Making sense of Adityanath's rise in Modi's India

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For those hoping that India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi would more perceptibly shift toward the development plank rather than the religio-doctrinal 'Hindutva' plank, the New Year came with an encouragement. With the five states including Uttar Pradesh (UP), the most populous one in India, going to provincial polls, the analysts were eagerly watching for any sign of such a shift.

On second week of January, Yogi Adityanath, the firebrand and controversial leader and MP from Gorakhpur of UP, was bluntly snubbed in the national executive meeting of the BJP, the ruling party now in firm control of Modi and his close confidante Amit Shah. After failing to be included among the 27 leaders in the party's election committee for the state polls, Adityanath was reportedly refused a chance to address the executive meeting. In turn, Adityanath skipped the concluding day of the conclave and went on to retort that he 'had not applied for the post of chief minister in UP'.

Many saw the whole affair as an attempt by Modi and Shah to reclaim the development narrative before the polls even though they have not themselves shied away from whipping up communal rhetoric before other state elections. Even among the prominent extremists who thrive under the umbrella of Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)--of which BJP is the supposedly least extremist political offshoot--Yogi Adityanath outshines others with his fiery rhetoric matched by brutal and violent acts.

The mass conversions of Christians to Hinduism (called Ghar Wapsi meaning 'returning home') of 2014 and the Gorakhpur riots of 2007 are only some of his remarkable political acts with the charges of murder, criminal intimidation, rioting, promoting enmity between different groups and defiling places of worship against him still doing the rounds of labyrinthine legal system in the country, as declared in his own affidavit at the time of contesting elections. The most notorious incitement of communal hatred by Adityanath was his exhortation to 'kill ten woh log ['them' meaning Muslims]' rather than knocking the doors of legal system 'if one Hindu is killed' in riots.

Yet, barely two months after Adityanath's humiliation in BJP's national executive meeting, and days after the party's resounding victory in the state polls, BJP announced that he would indeed be the chief minister of the most populous and politically significant state in the country. After swearing in, he has been swift in implementing his communally tinged agenda with closure of slaughterhouses and formation of 'anti-Romeo squads', the moral police preventing the pre-marital socialization between girls and boys. 

The reasons behind Adityanath's rise

Months before the 2014 polls in India that saw the spectacular victory for the BJP with Modi projected as the future Prime Minister, this is how I summed up the dilemma of the Indian electorate in cozying up to a firebrand and polarizing leader in an Asia Times article:

Moreover, what is conveniently forgotten about the 2002 Gujarat violence in discourses today is that, for Modi's brand of politics, 2002 was not a point of time when things went out of hand. This was beginning of an era of a massive social engineering that molded the entire population into a particular shape, dismantling the tolerant and pluralistic fabric of the society. 

If anything goes awry in future and a Modi-led BJP exchanges the apparently harmless developmental agenda with a less wholesome but potentially efficient alternative of another attempt at such social engineering, then that is likely to threaten the pluralist and secular fabric of the Indian state itself. 

As the 2002 Gujarat violence recedes further away in the public memory with every passing moment, the aspiring new generation of Indians as well as the commentators in the economic right have argued for and desperately wished that PM Modi single-mindedly focus on economic development with as little distraction as possible. While recognizing the necessity of sophisticated organizational structure of the parent organization RSS for electoral successes, they have been very articulate that there is no chance of broad and sustainable progress in economic front if the extremist religio-nationalistic elements in the RSS umbrella are pandered to and let to get away with their strong-arm tactics and perpetual subversion of the rule of law. 

With Modi safely in the throne in Delhi and his followers still mesmerized by his charisma, so far there seems to be no centrally mandated social engineering comparable to the one in post-2002 Gujarat. There is, however, a widespread fear that Modi and Shah have been taking a calculated gamble in letting various outfits to perform a rather decentralized social engineering whereby communal passions are ramped up before elections to such an extent that the Hindu majority feels it necessary to fall in line behind their party. 

This is where people like Adityanath come to picture. Hindu Yuva Vahini led by him is one such outfit brazenly involved in that sort of social engineering. Many compare the outfit with Shiv Sena--the notorious far-right political party based on Maharashtra, which has held the once cosmopolitan city of Bombay hostage of Hindu fundamentalism and regional chauvinism--and Adityanath with the latter's founder Bal Thackeray. 

