The BJP’s more hardline supporters are enjoying what they have dubbed a ‘liberal meltdown’ over the choice of Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister. Many explanations have been offered for why the party would choose an unapologetic Hindutva face, notorious for his rabidly Anti-Muslim speeches, to front India’s most populous state. We are told that as the most popular among all party-men the Yogi best captures the mandate. Unlike others who command only certain constituencies of support, Adityanath alone can claim support across the rainbow coalition of castes that catapulted the BJP to victory. That he has political clout as a five term MP gives him the heft needed to turnaround the dismal law and order situation in Uttar Pradesh. And of course every last detail has been reported on how, in the priest-turned politician’s parliamentary seat of Gorakhpur, local Muslims share a special bond with the Mahant; some work at the temple’s gau-shala and others recall past generosities from the contentious leader, underlining the distance between his public avatar and his personal warmth.
Perhaps Adityanath is indeed a kindly man in ‘real’ life but as a person in public life it is his public utterances (and actions) alone that he must be measured against. Calling Kairana in West UP another Kashmir; promoting the poison politics of Love Jihad- basically a discouragement of Hindu-Muslim romance, comparing Shah Rukh Khan’s words with that of Hafiz Saeed and warning that if he lost the support of a big majority he would end up wandering the streets like an ‘ordinary Muslim’, asking those who don’t do the Surya Namaskar to leave India, calling Mother Teresa part of the conspiracy to Christianize India – these are all documented statements of bigotry.
But it would do us well to also call out the rabble-rousers of a similar nature from other parties and from other faiths- Abu Azmi; Azam Khan and Imran Masood have all played the politics of hate, using the outrageous as a weapon of political propaganda. When Azam Khan, as a senior cabinet minister in the Akhilesh Yadav government, mocked Adityanath for being unmarried and asked him to “prove his masculinity” as gawkers around him giggled, it was a truly mindless and distasteful statement. It deserved the same ferocity of protests and media attention that Yogi Adityanath has got for his anti-Muslim diatribes. In some ways extremists across the trenches are mirror images, feeding off the polarization that the other spawns.
When we say the BJP won UP on the back of Hindu consolidation, we must simultaneously talk of Mayawati’s open exhortation to Muslim voters or taking support from irrelevant clerics like the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid or worse still, from Mafiosi gangsters like Mukhtar Ansari.
One of the key reasons for the humongous rise of the BJP is the hollowing out of secularism as a political slogan and the multiple opportunities the opposition has given the BJP to pick on liberal hypocrisy or selectiveness of their attacks.
Hamid Dabholkar, the son of renowned rationalist Narendra Dabholkar- who was murdered while the Congress was in government in Maharashtra, once summed up the secularism debate for me like this- “One party is programmatically communal; the other is pragmatically communal.”
The reduction of secularism to no more than a political trick or instrument for electoral management is the reason why those claiming to speak for it have little credibility. The meteoric rise of Yogi Adityanath – once described as ‘fringe’ even by BJP spokespersons- is impossible to understand without this recognition. The prevarication of liberals on issues likes scrapping Triple Talaq, for instance, only strengthens the dominant narrative that opposition parties are pandering – not to ordinary Indian Muslims- but to an opportunistic orthodoxy.
It is in fact the Muslims of India who must feel the most troubled today for what is on offer to them from their politicians. Either, it is the politics of Exclusion-the BJP did not give a single Muslim candidate a ticket and though there is a Muslim minister in the Adityanath cabinet, the UP result is a reminder that elections can be won with or without one bloc of voters. Or, it is the politics of cynical manipulation-used by Anti-BJP parties as mere pawns on a chessboard of showmanship or co-opted as symbols and tokens.
The ascent of the Yogi is a challenge for both the BJP and the opposition. By embracing a Hindutva mascot Modi has lost all plausible disassociation from Adityanath and any needless UP controversies will not leave him or the Centre unscathed. For the opposition, this moment is yet another wake-up call. Platitudinous lip-service to secularism is not winning either hearts or votes; what the opposition lacks is both an authentic and distinctive story and a compelling character.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal