Yogi Adityanath's Election Victory Raises His Profile Across India

GORAKHPUR, India – The powerful chief minister of India’s most populous state has woken up in a Hindu temple, fed on sweet cows jaggery ...


GORAKHPUR, India – The powerful chief minister of India’s most populous state has woken up in a Hindu temple, fed on sweet cows jaggery cakes, held a religious ceremony for Lord Shiva, then hit the trail on the last day of his election campaign this month.

This blurring of religion and politics is what some supporters love and some opponents fear most about Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the incendiary Hindu monk who won a critical state election and a second term this week in Uttar Pradesh.

His election victory and continued popularity, despite a heavily criticized government response to the coronavirus pandemic and an increase in hate speech and violence against Muslims under his leadership, cemented him as one of the world’s most galvanizing figures. of right-wing Hindu politics, and increasingly as heir apparent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

With the opposition in disarray and with the backing of a fervent Hindu base that appreciates his us-or-them pleas, Mr Adityanath’s election victory is widely seen as proof that Mr. Modi continued to move the electorate. far from the founding secularism of the country.

Despite the growing economic difficulties of the country and the poor state of public health and schools, Mr. Modi, Mr. Adityanath and the BJP are successful in keeping the Hinduism-centric conversation in public affairs bolstered by grassroots social programs and sophisticated mobilization of their supporters. And his election victory is likely to further raise the increasingly national profile of Mr Adityanath.

Although he came to public attention as the founder of a Hindu youth brigade and was once imprisoned for hate speech against Muslims, Mr Adityanath has more recently followed the lead of Mr. Modi and has moderated his tone somewhat – but without obscuring his early Hindu message and policies to his right-wing base.

In a TV interview in January, he framed the election in terms of “80 to 20” – a thinly veiled reference to the rough percentage of Hindus in the state compared to Muslims.

On Twitter, he railed against his political opponents as “Jinnah worshipers” – a reference to Pakistan’s post-partition founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah – for whom “predominantly Muslim Pakistan is dear”. He also posted photos from a visit to New Delhi, strolling across a marble walkway with Mr Modi embracing him like a beloved protege.

Since becoming prime minister in 2014, Mr Modi has increasingly enthused and emboldened far-right Hindus. And it was in this climate that Mr. Adityanath, 49, found the ability to climb quickly. His popularity stems in large part from his ability to speak directly to his fervent base, whether at large public gatherings or via his active Twitter account.

“Whoever speaks the truth, people will defend him,” Pinki Patchauri said Thursday, among a group of women at the BJP headquarters in Lucknow, encouraging Mr Adityanath. “Yogi and Modi worked for the people,” she said. “That’s why Yogi is everywhere.”

Indeed, pictures of Mr Adityanath are plastered across Uttar Pradesh, from towering billboards on highways alongside teahouses in villages to the Gorakhnath Math temple in Gorakhpur, where his political career took root. .

One of seven children born to a ranger, Mr Adityanath, born Ajay Singh Bisht, found his calling at university as an activist in the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu organization.

He became a Hindu priest in 1994 as politics and religion converged across India. The Gorakhnath Temple and other temples espousing right-wing Hindu nationalism produced a generation of activists devoted to the rise of Hindu culture and increasingly focused on demonizing the country’s estimated 200 million Muslims.

Mr Adityanath won a seat in Parliament for the first time in 1998, becoming India’s youngest member of the national body at the time. From Gorakhpur, he founded the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a group of young hardliners, delivering an inflammatory speech in 2007 after the death of a Hindu boy, calling on his followers to kill Muslims. He was briefly imprisoned at Gorakhpur.

Talat Aziz, a former leader of the opposition Samajwadi party, has accused Mr Adityanath of leading an attack on his political rally in 1999 in which his bodyguard was shot dead. A court dismissed the charge against Mr Adityanath in 2019.

“The plant that was planted in 1999 has grown into a massive tree. Now hatred, polarization, dominates everything,” Ms. Aziz said.

During his first term as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, anti-terrorism, national security and sedition laws were increasingly used to jail critics and journalists. And the police have suppressed dissentshooting dead nearly two dozen Muslim protesters during a 2019 protest against a citizenship law widely seen as discriminatory.

Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, a constitutional lawyer and minority rights activist, rose to prominence after leading protests against the citizenship law. He led an unlikely campaign challenging Mr Adityanath for the seat of Gorakhpur, finishing fourth with less than 8,000 votes.

“He always plays the religion card, and that’s why he wins,” Mr Ravan said. “He makes fun of people and the country suffers.”

Yet voters’ perception that the streets of Uttar Pradesh have become safer, coupled with a host of social welfare programs and a clear commitment to Hindutva – a pious Hindu culture and way of life – s turned out to be a winning combination.

Mr Modi hailed the election victory in Uttar Pradesh as a roadmap for the 2024 general elections.

“When we formed the government in 2019, experts said it was because of the 2017 victory” in Uttar Pradesh for its BJP, he said in a speech on Thursday. “I believe the same experts will say that the outcome of the 2022 election decided the fate of the 2024 national election.”

The BJP won four of five state elections in polls that stretched from the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in the north to the coast of Goa on the Arabian Sea.

“The appeal of Hindutva that the BJP has created over the past seven years, it’s really now come to stay,” said Arati Jerath, a political analyst.

“Its strong Hindu leadership and soft social welfare measures have combined very well to give the BJP this huge advantage over other parties,” she said.

Mr Adityanath seems comfortable being seen as a potential successor to Mr Modi, who turned 71 in September.

“It is the blessing of 250 million people of Uttar Pradesh,” Mr Adityanath said during a victory speech at the party headquarters in Lucknow, the state capital.

“We accept these blessings, and in accordance with the expectations of ordinary people and with the overall mantra with all, development of all, trust of all, and efforts of all, we will continuously pursue.”

Back in Gorakhpur on the final night of the campaign, the BJP pulled out all the stops for Mr Adityanath with an extravagant procession, including a marching band, a troupe of male dancers wearing bells around their waists and ankles, a truck full of cameras, and loud fans moshing to heavy dance music and snare drums.

From the balcony of a medical practice in downtown Gorakphur, Dr Sharad Srivastava and his family threw handfuls of marigolds and rose petals at Mr Adityanath, adorned with a saffron turban over his typical saffron robe, giving a regal wave from its perch atop a flower-festooned orange BJP Truck.

“We want to restore that kind of nationalism,” Dr Srivastava said. “We want to reclaim our heritage. Yogiji is not anti-Muslim. He is against those who are anti-national.

The next morning, dozens of people waited at the Gorakhpur temple to speak to the “maharaj”, which means high king but also refers to Mr Adityanath’s position as temple president. They stood as he passed silently with a large entourage of monks in saffron robes and security forces armed with machine guns.

Karan Deep Sing contributed reporting from Lucknow, India.

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