Hindutva hardliner Adityanath, who uses the honorific “yogi”, was on Sunday sworn in as Uttar Pradesh’s new chief minister, after Bharatiya Janata Party’s Legislative Assembly elected him to head the state government. Adityanath is a significant departure from the BJP’s previous picks for chief ministers under party president Amit Shah, who until now seemed to prefer lesser-known faces with clean track records who can push a development narrative instead of a communal one.
Adityanath is different. He is the religious head of the Goraknath Math, and a household name across Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath is extremely popular among the BJP’s core base in UP, and is independently influential enough that he hasn’t always felt the need to toe the party line.
His track record is by no means clean. Charges against Adityanath, listed in his own election affidavit, include attempt to murder, criminal intimidation, rioting, promoting enmity between different groups and defiling place of worship. He has regularly used communally charged language in his rallies, prompting the Election Commission to reprimand him.
The BJP came to power in 2014 on a platform that promised jobs and development. At the time people like Adityanath were considered the extremist fringe of the broader BJP project. Tavleen Singh, a columnist known to be favourable to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, called him a “foul-mouthed fanatic” who is either “sick or mad.”
In 2015, after Adityanath said actor Shah Rukh Khan was no different from Laskar-e-Tayyeba founder Hafiz Saeed, BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli said, “His comments are incorrect and uncalled for. They do not reflect in any way the core belief of BJP or that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”
Now the man who was called foul-mouthed fanatic and unrepresentative of Modi’s views is chief minister of India’s largest, most populous state. Those discussing the question of why he was picked have a few arguments that aim to whitewash the obvious communal decision the BJP has made.
Argument 1: ‘Give him a chance’
If “give him a chance” was an acceptable argument, it would apply to just about anyone. It is an argument that is almost meaningless, because it simply does not explain how and why leaders are chosen. By that measure the party should change chief ministers every year, because everyone should be given a chance. Indeed, by that measure you could argue that the AIMIM’s Asaddudin Owaisi should be allowed to run Uttar Pradesh at some point, because he ought to be given a chance and judged for his work.
Argument 2: He won five elections. If you disagree with him, beat him
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi has won three straight elections, but that doesn’t automatically mean he is the right person to run a political party, let alone the country. If that were the measure, the prime minister of India should be Kerala’s KM Mani, who has held his legislative assembly seat since 1965 and won 13 consecutive elections. Winning elections is not like washing away your sins in the Ganga. The victory doesn’t purify you, nor does it wash away the memory of what you said and did before elections.
Argument 3: But unlike Rahul Gandhi, he didn’t win from a family, ‘safe’ seat
Except he did. The Gorakhpur Parliamentary seat has gone to the head of the Goraknath math every election since 1989. That is not to discount his electoral successes (or those of anyone who wins even a “safe” seat), but there is no denying that Adityanath has a leg up by virtue of his religious position.
Argument 4: He was an active parliamentarian who has asked questions about Japanese encephalitis
Adityanath is not in the top 10 list of Members of Parliament who attended, asked questions, participated in debates, or introduced bills in the 16th Lok Sabha according to PRS Legislative, a research firm. Or in the 15th Lok Sabha, as per Social Watch. There are many more MPs ahead of him in some of these categories, including more than a handful from the BJP and from Uttar Pradesh. If this were the criteria to select him, there are evidently better choices.
Argument 5: The position will moderate him/the naughty-boy-as-monitor trick
Aside from the obvious example we can all point to in the United States, it is presumptive and fallacious to not take people at face value. If he promised to shut all slaughterhouses and to put Ganesha idols in all mosques in UP, there is good reason to believe he would indeed like to achieve that. Indeed, by the “appropriate-extremists” logic, the BJP should invite the Hurriyat to run Jammu & Kashmir because it will have a moderating effect on them. Turning the fringe mainstream more often than not doesn’t dull the fringe, it shifts the ground beneath us. There is a new mainstream.
Argument 6: If you were okay with Modi as prime minister, how do you have a problem with Yogi?
Again, it is important to listen carefully to what people say. For all the divisiveness of Modi going back to 2002, he expressly campaigned on a jobs-and-development platform, eschewing much of his more communal rhetoric from earlier. That might be a fig leaf, but it did help him gain acceptability across the country. That Modi even needed a progressive stance was reassuring to many.
Adityanath did no such thing in his campaigning ahead of UP elections. He remained clear that the problems facing UP can be attributed to one thing: its Muslim community. He has openly spoken of wanting to adjust demographics in the state. Development and jobs are not at the core of his rhetoric, unlike Modi in the years leading up to 2014. So, how will power be a moderating influence, if he didn’t need moderation to achieve that power?
Argument 7: BJP won 300+ seats. They have the right to pick anyone
Of course. The BJP won a massive, impressive mandate in Uttar Pradesh. No one is contesting their right to select a chief minister. But democracy does not end at the ballot box, and representatives in government are meant to serve their entire polity, not just those who voted for them. It is fair to ask if the BJP was right to pick and approve of Adityanath as chief minister, even as no one questions their right to do so.
Citizens are free to question political decisions, to ask what message the BJP is sending by picking a religious leader, with a communal, criminal track record as its head in the country’s biggest state. And the answer seems to also be evident, even if many prefer to fall back on spurious arguments to walk around it: Adityanath wasn’t picked despite his deeply problematic communal track record. He was chosen because of it.