Yogi Adityanath, the ochre-robed, shaven-headed monk-turned politician, faces the biggest ever test of his life—but seems unfazed by the magnitude of the challenge. For five years, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, he has ruled India’s most populous state with an iron fist sheathed in a saffron glove that was never far from controversy. Now the moment of reckoning has come, with 152 million voters about to decide whether to give him a second term or usher in a new dispensation. At his official residence in Lucknow, seated on a sofa draped with a saffron towel, flanked by a bronze statue of Lord Ram with a bow and arrow and a pichhwai of Lord Krishna, Adityanath makes for a picture brimming with optimism. “I’ve never lost and never accepted defeat,” he says.
That’s a fact. He has won five consecutive elections to the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat. This time, it’s a battle of somewhat different contours, though. And the stakes are incredibly high for both the 49-year-old Adityanath and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The election to the UP assembly is like the very axis on which Indian democracy spins. And Adityanath will create history of sorts if he is re-elected—no UP chief minister before him has ever won a second consecutive term after completing a full first tenure. (N.D. Tiwari did win two consecutive terms in 1985, but his first term lasted only seven months, and his second, six.) If he pulls off that feat, it will put the stamp of popular approval on Adityanath’s leadership and position him ahead of most others in the BJP as the party’s prime ministerial aspirant to succeed Narendra Modi.
For the BJP, a big win in UP will give it a major impetus to win a third consecutive parliamentary election in 2024. In the short term, it will enable the party to dictate who will become the next President when polls are held in July. (UP, with its 403 assembly seats, 100 legislative council members, 80 Lok Sabha members and 31 Rajya Sabha members, contributes the maximum votes to the electoral college). In the longer term, a decisive mandate in UP will also be a huge endorsement for Hindutva. That may embolden the Sangh Parivar in the way it crafts its ideological journey across the country in future.
In Lucknow, a sense of the moment grips the BJP state headquarters. The innocuous-looking renovated PWD bungalow with tinted glass windows, which pales in comparison to the elegant colonial façade of Vidhan Bhavan next door, betrays no signs of its importance in architectural terms. But the way it came to life late last week, as Adityanath drove in with an entourage of white Toyota Fortuners, no one could doubt that it was the very cradle of possible futures. A crush of party workers hailed Adityanath with the party’s new slogan: ‘Soch Imaandar, Kaam Damdaar (Honest in Thought, Powerful in Action)’. Inside a conference room packed to the brim with media, he along with other state and central leaders released the four-minute campaign theme song titled ‘UP Phir Maange BJP Sarkar (UP wants a BJP regime again)’. Expectedly, it highlighted the new touch of grandeur and scale at the Hindu pilgrimage sites in Ayodhya, Varanasi, Prayagraj and Mathura, besides a host of welfare measures and development projects that the Adityanath government initiated or executed.
IMPORTANTLY, IN SEVERAL SCENES in the campaign video, Adityanath appears along with the prime minister. This includes the now-famous photo of Modi placing his hand paternally on Adityanath’s shoulder, signaling his full backing for the CM to silence his doubters. After the song played out, state BJP president Swatantra Dev Singh waxed eloquent about the state government’s achievements—the phrase “Yogi Sarkar” was a conspicuous leitmotif. All the signs pointed to just how important Adityanath had become to the party’s poll campaign, along with Modi and Amit Shah—the architects of the BJP’s landslide win here in 2017.
That is a remarkable turnaround. Five years ago, when Adityanath emerged as the BJP’s surprise choice for chief minister in India’s largest state, many were sceptical about his ability to stay the course. Though he was a five-time MP—indeed, even the youngest of the 12th Lok Sabha at 26 years of age—he had never held a ministerial office either at the Centre or in the state. His managerial experience had been limited to being head of a monastic order that oversaw the famed Shri Gorakhnath Math in Gorakhpur, on the northeastern fringe of UP, bordering Nepal, where the Nathpanthi footprint extends. Adityanath also ran a radical youth outfit called the Hindu Yuva Vahini that aggressively propagated Hindutva and often derided the BJP for plying a softer version of the saffron agenda.