Ironically, the strong-arm tactics of the outfit with hysteric and  very public assault on inter-faith marriage in the name of 'love Jihad' had had a very poor return in the by-polls in the state following the general elections in 2014 with the BJP losing eight of the eleven seats. Many thought this was among reasons why Adityanath was apparently snubbed before the polls this time around and hoped that it meant the sincere effort of the BJP leadership to avoid encouraging extremist outfits and leaders. That hope, however, has now proved short-lived.

The implications of Adityanath's rise

Those in the side of Modi and BJP have now tried to assuage the fears of a large number of non-RSS center right supporters of Modi and the larger public by asserting that Adityanath will now promote nothing other than efficient governance in the state. Swapan Dasgupta, journalist and political commentator as well as the member of India's upper house has argued that the cross-caste support that Adityanath enjoys in the state was the main factor behind the party's decision to choose him for the top job. 

The background and circumstances of Adityanath's rise to power and the developments in the state since, however, point toward something much more ominous.

As explored meticulously in a documentary titled 'Saffron war: A war against nation', the very cross-caste support mentioned by Dasgupta has come at a terrible price: the backward Dalits in the state have been lured by Brahminical Hinduism and radicalized against the Muslims to such an extent that they are ready to become foot soldiers of the Hindutva brigade at the time of riots. As the political psychologist Ashish Nandy has emphasized after observing the deadly Gujarat riots, the middle class, while being instrumental in starting and perpetuating violence prefers to mobilize the underdogs for the dirty work of actual killing and arson.

After the 2002 Gujarat riots, the rallying cry of the Adityanath's outfit was to 'transform UP into another Gujarat' and the top slogan was UP main rehna hey to Yogi Yogi Kehna hey (If you wish to remain in UP, hail Yogi [Adityanath]). In one clip included in the documentary, Adityanath says: If one Hindu is killed by Muslims, then we'll ...... 100 Muslims. The crowd roars to fill in the blank: kill. 

As Shahnawaz Alam, writer, filmmaker and political activist who co-directed the documentary, wrote in a pointed column, the dereliction and complicity of the BJP's rivals that ruled the state until recently has no small role in the rise of Adityanath. He has elaborated a series of crimes of omission on part of the police, political administration, election commission and judiciary in letting him relentlessly nurture the poison of hatred and violence all along.

The fundamental problem with Adityanath's rise, however, lies beyond those details. India's diversity and pluralism has largely survived--despite a series of credible threats like multiple armed rebellions and periodic communal riots--over the past 65 years mainly because the founding fathers of independent India had institutionalized and nurtured a tradition of separating the religion from politics. Even though the RSS, the self-proclaimed 'Hindu' cultural organization, does form the ideological backbone of BJP and its pracharaks like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi have gone on to become India's prime ministers, the latter's formal political lives and persona have resembled those of their secularist rivals. While Vajpayee is widely regarded as the statesman unlike any other with roots in RSS, Modi has always attempted to gloss over his past as a RSS Pracharak as well as his role in 2002 Gujarat riots with a pro-development image palatable to all parts of society. 

The blurring of line between religion and politics in case of Adityanath is, however, at an altogether different plane. He is the serving chief priest of the Gorakhnath temple even after swearing in as the chief minister of the state. He along with his predecessors Avaidyanath and Digvijay Nath, all three active politicians while serving as the head of the temple, have been instrumental in making the temple a focus of militant communal politics despite the fact that it was historically venerated by both Hindus and Muslims, especially the dispossessed and lower caste people. While Digvijay Nath was arrested for inciting Hindus to kill Mahatma Gandhi, the founding father of independent India, in a public meeting three days before Gandhi's actual assassination, he as well as Digvijay Nath played leading role in so called Ram Janmabhoomi movement whose culmination was the demolition of Babri mosque in 1992. While both of them became only MPs from Gorakhpur, their worthy successor has now gone on to be the chief minister of the whole state at the age of 44 years. 

