One of the more intriguing narratives being spun after the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as the new Uttar Pradesh chief minister is to liken his rise to Narendra Modi. Like Modi, Adityanath is a single man born in a poor family who left home at a young age and discovered himself in the womb of Hindutva politics. Like Modi, Adityanath too is charismatic and controversial, with a reputation for being a hard taskmaster. And like the PM, Adityanath too is viewed with a mix of fear and skepticism by the English-speaking liberal intelligentsia. Lo and behold, we are told that the Yogi has the makings of a future PM.
Yes, but not quite. There are no doubt some similarities between the two leaders in their early upbringing and ideological moorings in the saffron brotherhood but the differences in their political ascent are equally stark. Modi was reared in a RSS shakha, became a pracharak and spent a considerable length of time as a backroom organiser in the BJP’s engine room, making him central to the party’s decision-making apparatus. He was pitched as Gujarat CM in October 2001 without ever having fought an election but had contributed immensely to the BJP’s rise in the state.
By contrast, the saffron-robed priest, Adityanath has always been an ‘outsider’, a fringe figure in the BJP’s leadership hierarchy in Uttar Pradesh, despite his individual popularity and his being a five-time MP from Gorakhpur. Even in the 2017 campaign, he hardly figured in the BJP’s publicity material and at one stage was even reportedly threatening to rebel against the party. Adityanath’s introduction to politics began with the Ram Mandir movement in the 1990s and like his guru, Mahant Avaidyanath, he has never hidden his commitment to a militant Hindu nationalism.
His Hindu Yuva Vahini has been at the forefront of pushing the idea of a Hindu majoritarian society where Muslims must accept a subordinate status. Then, whether it be his anti-cow slaughter, ghar wapsi or love jihad campaigns, the visible ‘enemy’ has always been the ‘anti-national’ Muslim. Even his major interventions in Parliament in the 16th Lok Sabha have often centred around ‘Hindu’ issues, especially cow slaughter.
With Modi there has always been a consciously cultivated desire to be seen in more than just narrow Hindutva terms. The 2002 Gujarat riots and its immediate aftermath made Modi a Hindu nationalist hero, an image which he deftly used to build his political capital at the time.
It was a period when he was accused of making communally provocative statements and giving a licence to the likes of the VHP leader Praveen Togadia to get away with stoking religious passions and spurring rioting. Having been re-elected as Gujarat chief minister in 2007, Modi then equally deliberately projected himself as a good governance icon, an image that has sustained his political rise since. He even challenged Togadia, ordered the demolition of roadside temples that violated rules, and earned the wrath of the VHP at the time. It suggested a well-crafted strategy to re-invent himself or at least wear the mask of inclusive politics.
By contrast, there have been no masks or re-inventions in Adityanath’s political journey so far. His public remarks over two decades now have been marked by rabble rousing and repeated attempts at threatening the minorities and inciting violence. His unabashed demagoguery has been more akin to Shiv Sena supremo, the late Bal Thackeray than to the BJP leadership. The charges against him, from rioting to hate speech, indicate a disdain for constitutional norms and political correctness. His supporters will point to his getting repeatedly re-elected in Gorakhpur as proof that Adityanath enjoys considerable popular appeal but they fail to recognise that electoral victories do not legitimise unlawful behaviour.
Will Adityanath in power do a Modi and transform his militant Hindutva image? Like Modi, he too is now being projected as a tough, no-nonsense administrator, strong on law and order. Governing a large, complex state like UP though is much more difficult than managing Gujarat. Adityanath carries a far weightier baggage than Modi ever did. In particular, how will Yogi rein in his foot soldiers who must surely believe their time has come: The danger of anti-Romeo squads descending into local vigilantism is very real as is the threat to jobs and livelihoods of minority groups who don’t fit in with the Hindutva worldview.
In 2001, when sending Modi to Gujarat, the RSS knew they were taking a risk but it worked in ensuring the state became the original laboratory of political Hindutva. In anointing Yogi a much bigger risk has been taken but with one potentially huge benefit for the Sangh parivar: The consolidation of a resurgent Hindu vote bank in India’s most politically crucial state.
Post script: After listening to Yogi Adityanath speaking in Parliament soon after being made chief minister, a senior BJP MP remarked: “See how soberly he is speaking, he will surely surprise his critics like Mr Modi has as prime minister.” The admiring tone suggests we have seen the emergence of a new political icon for the Hindu right in the guise of a temple mahant: The so-called ‘fringe’ is now finally mainstream.