When the BJP won a phenomenal 312 out of the 403 seats in the 2017 state assembly election and returned to power after a hiatus of 15 years, Adityanath was not in the reckoning for the top post. The experienced Manoj Sinha, then a Union minister of state, and Keshav Prasad Maurya, state BJP president, were the frontrunners. How Adityanath was chosen remains a matter of speculation, but it is widely believed that Prime Minister Modi and then BJP president Shah, in consultation with the top brass of the Rashtri ya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), decided that Adityanath had the grit to handle what is arguably one of India’s most difficult states to govern. To pacify the other aspirants, two of them were made deputy chief ministers and a clutch of others, ministers. The Opposition mocked the BJP government for having 10 and a half chief ministers— Adityanath being the half.
INITIALLY, ADITYANATH RODE the Hindutva chariot unabashedly, in a spell of his rule that critics termed “tyrannical”. He declared war on ‘love jihad’ and even had an ordinance passed prohibiting religious conversion in the name of love. He also formed ‘anti Romeo squads’, ostensibly for the safety of women although, all too often, they ended up intimidating genuinely court ing couples. He gave the state police a free hand to gun down criminals, if need be, which soon led to charges of encounter kill ings. He clamped down on cow smuggling and slaughter and set up gaushalas (cow protection homes) across UP at a huge cost. And to the dismay of babudom, in a state where speaking with a mouthful of paan is an art as is spitting its juice out edgewise, he banned the use of tobacco and gutka and chewing paan in government offices.
A major electoral setback on his home turf Gorakhpur in his first year saw him settle down to the serious business of governing a state that would rank as the world’s fifth most populous country were it an independent nation. Adityanath was advised to focus more on the welfare and development of the state for, as one aide put it, “His bhagwa (saffron) credentials were a given and wouldn’t get him more votes.” Adityanath believes he has done a good job of his tenure as CM (see interview)—the voters’ verdict will be known on March 10.
There’s room for suspense there. A few months ago, the BJP may have been justified in believing it had the UP 2022 poll firmly sewed up. After all, it had all the heavy artillery—a formidable party infrastructure, a purpose-filled government that was now skilfully bilingual in the languages of identity as well as development, and a triumvirate of charismatic Hindutva mascots. But the churn of heartland politics can hold surprises. For, not far from Adityanath’s official residence, his predecessor and arch-rival Akhilesh Yadav, the youthful Samajwadi Party (SP) chief, has plotted a determined comeback.
IF THE COUNT OF VEHICLES flocking the SP’s sprawling headquarters (it even has an amphitheatre) are any indication of voting intentions, you could be pardoned for thinking the SP is winning hands down! It may just be the thrum of a more earthy politics though. As a political observer explains, unlike the BJP, which has a disciplined cadre and party structure, SP supporters are often uncontrollable and the party apparatus disorganised. Especially because Akhilesh is virtually a one-man army and every ticket-seeker, with his comet’s tail of flunkies, makes it a point to seek “Netaji's” blessings.
The five years Akhilesh spent on the Opposition benches after his party was trounced by the BJP in 2017 saw him mature into a wiser, cannier politician—though one who still retains his youthful mien and exuberance. Wearing his party’s signature red cap, the 48-year-old Akhilesh told India today, “In the last five years, I realised that one should stay focused on the development vision. The BJP is only cutting ribbons of the projects we started in my tenure as chief minister.” Before the Election Commission clamped down on campaign rallies because of the Covid threat, Akhilesh had set out on a series of yatras across the state, focusing on the failures of the ‘Yogi Sarkar’ and drawing large crowds. When he chanted his favourite campaign slogan, “2022 mein badlav hoga. Janta ne mann bana liya hai, is sarkar ko ukhaad phenkne ka (2022 will bring change, the people are determined to throw this government out),” the crowd would roar back, “Sarkar ko ukhaad phenkne ka.”
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