to success despite, or perhaps because of, the district’s underdevelopment.

What also goes in his favour is that he can wield the stick to silence ‘anti-nationalism’ or ‘love jihad’ more effectively, being a sadhu. His politics has highlighted the neglect of eastern U.P. in economic development and his elevation would consolidate the BJP further in eastern UP.

Special mention should also be made about his ‘handling of opponents’ which he does the way he thinks right. This would be useful for his party to establish its hold over a State known for its syncretic ganga-jamuni culture and Dalit and backward caste assertions.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.