South Asia | Why did Indian PM Modi choose firebrand cleric as chief minister of UP?

Why did Indian PM Modi choose firebrand cleric as chief minister of UP?

Kadayam Subramanian April 3, 2017 5:26 AM (UTC+8)
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Indian media are speculating about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s choice of firebrand Hindutva cleric Yogi Adityanath for the position of chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh. The appointment followed the victory by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) in the seven-stage state assembly elections in February and March.

Adityanath, 44, is heir to the legacy of the Gorakhnath Peeth (Hindu temple) stretching from the era of head priest Digvijaynath (1935-1969) to that of head priest Avaidyanath (1969-2014). Both men led the movement to build the Ram temple at Ayodhya on the spot where the Moghul monument Babri Masjid stood in the Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath succeeded Avaidyanath who died in 2014.

The Babri mosque was demolished December 6, 1992 by Hindu zealots led by top BJP leaders including L.K. Advani who later became deputy prime minister under Atal Behari Vajpayee, BJP prime minister (1999-2004).

The city of Gorakhpur (population about 700,000) is situated along the Rapti River in eastern Uttar Pradesh near India’s border with Nepal. An estimated 20% of the population is Muslim. The total Muslim population in Uttar Pradesh is estimated to be about 40 million. The total population of the Gorakhpur district is estimated at about 4.5 million.

Yogi Adityanath, a Thakur by caste, was born in 1972 in Pauri district in Uttarakhand state, originally part of UP. His given name was Ajai Mohan Bisht. He had a bachelor of science degree when head priest Avaidyanath brought him to Gorakhpur to work with him. He was renamed Adityanath and declared Avaidyanath’s heir in 1994 and his political successor in 1998.

Adityanath, then 26, was elected to parliament from Gorakhpur in 1998 and was its youngest member. He was elected four more times, including in 2014. He continued as a member of parliament until he was appointed by the BJP as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh last month.

Adityanath has used BJP’s election symbols but retained his autonomy in eastern UP by forming his own militant youth wing called the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV), which assumed its formal name in 2002. It claims to be a cultural organization but politically it functions as an anti-minority outfit.

Yogi Adityanath controls the HYV. Its organizational structure spreads over all the districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh. Sunil Singh, a trusted aide of Adityanath, has been state president of the HYV since January 2016. Everyone in the organization addresses Adityanath by his full honorific title: Gauraksha Peeethadishwar Parampujya yogi Adityanathji Maharaj. The title, formalized in 2002, recognizes the head priest’s role in the protection of the holy cow (Gauraksha).

Adityanath and the HYV have become notorious in Gorakhpur and the rest of the region for their militant anti-Muslim bias. In a major incident of anti-Muslim communal violence in Gorakhpur in 2007, Adityanath and HIV men were arrested by the police and charged with criminal offenses. Two persons were killed and property severely damaged. Adityanath was kept in prison for several days — a huge embarrassment for a member of parliament. Yogi still faces several criminal charges. From March 2002 to February 2007, HYV is said to have been implicated in 22 incidents of communal violence.

Speaking at a recent meeting in Delhi, Adityanath is said to have claimed that if the BJP had not been elected in UP, public money would have been spent by the opposition Samajwadi Party building “karbala aur kabristan (mosques and burial grounds)”. He also said that BJP programs like StartUp India and Make in India are meant for everyone, but the Samajwadi Party when it was in power, started a scholarship scheme meant only for Muslim girls.

Yogi Adityanath supported the building of a Ram temple at Ayodhya. He is also said to have been abusive of Mother Teresa and film star Shahrukh Khan. He has also said that the Hindu practice of Surya Namaskar (sun worship) is similar to the Muslim prayer of Namaz and Muslims should practice it.

Yogi Adityanath’s questionable record raises the question why the “development-oriented” Modi chose him as chief minister of UP. Has the prime minister abandoned his much-advertised commitment to development? Adityanath has never deviated from his commitment to the Hindutva-oriented path to politics and development.

Modi and BJP President Amit Shah noted a worrisome trend in the voting pattern in the UP elections. The total votes polled by the Opposition Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party exceeded by four percentage points the votes polled by the BJP. If the two parties had united for the election, the BJP would have been in trouble in the vital state of Uttar Pradesh which sends 80 (out of a total of 547) members of parliament to New Delhi.

Opposition fragmentation and Yogi Adityanath’s effective campaigning helped the BJP win the elections convincingly. Cold-blooded electoral strategy by Modi and Shah mandated that Hindutva hardliner Adityanath become the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. and the result is that Adityanath will be important in the forthcoming parliamentary elections in 2019.

 

 

Kadayam Subramanian
Kadayam Subramanian is former Director, Research and Policy Division, Union Home Ministry, Government of India, and former Director General of Police in Northeast India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India, Sage, 2007, and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India, Routledge, 2016
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