On April 15, gangster-politician Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf were gunned down on live television as a police party was escorting them for an medical examination in a hospital in Prayagraj.

For many residents of Prayagraj, the shooting of the former MP revived memories of a similar crime 18 years ago.

On January 25, 2005, Bahujan Samaj Party MLA Raju Pal came under a hail of gunfire at a petrol pump. He was chased and shot dead – allegedly by Ahmed’s men. The assailants kept firing bullets at Pal all the way to the hospital where he was taken.

The killing of Ahmed, a local strongman, came two days after the extra-judicial killing of his son, Asad.

The mainstream media triumphantly circulated photos of the bodies of Atiq and Ashraf Ahmed at the encounter site. Ministers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party justified the killings as “divine justice”.

There is a more sinister irony to all this: the methods being used in Uttar Pradesh’s “war on crime” in Uttar Pradesh increasingly resemble the methods associated with “bāhubali” – or strongman – politics.

The defining features of strongman politics include the assertion of power beyond the law (often through spectacular, violent acts), seizing some aspects of judicial and administrative functions and sidestepping or twisting legal procedures and mechanisms.

Even as commentators highlight the decline in the influence of “bahubalis” in Uttar Pradesh because of the popular majoritarian government of Chief Minister Adityanath is in power, the strongman idiom seems to be the order of the day.

This can be seen in the “instant justice” meted out by the authorities through illegal bulldozer demolitions of the homes of people (most often Muslims) merely accused of violating the law , demonising farmers protesting against controversial agricultural laws (with a minister’s son mowing some of them down in an SUV) and spectacular, extrajudicial killings by the police.

Since he came to power in 2017, Adityanath has threatened to respond to guns with guns, to grind the mafia to dust, to shoot down criminals and exact revenge from those involved in the protests against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act. This has proved to be more than mere rhetoric.

The strongman as chief minister

Even before Adityanath gained popularity as the “bulldozer baba”, the high priest of the Gorakhnath Math had built his reputation as a decisive strongman politician. When Adityanath’s career began in 1999 as a member of parliament, the mainstream media said he was noted for having unleashed a “reign of terror”.

Much before his “war” on “criminals and mafias”, Adityanath himself stood accused of being involved in the murder of opponents, criminal intimidation, inciting hostilities between communities and rioting, among other charges. Dhirendra Jha’s Shadow Armies documents these charges against Adityanath and their circumstances.

During his first tenure as chief minister, from 2017 to 2022, all the charges against him were either withdrawn or dismissed. The legitimation and popularity for the strongman style is a result of decades of socio-economic transformation.

Atiq Ahmed (right) and his brother Ashraf, moments before they were shot dead on April 15. Credit: PTI.

Capital, community and violence

The roots of “bāhubali politics” in Uttar Pradesh began to grow after Independence as members of mainly upper-caste communities competed to establish and then consolidate their control over institutions, politics, land and business.

The celebrated 1968 Hindi novel Raag Darbari traces these developments in detail at the village level, drawing a sketch of upper-caste figures vying to capture local institutions, and ordinary people being driven by wealth and power rather than idealism.

A notable example is the conflict between Thakurs and Brahmins for supremacy in running Gorakhpur University in the 1950s.

Their contest culminated in the emergence of two of the earliest “criminal politicians” of the 1970s – Hari Shankar Tiwari (a Brahmin) and Virendra Pratap Shahi (a Thakur). Their rivalry set off gang wars and revenge killings in the quest for political office and government contracts.

As the era of Congress dominance came to a close in the 1970s, such figures became crucial in coalition politics. At the same time, these strongmen began to use caste as a vehicle to acquire control of both state institutions and business.

As anti-caste icon BR Ambedkar put it, caste encouraged a “gang mentality”, prompting groups to adopt ethical codes that facilitated their pursuit of power and promoted the interests of their communities.

The subculture of the strongman rode on a far more pervasive transformation of everyday life in Uttar Pradesh. The rise of “money and muscle” in the life of towns and cities reflected the advent of newer social norms and desires.

While socialism and poverty eradication dominated the political discourse in the 1970s and ’80s, the intersection of private capital accumulation, community prowess and violence as an expression of power began to generate a muscular, masculine idiom of leadership at the grassroots in Uttar Pradesh.

The new embodiments of social power and success in neighbourhoods – the contractor, the trader, the realtor – were often contrasted in everyday discussion with the seemingly upright figures of the lawyer, the freedom fighter and the bureaucrat of the Nehruvian era.

Yet, the bāhubali figure was not a straightforward symbol of entrenched power. The strongman was an electoral gambler, subject to losses in elections and humiliation by the state if it antagonised it. To perform electorally, it was not sufficient for these strongmen to be seen as an embodiment of a community’s “muscle power”.

