NOIDA, Uttar Pradesh—"Uttar Pradesh needs a Balasaheb Thackeray," Amit Jani said last week, as he ladled porridge into a bowl. "That is my answer in one line."
It was at the end of his third conversation with HuffPost India that Jani summed up why he was determined to spend crores of his own money to help elect to the Lok Sabha three men who have been accused of violent hate crimes against Muslims in the past few years.
For the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Jani's Uttar Pradesh Navnirman Sena, a radical Hindutva outfit based in Meerut, is fielding Shambu Lal Raigar, who hacked a Muslim man to death in December 2017, Hariom Sisodia, one of the 17 accused in the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in September 2015, and Naresh Kumar Sehrawat, accused of stabbing 16-year-old Junaid Khan in June 2017.
The chief of the UP Navnirman Sena explained that he wanted to nurture a new generation of "Hindutva warriors" to fight Islam and that he wanted to be a godfather-like figure to them.
The very existence of Jani's front, and the men he has chosen to represent it, offer a worrying glimpse into the rapid and unapologetic Hindu-radicalisation of India's public discourse and electoral processes in the four years since Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janta Party swept to power.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW POLITICS
"In Mumbai, the Marathi manoos and Hindu Shiv Sainik would do anything for Balasaheb because they knew he was there to protect them," he said. "The position for a Balasaheb Thackeray in UP is open but the frame is too big right now. After our candidates become lawmakers, then, in four to five years, a photo can fit the frame."
When asked if it would be his photo in the frame, Jani just smiled and scooped up his porridge.
The position for a Balasaheb Thackeray in UP is open.
Who is Amit Jani?
A wealthy businessman with two children, Jani says that he dropped his surname, Agrawal, because he believes in a casteless society. Jani, he says, is the name of his ancestral village in Meerut. His grandfather and father were tobacco traders, but Jani made his money from a string of businesses including a chain of hotels.
The 36-year-old, who has been in and out of jail since he was 17, is most recently out on bail after he was arrested last year for posting computer-generated photos of the Taj Mahal with saffron flags on top. His followers, he said, recited the "Shiva Chalisa" within the premises of the 17th-century mausoleum.
The first time he was jailed, says Jani, was for waving black flags at then UP power minister, Naresh Agrawal, over rising electricity bills. "I went into jail a boy and came out a man," he said, relating tales of being tortured and beaten while in custody.
In 2009, two years before he joined the Samajwadi Party (SP) as a youth leader, Jani was arrested for vandalizing a statue of Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati in Lucknow. He formed the UP Navnirman Sena in 2010, but it was only last year that Jani found his calling—"aggressive Hindutva".
A huge fan of Bigg Boss, Jani was on his way to participate in the eleventh season of the reality show when the tyre of his car came off en route to the airport. A horrific accident ensued, and Jani was on a ventilator for 10 days, had nine surgeries for eight fractures, and had to watch the show from his hospital bed.
"If it wasn't for that accident, I may have been with Shivpal Yadav's Secular Morcha but after the accident, I did not want to do anything but Hindutva," said Jani. "I thought I was going to die. So did the others. It was a miracle and I have come to believe that God saved me so that I could save Hindutva."
If it wasn't for that accident, I may have been with Shivpal Yadav's Secular Morcha but after the accident, I did not want to do anything but Hindutva.
Jani also met Salman Khan, the host of Bigg Boss, when the actor visited Saifai, the native village of SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav. He got an invitation to participate in the twelfth season of the show, but decided against it.
"I cannot take off for a day, forget a couple of months. If I go, then my mission will stop," he said. "I want to put my life and soul into campaigning."
This year, he has decided to field six candidates, five in Uttar Pradesh and one in Haryana, in order to marry his brand of "aggressive" Hindutva with politics. To this end, Jani is willing to spend at least Rs 12-13 crore of his own money on campaigning. He believes that even one candidate winning will make "aggressive Hindutva" a legitimate prospect for the "lakhs" disillusioned with BJP.
"The BJP has done nothing but lip service to Hindutva and people are angry. The BJP says Hindutva for politics. We do politics for Hindutva," Jani said. "This is the shudh desi ghee of Hindutva. You don't get it in the BJP shop."
Jani also repeated the false narrative of a rapidly expanding Muslim population, popularized by the Hindu right. "I'm looking out for my son. He is ten years old right and his classmates are Vaibhav, Akshay and Sandeep, but 10 years from now, it will be Rizwan, Farhaan and Junaid," he said.
This is the shudh desi ghee of Hindutva. You don't get it in the BJP shop.
Badri Narayan Tiwari, a professor at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad, believes Jani's relevance extends as far as he can cut BJP votes.
"They will have appeal with those who have a hardcore Hindutva sentiment, but no mass appeal," he said. "They are fringe elements—the RSS wants nothing to do with them, the BJP wants nothing to do with them, so they are feeling the need to mobilize, to find their own space."
Sudha Pai, a political science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that BJP's Hindutva politics had spawned groups which had assumed a life of their own.
"The BJP may steer clear of such groups but they gave them the license to exist, but it's like riding a tiger that cannot be controlled," she said. "We don't always read or hear about such groups, but they do exist and they cause damage."
Not just the BJP, other political parties have also contributed in creating a space for Jani, says Pai, a consequence, she believes, of poor law and order in Uttar Pradesh. In addition to BJP's Hindutva politics, Pai says the SP is to blame for the culture of violence and impunity that has come to define the state. The Congress, too, has failed to counter the BJP narrative of Hindutva.
