Can Yogi Make History?
India Today|February 07, 2022
Yogi Adityanath is poised on the edge of a future that can change Indian politics. He brims with optimism, but a resurgent Akhilesh Yadav is giving him the battle of his life in UP
Raj Chengappa With Prashant Srivastava

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.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM INDIA TODAYView All

Cryptos On A Crash Course

Cryptocurrencies have been tumbling worldwide as the Ukraine war prolongs and the spectre of still higher crude prices and inflation haunts countries.

3 mins read
India Today
May 30, 2022

YOGI'S NEW NEUTRAL AVATAR

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath is into his second term and one of the changes he is ringing in is a softening of the ardent Hindutva warrior image that he has been cultivating all these years.

5 mins read
India Today
May 30, 2022

Why Marital Rape Qualifies as Rape

In the second week of May, the Delhi High Court passed a split verdict on the issue of whether the marital rape exception engrafted in Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was constitutional or not.

4 mins read
India Today
May 30, 2022

WHY JUDICIAL APPOINTMENTS ARE DELAYED

Tardiness driven by a tangle involving collegiums and the Centre characterises the filling up of vacant positions of high court judges. And pending cases pile up inexorably

10+ mins read
India Today
May 30, 2022

WHAT ‘IS' INDIAN POETRY?

A milestone and a doorstopper, this ambitious anthology brings together 94 poets whom India can claim as its own

4 mins read
India Today
May 30, 2022

THE CASTE CALCULUS

A NEW MOON BECKONS? CM Nitish and RJD's Tejashwi at the latter's iftar party in Patna, April 22

3 mins read
India Today
May 30, 2022

SORENS IN A MINEFIELD

Jharkhand chief minister Hem­ ant Soren has some real fire­ fighting to do in the coming days if he wants to continue in his post. Everything seems to be going wrong at once.

5 mins read
India Today
May 30, 2022

Q+A IN ON THE ACT

One of Indian fashion's brightest stars, Masaba Gupta, 33, is living her childhood dream of acting. This time, she has a part in the Amazon Prime anthology Modern Love: Mumbai

1 min read
India Today
May 30, 2022

NEW RESOLUTION, OLD CONGRESS

On May 16, a day after the Congress ended its three-day-long Nav Sankalp Shivir in Udaipur, the party witnessed a formal gesture.

5 mins read
India Today
May 30, 2022

BETTING ON THE HINTERLAND

BHUPESH BAGHEL KICKS OFF HIS 2023 RE-ELECTION CAMPAIGN BY UNDERTAKING A SWEEPING TOUR OF RURAL CHHATTISGARH AND ASSESSING GOVERNMENT WELFARE SCHEMES

10 mins read
India Today
May 30, 2022
RELATED STORIES

India Election Body Struggles With Scale Of Fake Information

When India’s Election Commission announced last month that its code of conduct would have to be followed by social media companies as well as political parties, some analysts scoffed, saying it lacked the capacity and speed required to check the spread of fake news ahead of a multi-phase general election that begins April 11.

4 mins read
AppleMagazine
April 5, 2019

India At A Crossroads

India is known as the land of contradictions, and recent events do little to undermine that reputation.

6 mins read
Reason magazine
January 2019

आप-बीटीपी: कारगर होगा?

राजस्थान के वागड़ यानी, आदिवासी वोटों पर कांग्रेस और भाजपा के साथ अब भारतीय ट्राइबल पार्टी (बीटीपी) के सहयोग से आम आदमी पार्टी (आप) भी नजरें गड़ा रही है. गुजरात की तर्ज पर आप राजस्थान में भी बीटीपी के साथ गठबंधन की तैयारी कर रही है. अगर आप और बीटीपी का गठबंधन होता है तो आने वाले चुनाव में दक्षिण राजस्थान में अलग तरह का घमासान देखने को मिल सकता है.

1 min read
India Today Hindi
June 01, 2022

अर्जुन सिंह ने बदला पाला, भाजपा छोड़ तृणमूल कांग्रेस में की वापसी

अभिषेक बनर्जी ने तृणमूल कांग्रेस में कराया शामिल

3 mins read
Prabhat Khabar Kolkata
May 23, 2022

BJP MP Arjun Singh rejoins Trinamool

People across India are suffering & they need us now more than ever. Let’s keep the fight alive: Abhishek

3 mins read
Millennium Post Delhi
May 23, 2022

Eye on Guj polls, BJP set to intensify Dalit outreach

With an eye on the upcoming assembly elections in Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to intensify its Dalit outreach and has set itself the task of becoming a party of preference for the scheduled castes (SCS) that are traditionally considered as the vote bank of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

2 mins read
Hindustan Times
May 22, 2022

Rahul, BJP in fresh war of words

Deep state eating India, IFS arrogant: Cong neta

1 min read
The Times of India Mumbai
May 22, 2022

Ecosystem of some parties trying to divert focus from major issues: PM

Narendra Modi addresses the BJP meeting.

2 mins read
Financial Express Mumbai
May 21, 2022

Don't fall into Oppn trap & get diverted from main issues: PM

PM Modi asked BJP leaders not to "fall in the trap" of some political parties which have an "ecosystem" to divert the country's attention from main matters.

2 mins read
The Times of India
May 21, 2022

PM seeks to put full stop on Hindi imposition issue

Modi lauds government's achievements, condemns family-centric parties at Jaipur

1 min read
The New Indian Express
May 21, 2022