Modi's dilemma and India's trouble

Narendra Modi's mastery over contemporary Indian politics was visible for everyone to see after his party's triumph in the recent provincial polls. The elections were seen by many as a referendum on his most risky economic gamble so far--the decision to demonetize the 500 and 1000 rupees banknotes--which led to widespread disruption and discontent among the middle class and the poor. Others turned to these elections to gauge the public mood toward Modi's rule hoping to predict which way the political winds will blow in the general elections due in 2019. The image of Modi as the unstoppable juggernaut in Indian politics is now unshakable and even some opposition politicians have ruminated about re-organizing for the 2024 polls rather than 2019 polls.

The decision to make Adityanath the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, however, has confounded many who were expecting Modi to pursue a more economically focused governance in the future. Indeed there is no denying the argument of many analysts that the heavy-handed Hindutva model of governance exemplified by people like Adityanath--with social harmony and individual freedom hanging in balance and enterprise stymied--relies on state control of the citizens as opposed to small and efficient government promised by Modi.

Others, who had lost all hopes of confronting Modi meaningfully after the poll verdicts were out in five states, have been seriously contemplating if Adityanath's rise is a blessing in disguise to credibly challenge Modi's development narrative. One commentator has aptly articulated the latter strand of thinking in a recent column: only the BJP can defeat the BJP and the development of a fault-line between Modi and Adityanath--one attempting to attract diverse group of people under development plank and the other rabidly polarizing society along communal lines--could be the beginning of that process.

Whatever the long-term implications, the vindication of Adityanath's brand of politics will inevitably accelerate the process of polarization and radicalization in India's massively populous Hindi heartland immediately.

The vulgar laughter and cheer that Adityanath draws while roaring to '[forcibly] get hundred Muslim girls to marry Hindu boys in exchange for one Hindu girl 'snatched' by Muslim boy', captured in the aforementioned documentary, tells a lot about the chemistry and cult status that he enjoys in an increasingly frustrated populace eager to find any enemy to channel its ire. Worsening droughts with rapidly depleting aquifers and looming ecological crisis, and the pernicious unemployment despite rapid economic growth, juxtaposed with rising inequality and skewed sex ratio (thanks to widespread sex-selective abortions), have been making the situation in much of India inflammatory for years. Finding a definable enemy and channeling people's ire to it is the easiest way to gain political power in such a situation and that is precisely what has propelled Adityanath to power in the state now.

The documentary captures Adityanath's unapologetic assertion that two 'cultures' cannot co-exist peacefully and segregation is inevitable, as it does his outfit's call for disenfranchisement of the Muslims to discourage 'minority-appeasing' and 'vote-bank politics'.

But what is most damning for India in the long term is the indoctrination of the children by another RSS outfit as evidenced by another footage in the documentary: the child regurgitates the venom against Muslims as taught by a book titled Aatankvaad aur Bharat ka Bhavishya (Terrorism and India's future): Muslims form only 10 percent of India's population but 90 percent of them go on to be terrorists and their Koran teaches the Muslims to decapitate the 'Kafirs'.

Ultimately, it is inconceivable that Adityanth's Hitler-like obsession with incompatibility between two faiths--and the disruptive behavior of his Hindu Yuva Vahini--will wane as he ascends the rungs of the power ladder. If history is any guide, the taste of power only further strengthens and entrenches such an obsession and tends to bring out the worst from the distorted psyche of such people. This is also because the rule of law that is supposed to contain the behavior guided by such sinister thought process becomes increasingly toothless as impunity is perpetuated with every other political success.

How Modi will manage the seemingly unavoidable rise of people like Adityanath who enjoy more than tacit support of the RSS in today's India awash in saffron is yet to be seen. But the enthronement of Adityanath in UP, at the outset, eviscerates the Modi's slogan that his government is guided by 'help from all, development for all'. If the widespread perception that Modi has alienated his centrist voters and support-base on catering to extremists on the right lingers for long, that may be the beginning of unravelling of the Modi story in India as perceived until now. Even though an electoral defeat for Modi's party is hard to imagine now, things can change. And Yogi Adityanath now looks like the most likely of the catalysts for such a change.

If things do not change and India continues in today's trajectory toward more intolerance, chauvinism and bigotry, survival of Modi's rule will potentially mean a massive sacrifice on part of India as a nation and her functioning democracy.

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