These bāhubalis began to secure the legitimation of a wider group by striking alliances with similar strongmen from other communities at the local level, aligning with political parties, invoking cross-cutting identities such as gareeb (poor), mazloom (oppressed), or Hindu, and, to a limited extent, by helping people out in their day-to-day needs and disputes.

In the last three decades, the Hindi press has employed evocative terms such as “mafia”, “dabang” or “don” to describe the wielders of this outlaw style of politics. The word “bāhubali”, which refers to the Hindu patron deity of the akharas, the wrestling pit or training institutions, gained new meanings reflecting the socio-economic transformation at the grassroots.

Instead of being the ascetic protector, bāhubali now refers to political figures who possess “dhanbal” (wealth), “janbal” (people’s support) and “buddhibal” (political acumen) in addition to their capacity for violence.

Street violence as power

In Uttar Pradesh, violence as a spectacle has long been a means to assert caste or community power, or by party machineries during elections. For strongman politics, violence was deployed in the pursuit of money and electoral office.

Defiance of the law through street fights, spectacular killings, non-payment of toll taxes, moving with armed henchmen emerged as practices of “shakti pradarshan” – demonstrations of the bāhubali’s hold over the state and impunity from the law.

A degree of impunity for such violence was won by offering the bare currencies of electoral politics – vote and money – to established political parties, activating caste networks in the state administration and by demonstrating the social popularity of bāhubalis. It was clear that any action against them would be costly.

Subsequently, as hitherto excluded groups attempted to claim power, political actors from a few castes of the Other Backward Classes category, and in rare instances, Scheduled Castes and Muslims, also began to adopt the means of strongman politics.

Communalisation of strongman politics

The early 1990s saw the strongman idiom being infused with communalism. Raghuraj Pratap Singh, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh and Om Prakash Paswan emerged as strongmen politicians aligned with Hindutva and embodied the social desire for partisan governance at the local level.

The Gorakhnath Math was already a seat of Hindutva and an active participant in electoral politics. It had produced a line of popular monk-politicians who espoused Hindutva politics even before 1947. Adityanath brought the element of street power and the strongman style to the mix when he founded the Hindu Yuva Vahini outfit in 2002.

In the public eye, Adityanath was not personally associated with private accumulation of wealth even though he presided over the considerable estate of the math, and members of the Vahini reportedly bagged profitable contracts.

Nor was Adityanath seen as a saintly ascetic. His vigilante organisation took control over several aspects of the socio-economic life of Gorakhpur and surrounding districts. In police records, it was routinely referred to as a “defiant” group, always looking to give developments a communal colour.

Strongman politicians enjoyed popularity in neighbourhoods and among sections whose interest and symbolic power they claimed to represent, while everyone else saw them as criminals. As a consequence, they posed calculated risks for political parties. This led to the curious phenomenon of bāhubali figures being popular in pockets and among sections – but unpopular at large.

However, the rising popularity of Hindutva enabled Adityanath to overcome this image trap. The desire for partisan governance, which was limited to the strongman’s “influence” over a smaller region now had the machinery of an entire state at its disposal.

The adoption and normalisation of violent methods, such as the police encounter and the demolition by the state for the pleasure of viewers has meant that they are now routinely demanded by ruling party leaders and its supportive public. This sealed Atiq Ahmed’s fate as well as how he would meet it.

Demolishing the old?

In the aftermath of Ahmed’s killing, Adityanath rounded off his war on the “mafia” asserting that Uttar Pradesh will now be known for “development through airports, highways” and for religious festivals.

This was a reference to how Uttar Pradesh under Adityanath, through unprecedented budgetary spending, has brought big infrastructure to the heart of major cities, with Metro rail systems already functioning in Kanpur, Agra and Meerut and proposed in Allahabad, Gorakhpur, Varanasi and Bareilly.

This new infrastructural vision is no longer limited to building highways or bridges but thinks in terms of massive mobility corridors. This is the vision that informs the infrastructural reshaping of religious centres, which are being developed as sites for the extravagant celebration of Hindutva pride. The Kashi Vishwanath Corridor, the proposed Ram Janmabhoomi Corridor and preparations for the Maha Kumbh in Prayagraj are cases in point.

The razing of private property by the strongman with the demolition machine – “bulldozer baba” – and the televised murders of strongman politicians not aligned to the BJP are an expression of Hindutva violence. But they are simultaneously portrayed as a belittling of neighbourhood or region-based power and symbols of private capital accumulation.

The strongman mode of governing now draws its popularity not only from Hindutva and extra-judicial justice but also from its alignment with the impulses of big capital showcased in massive infrastructure projects of mobility and colossal corridors of religious pride.

Amitanshu Verma is a PhD in political science from Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a researcher at the Centre for Financial Accountability, New Delhi.