After days of suspense, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership has sprung another surprise, appointing hardliner Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.
In the run up to the meeting of MLAs at the Lok Bhawan in Lucknow, Manoj Sinha, the Ghazipur MP and Union Minister, was said to be the frontrunner. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah are known to pull surprises at the last moment.
Adityanath, the Lok Sabha MP from Gorakhpur, is the head priest of the important Gorakhnath Math. He will take oath on Sunday along with two deputies, Dinesh Sharma and Keshav Prasad Maurya. Both Sharma, the former mayor of Lucknow, and Maurya, the state president of the BJP and MP, are said to be close to the RSS. Maurya was closely involved with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad as well.
The combination includes representation from all caste groups which were firmly behind the BJP – Adityanath is a Thakur (birth name Ajay Singh Bisht), while Maurya belongs to the OBCs and Sharma is a Brahmin.
None of the three are members of either house of the UP legislature, and it is unclear whether they will take the MLC route, or necessitate by-elections to enter the Vidhan Sabha.
Indications that such a thing could be in the store came this morning after Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu gave out a statement that the names of the probables doing the rounds in the media were 'mere speculation'.
A BJP leader said that from the very beginning after the massive mandate, four names were seriously doing the rounds – Union Home Minister and the BJP's seniormost leader from UP Rajnath Singh, Sinha, Maurya and Adityanath. After Rajnath refused the offer, the list of three names that went to him also included Adityanath.
“It seems that the party leadership is taking a very calculated risk keeping in mind the 2019 Lok Sabha elections,” said the BJP leader.
He also rubbished the possiblity that this decision was taken under pressure from Adityanath and his supporters.
“When you get more than 300 seats just riding on your image, there is no such pressure,” he said, referring to the PM.
“Adityanath, however, is a man who lives on his own terms. He is no pushover,” the BJP leader said.
The making of a hardliner
The Gorakhnath Math in Gorakhpur, where Yogi Adityanath is the head priest, has a long history of inclusivity. It did not differentiate between people on the basis of caste, or even religion.
Nath Panthis, the followers of the Math, included not just other Hindu caste groups but a few Muslims as well. The Nishads, for example, one of the extremely backward Dalit communities, are said to be blind followers of the Math. However, Adityanath has made no bones about his strong dislike for the very idea of inclusivity.
Born in 1972, as Ajay Singh Bisht at village Panchur in the foothills of the Himalayas, in what is now the Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand, he was noticed by the then-head priest of the Math, Yogi Avaidyanath, and brought to Gorakhpur. Avaidyanath appointed him as his successor and gave him a new name, Adityanath.
Almost two decades ago, in 1998, Yogi Adityanath entered Parliament as the youngest MP ever elected, at just the age of 26.
Since then, he has tried to become a mascot of hardline Hindutva politics, at least in and around Gorakhpur. It is not just visible in the way he dresses up, in saffron robes; in Gorakhpur, he has made sure that 'Muslim sounding' names of places are changed. For example the Urdu Bazar has been changed to Hindi Bazar, and Ali Nagar has become Arya Nagar.
Adityanath runs a vigilante outfit, called the Hindu Yuva Vahini. This outfit was also at the forefront of the 2007 Gorakhpur riots, when Adityanath was also booked and spent some time in jail.
Interestingly, the outfit had fielded several candidates in the just concluded Assembly elections after Adityanath was not named as the Chief Ministerial candidate.
Even after the 2007 episode of communal violence, he has continued making inflammatory statements, often making the situation embarrassing for the BJP leadership. For example, asking all those who are not comfortable with Surya Namaskar to go to Pakistan, or linking rising communal violence in western UP to the rising numbers of a particular community, a clear hint towards the Muslims, or a recent campaign speech in Ghaziabad where he reportedly said: “Western Uttar Pradesh is following in the footsteps of Kashmir. In 1990, Kashmiri Pandits were forced to migrate in large numbers.”
That his statements were emboldening the fringe was visible right after the election results, when in a village in Bareilly, mysterious posters sprang up overnight asking Muslims to leave. The posters bore Adityanath's name.
Adityanath was one of the star campaigners of the party in these Assembly elections in UP, as well as in Uttarakhand.
The affidavit he submitted to the Election Commission of India declared several criminal charges against him, including that of rioting, and promoting enmity between religious groups.
Adityanath, however, has not been very effective outside his stronghold of the temple town. “He is not a pan-UP phenomenon like the media portrays him to be,” said an academic, claiming that the overwhelming success of the BJP even in Poorvanchal was a net result of Modi’s popularity, not that of Adityanath.
At odds with PM's mantra?
So what prompted the leadership to chose Adityanath as Chief Minister? After all, he was never even appointed a Minister of State at the Central level since the BJP came to power in 2014, despite being a five-time MP.
Does the BJP now want to push its image as an overtly Hindutva party?
Political analyst Professor AK Verma expressed complete surprise at the BJP's choice.
“He is known for his hardline views, which do not go with the inclusive agenda of PM Modi,” he said.
“The BJP government will be under tremendous pressure to deliver in the next two years till the next Lok Sabha elections. And Yogi Adityanath does not seem to be a good choice to carry on with the development agenda which propelled the BJP to victory.
“The mandate transcends all communal or caste considerations. Our surveys show that even Muslims have voted for the BJP. In Poorvanchal, our data shows 18% of the Muslims voting for Modi,” he said, claiming that the aspirations of the people and the development agenda of the Union government pulled votes.
Adityanath doesn't fit into this calculation. He doesn't have any experience of running the administration either.
“He is a strongman, and has an incorruptible image. He could also take the bureaucracy and the police by their horns and make them work,” said the BJP leader, scrambling to explain the appointment.
For now, Adityanath has said only this much after being chosen as the leader of the legislative party: “I will follow the development agenda of PM Modi.”
It is going to be an interesting five years in UP seeing how Adityanath delivers on PM Modi's promise of “sabka saath, sabka vikas”.