The BJP cemented its position as India's strongest political party with a thumping victory in the Uttar Pradesh State elections. Despite not portraying a definite chief ministerial candidate in the run-up to the polls, the BJP convincingly won the election with a three-quarter majority of 325 seats. Given that there was no regional leader to spearhead the campaign, the BJP fought the election with an effort involving collective leadership, with special use of the political clout of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Then on 18 March, controversial leader Yogi Adityanath was appointed as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.
Benefits of appointing Adityanath
From the BJP's standpoint, the appointment of the Hindu priest makes complete sense, as he ticks all the boxes for the party, with regards to furthering Modi's 2019 agenda and fulfilling the development expectations of the state's electorate. Past CM appointees of Modi like Devendra Fadnavis or Raghubar Das differ from Adityanath. His appointment shows that Modi and party president Amit Shah have realised that UP cannot be controlled from Delhi. Adityanath is known to be his own man and has the blessings of Modi and Amit Shah, both.
Moreover, Uttar Pradesh has historically proven to be a state that cannot be run by weak, pushover politicians. A tough, no-nonsense taskmaster is essential to ensure that politicians and bureaucrats get work done. Case in point, Akhilesh Yadav, in the first half of his tenure, let himself get strong-armed by the goons and supposed bigwigs of the Samajwadi Party (SP), which only proved detrimental to his cause.
What cannot be ignored is that the elevation and appointment of Yogi Adityanath has revived ghosts of the past.
What is extremely beneficial for the BJP on a policy level, though, is that Yogi Adityanath will be given tremendous freedom to go about his work, given his image and beliefs. He will not have to bother about the approval of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or the BJP cadres. The religious and cultural right will lose ammunition against him owing to his Hindutva image, thus leaving him free to pursue the development agenda. Thus, from a practical policy perspective, it may be argued that the BJP's appointment of Yogi Adityanath will hold them in good stead and reap the benefits they seek.
What is important to note, however, is that Prime Minister Modi, ever since 2014 and right up till today, has placed great value on public image, and reaching out to the younger, more educated and informed demographic. His 2014 victory was achieved by going well beyond his party's hard-line Hindu voter base. Ever since the debacle of 2002, his transformation from Hindutva hero to a champion of good governance and development has been visible for all to see. This transformation is a conscious attempt to appeal to this aspirational and sensible demographic, which is fearful of the exclusionary, communal tone of someone like Yogi Adityanath.
These informed drivers of discourse and change seek stronger law and order conditions, more jobs, economic growth, etc. and are not desirous of divisive politics, or ill-treatment of religious and other minorities. It is these voters who are leading the dialogue against the Modi regime for instances such as the poor handling of Kanhaiya Kumar and the JNU fiasco, the distasteful response to Rohith Vemula's suicide and other issues affecting society. They view Modi's regime as a dictatorial, totalitarian one, which tramples on the rights and freedoms of people. This discontentment with the government is a major threat to Modi come the 2019 general elections.
Narendra Modi has painstakingly been trying to elevate the image of India not just for its citizens, but also for other countries. He has been wooing corporations and wealthy individuals in a bid to get them to "Make in India." To us citizens, he relies on the development and economic growth angle, trying to convince us that we have made the right choice in trusting him with his India 2022 vision.
Given that there has been a clear shift in Modi's focus and targeted audience, is appointing a known firebrand Hindutva priest in the BJP's best interests?
What cannot be ignored, though, is that the elevation and appointment of Yogi Adityanath has revived ghosts of the past. Ever since his appointment, various videos of him are doing the rounds on social media and otherwise. One of them has him calling for the kidnapping of a hundred Muslim girls if a single Hindu girl is kidnapped. The other has him patiently and intently listening to a speaker calling for disenfranchising Muslims and raping dead Muslim women. All of this begs the question, is the appointment of Adityanath a step in the right direction, given that Modi wishes to push the pluralistic, secular and inclusionary image of the BJP into the mind of the populace? Given that there has been a clear shift in Modi's focus and targeted audience, is appointing a known firebrand Hindutva priest in the BJP's best interests? Only time will tell.
It is imperative that we give Adityanath and his ministers a fair chance at running a complex state like Uttar Pradesh and not judge him solely on his past record. However, we must never forget that the Chief Minister of India's most populous and (some would argue) most crucial state has built his political career on unadulterated communalism.