There’s one conclusion about the BJP that is inevitable when pondering its choice of Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
The party has again underlined that the use of intimidation and extreme rhetoric to establish one’s brand does not go unnoticed and will be rewarded over time. So if Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, who assaulted lawyer Prashant Bhushan and tried “to break his head” in his own words for the latter’s views on Kashmir, becomes the party spokesperson in Delhi then it should be no surprise that Adityanath, known for his inflammatory rhetoric (that includes a wish to install Ganesh idols in every mosque of the country), has been made UP’s chief minister. One must assume that ABVP activists who violently disrupted a seminar at Ramjas College in February also have a bright future ahead.
Adityanath’s appointment flies in the face of BJP’s claim to privilege development as a governance priority. His career has been marked by anti-Muslim messaging and this account of a riot in 2007 by Prof. Apoorvanand should clear any misunderstanding of the UP chief minister’s politics.
A measure of development-related spending and activity is, in any case, inevitable, especially when the state and central governments are aligned but there’s little doubt that the Yogi’s tenure will be marked by dramatic changes in social equations in UP. Simply put, Adityanath’s ascent to power will see a drive towards complete subjugation of Muslims in UP, which has become a sort of a Hindutva sport. Pratap Bhanu Mehta has written about Adityanath that “the already accomplished political fact of the marginalisation of minorities in UP and elsewhere will now be translated into a programme of their cultural, social and symbolic subordination.”
The BJP could have achieved the same outcome, quietly, with any other chief minister, but only Adityanath can turn that subordination into a spectacle that affords the satisfaction to those who say that if Muslims have to live in India they have to live on terms the Sangh spells out. Whatever succour Muslim communities had in previous regimes by way of attentive politicians, officials and police officers is now threatened or gone.
Far from the daily indignities of the marginalised, the dynamics between Adityanath and Narendra Modi will be interesting to watch. The Yogi’s appointment may have already slightly dented Modi’s standing among sections of middle class that back the Prime Minister. This section, which fervently believes that Modi knows what is good for India, will wonder if Adityanath is indeed the vehicle of progress that the country needs.
The Sangh Parivar would be aware of this trade-off and may have gambled that the Yogi’s contribution to changing the ideological climate of the country and getting the citizens used to his mode of Hindutva governance offer structural benefits that outweigh embarrassments to the Prime Minister - who, anyway, inhabits a hallowed post-scrutiny space in Indian public life.
This plan works if Adityanath proceeds with his churning in UP in ways that does not affect PM Modi and if he bides his time for the national stage. But what if he does not comply with the plan? There is no guarantee that an ideologically charged figure will necessarily cap his ambition upon becoming a chief minister. He may not pitch to be Prime Minister yet but also would not be entirely comfortable with his subordinate status for long. We may not know how exactly he became chief minister in the end, considering that he did not figure in the shortlist doing the rounds after March 11.
Adityanath does not fit the mould of chief ministers who have been picked during Modi’s time: those like Haryana’s Manohar Lal Khattar and Devendra Fadnavis of Maharashtra are leaders without significant bases in their own state and owe their prominence to wielding state power in compliance with RSS diktats. Harshvardhan, a respected politician with a popular following in Delhi, was notably sidelined in favour of Kiran Bedi as a chief minister candidate in the capital. If Adityanath arm-twisted his way to Lucknow chances are that more frictions are bound to follow. He will at least want more loyalists among BJP’s Lok Sabha candidates from UP in 2019 polls.
There is also a chance that faced with the challenges of delivering growth, Adityanath pushes for building a Ram mandir or picks another symbolic issue which the Sangh either pushes for or has no choice but to support. The BJP-RSS have co-opted the Yogi in recent years but he has demonstrated his independence by floating his own Hindu Yuva Vahini. An ideological figure spearheading a symbolic movement from a chief minister’s office in India’s largest state becomes a power centre in his own right and will be an awkward proposition for Modi to handle.
Critics may say this is overwrought - and contend that even in a zero sum universe of strong personalities there is space for mutual accommodation. This may all be a neatly worked up plan. Adityanath will do what he will in UP, lurching India further to the Right, while affording Modi a measure of plausible deniability. The choice of the Yogi also suggests that for the Sangh no individual is greater than the cause - and thus it may now be time to invest in the future. It took 12 years for Modi to become Prime Minister from 2002.
Power players will be careful not to lean too quickly towards Adityanath for fear of offending Modi, but we will, over time, see business conclaves that will hail the Yogi, awkward videos of his speeches taken off YouTube, the ambitious set hosting him in the capital’s salons and journalists plying his development credentials - all perhaps building up for 2029 when Modi will be 78 and Adityanath only 55. Others may materialise in the succession basket over time, but right now he’s the biggest one to nurture. Adityanath may also be more difficult to negotiate than anticipated, and there’s no telling where his methods will lead the country to.
The views expressed are personal.
The writer’s Twitter handle is @SushilAaron.