Before his elevation as Uttar Pradesh chief minister in March, it is unlikely that many Kannadigas would have heard of Adityanath, the head priest of the Gorakhnath temple who also represented Gorakhpur in the Lok Sabha. Yet on Sunday, people in Bengaluru found themselves being addressed by Adityanath, who proceeded to attack the incumbent Congress government urging Kannadigas to vote for his Bharatiya Janata Party in the upcoming Assembly elections. This was the second time Adityanath was holding a rally in Karnataka. He had also addressed a crowd at Hubballi on December 20.

The BJP pulled out all stops to ensure that his Bengaluru rally – during which Adityanath delivered a speech in Hindi – was a success. The crowd chanted Adityanath’s name along with Modi’s, and BJP state veteran and former Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa spoke more about Adityanath’s short tenure as Uttar Pradesh chief minister than his own work in the state.

As unusual as Adityanath’s presence in Karnataka was, there is more. Ever since he took charge of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, he has addressed rallies in Kerala as well as been touted to head the BJP campaign in West Bengal for the 2019 parliamentary elections. The head priest was also an important BJP campaigner during last year’s Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.

Given that Adityanath was not widely known before the BJP swept Uttar Pradesh in early 2017 and appointed him as chief minister, his presence in poll campaigns in several states seems like an attempt by the party to push the 45-year-old as a national figure – possibly as a backup to Narendra Modi.

Some Kannadigas were angry with Adityanath being flown in as a carpetbagger, overiding the local leadership of the BJP

Rising up the ranks

Globally, it is not unusual for leaders to rise up from the city or state to the federal level. In the US, for example, nearly 40% of all presidents served as governors of their home states. Chinese President Xi Jinping, the leader of the Communist Party, rose from the post of deputy mayor and then provincial governor to end up as the most powerful man in the country. Turkey’s President Recep Erdoğan was earlier the mayor of Istanbul, the country’s largest and most prosperous city.

Yet, this career path is fairly unusual in India. Of the 13 prime ministers the country has had so far before Narendra Modi, only five had previously served as chief ministers. Moreover, only one, HD Deve Gowda, moved directly from chief minister to prime minister (like Modi would in 2014). These risers also found themselves to be weak prime ministers: of the five, only one of them, PV Narasimha Rao, completed his term. Three of them lasted for less than a year. Till Modi became prime minister, India had been ruled for less than a decade by a person who had once been chief minister. In contrast, India’s most powerful prime ministers – Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi – were people with no experience running state governments.

Even today, there are few leaders who can cut across state lines in popularity – even though chief ministers such as Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh or Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal are strong vote catchers in their own states.

The one person who has decisively broken this trend is Modi. He was parachuted onto the chief minister’s chair in Gujarat in 2001 given his work in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and then the BJP. He first carved out a role outside Gujarat after the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in that state, when he appealed to a far-right constituency as a Hindu Hriday Samrat or emperor of Hindu hearts. He then blended that role with that of a vikas purush or development man in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Modi, however, had to fight his way up to national status, specifically battling the old guard of the BJP represented by former deputy prime minister and architect of the Ram Mandir movement, LK Advani. However, Adityanath – at least for now – is supported in his national ambitions by the party high command. A number of political commentators have remarked that he might one day succeed Modi as the BJP’s main leader and – if the party still commands the same level of popularity – India’s prime minister.

Like Modi initially, Adityanath now depends on Hindutva to give him a national footprint. Within Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath’s views fall on the far right – a style of politics he has taken to other states. In Kerala, for example, he argued in favour of love jihad, the conspiracy theory propounded by Hindutva groups that holds that Muslim men woo Hindu women with the express purpose of converting them to Islam. In Karnataka, Adityanath put forward a religious test for the chief minister: “If Siddaramaiah is a Hindu, then let him ban cow slaughter and beef in the state”.

Development man?

But while the saffron-clad chief minister might find it easy to slip into the role of a Hindu Hriday Samrat, marketing himself as a man of development might be more of a challenge. Adityanath is accused of criminal intimidation, rioting, promoting enmity between different groups and defiling a place of worship. The state he presides over is one of the poorest, most badly governed units in India. In basics such as infant mortality, Uttar Pradesh comes in last across all the states in the Union and does worse than even war-torn nations in sub-Saharan Africa, only narrowly managing to do better than Afghanistan. While a number of commentators have pointed out the holes in Modi’s Gujarat model that was marketed in the run up to the 2014 elections, selling an Uttar Pradesh model that other states would be expected to emulate is likely a tall order.

The BJP’s opponents are well aware of this fact. On Sunday, responding to Adityanath’s Bengaluru rally, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah sarcastically asked his Uttar Pradesh counterpart to learn from the Dravidian state in order to “address the starvation deaths sometimes reported from your state”. Last year, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan pointed to Uttar Pradesh’s abysmal health record, remarking that he found it amusing that Adityanath had found time for Kerala despite the many problems that his own state was facing.

But with the Karnataka campaign increasingly turning to religious identity like the campaign in Gujarat a few months ago, it remains to be seen if Adityanath’s usefulness as a Hindutva mascot can outweigh his liability as the head of an extremely backward state.