"The BJP has succeeded in making UP worse than Gujarat, which is now the experimental ground of Hindutva," she said. "Why does the Yogi Adityanath government not rein in these fringe elements? He can do it easily. But all parties, especially the SP and its goons, have a part in the appalling law and order that exists in UP today."
The BJP may steer clear of such groups but they gave them the license to exist, but it's like riding a tiger that cannot be controlled.
The promise of heaven
Jani claims that that the UP Narnirvan Sena has one lakh members in Uttar Pradesh, with around 1,000 sympathizers in each district. He is confident of rapid expansion if any of his candidates win the 2019 election.
The Hindutva radical envisions a country where young Hindu men are ready and willing to fight for a Hindu rashtra. He believes the main problem in creating this legion is that no one is looking out for the "Hindutva boys".
"What will happen to the Hindutva boys except for jail? Muslims are told very clearly that you detonate a bomb then you will go to heaven. There are 72 virgins and rivers of milk and money. What should we tell Hindus? No one stands up for them, not the BJP, not the RSS. They feel 'what is the point of fighting?'" he said, referring to the oft-repeated claim that the "defenders of Islam" are rewarded in heaven.
Jani says that he cannot promise heaven to the "Hindutva boys", but he can inspire them.
"If Naresh Sehrawat, Hariom Sisodia or Shambu Lal Raigar become lawmakers, it will send a message. Believe me, there will be lakhs of Hindus who will be ready to become fidayeens," he said. "The day that these three become lawmakers, there will be three lakh boys who will be willing to do anything for me because they know I will protect them."
Believe me, there will be lakhs of Hindus who will be ready to become fidayeens.
Sisodia, accused in the Dadri lynching, believes he stands a chance if Jani throws his weight behind him. He no longer believes in the BJP.
"The BJP leaders said that we will ensure justice, we will make sure you are financially okay, and we will get you jobs. But they did nothing. I'm unemployed. The main thing was 'case wapas ho jayega', but that has not happened yet." he said.
Sisodia said he is running to protect Hindutva. "Mohammad Akhlaq messed with our religion, he messed with our gau mata, what happened to him was right. Anyone who kills cows will meet a similar end," he said.
But why is Jani himself not contesting the election?
He would be too engrossed, says Jani, in campaigning for all the candidates who had neither the money nor the resources to fight an election.
"I have to manage everything: funds, rallies, flags, barricading, mike, pipe, tent, pandals, hoardings, posters, TV and newspaper advertising, social media and an IT team," he said. "If I run, then all of them will lose. If I don't run, then at least one will win. And if even one wins, then our political party will be ready. No one will question who we are."
The first rally for the UP candidates Raigar and Sisodia is scheduled for October 14 in Mathura.
In any case, Jani says the Lok Sabha election is a stopgap until the UP Assembly election in 2022. "We want to be in a position to field candidates for all 403 seats," he said.
If I run, then all of them will lose. If I don't run, then at least one will win.
Beyond the BJP
In addition to fielding the perpetrators of the worst hate crimes against Muslims, Jani is planning to open a free "weapons training centre", where Hindus can learn to handle guns. He is already scouting for land in Noida and says this is a one-time investment in Hindutva.
"The RSS runs shakhas where one does namaste to bhagwa, but we will not do that. We will teach Hindus how to shoot and how to shoot to kill," he said.
Pai, the political science professor from JNU, noted that "getting into the BJP these days means you have to prove that you are worse than the worst. You have to show your propensity of violence".
We will teach Hindus how to shoot and how to shoot to kill.
For everything that he now believes about Hindutva, Jani credits the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Even when he was with the Samajwadi Party, which draws support from Other Backward Classes and Muslims, Jani said that he felt conflicted and often lashed out at Azam Khan, the Muslim face of the party. When Modi became the prime ministerial candidate for the BJP in 2014, Jani was still with the SP, but started praising Modi at election rallies.
"I was always a Hindutva-vadi, but I was not aggressive. I was just against Azam Khan at the time," he said.
In fact, Jani, whose vote is in Meerut, plans to vote for the BJP in 2019 because he believes Modi is the only suitable leader at the moment. "If Modi has to sit in opposition, then so shall we. It's not that we will side with the Congress," he said.
If Modi has to sit in opposition, then so shall we. It's not that we will side with the Congress.
So why not just join the BJP? After all, BJP president Amit Shah has no compunctions about describing people as "termites".
Jani believes that given his substantial wealth and resources, and having established himself as a Hindutva firebrand, getting a ticket from the BJP would be easy. But joining the BJP, he said, would be like living in a "political jail". "I would not be able to say the things I say now. They would cut off my tongue. It would be a little like what happened to Shivpal Yadav in the Samajwadi Party," he said.
It is the "double standard" of the BJP that Jani says he can't stand.
"Ravi Sisodia is dead and so the BJP comes to wrap him in a flag," he said, referring to the 22-year-old resident of Bisada village, one of the accused in the lynching of Akhlaq, who died while he was in police custody. "But Hariom Sisodia is alive and unemployed, but the BJP will do nothing to help. The BJP calls him an accused, a convict."
Jani said it is the BJP, not the Congress or the regional parties in UP, that views the UP Navnirman Sena as a threat.
"The BJP is afraid that we will cut votes for them, but actually we will cut them from the roots. In the five constituencies that we have candidates, you won't be able to find BJP even with the help of a lantern."
Also on HuffPost India