The Uttar Pradesh chief minister has suddenly become a matter of much speculation in the national media in India. There have been stories about supposed friction between him and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Whether or not the speculation is correct is not the point. That such speculation is out in the open is itself a rare event for the Bhartiya Janta party in the post-2014 Modi era.
Until a few days ago, we used to hear that Yogi Adityanath is being groomed to be Modi’s successor. Now, we suddenly hear the Prime Minister is unhappy with him for reasons of governance. What gives?
Since Yogi Adityanath is seen as the top icon of Hindu nationalism today, even more than Prime Minister Modi or Home Minister Amit Shah, he evokes extreme reactions. For supporters of Hindu nationalism, he is a dream come true. For the liberals who are opposed to Hindu nationalism, he’s a secularist’s nightmare.
These extreme opinions produce a lot of popular understanding of Yogi Adityanath that isn’t always true. Here are five ideas that, in the view of this columnist, are myths in need of dispelling.
1) That he is very popular in Uttar Pradesh
We are often told, in the media and in Delhi political circles, that Yogi Adityanath is very popular in Uttar Pradesh due to his ‘strongman’ image. India Today, a news magazine, does a bi-annual survey and gushingly declares him India’s best chief minister.
Yet if you read the fine print in the India Today survey, Yogi Adityanath’s popularity ratings are around a middling 50%. In their August 2020 survey, he had lower popularity ratings than Nitish Kumar of Bihar or Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal, chief ministers who at the time were facing very high anti-incumbency.
A detailed picture of the UP voter’s view of Yogi Adityanath emerges in a conducted in March 2021 by Cvoter, a polling agency. Against the claim that Yogi Adityanath had done a great job reining in lawlessness in the state, Cvoter found only 53% respondents saying they felt safe in UP. A significant 44% respondents felt he had failed to combat corruption. Nearly 46% said he had failed to fulfil pre-election promises.
These numbers don’t suggest massive anti-incumbency, but they also don’t suggest he’s ‘very popular’.
2) That he is unpopular outside Uttar Pradesh
Yogi Adityanath travels to states where elections are taking place, campaigning for the BJP. However, it is often noted that the BJP loses elections in the very place Yogi Adityanath campaigns in. This leads his critics to suggest he’s a non-starter outside UP.
The truth is, Yogi Adityanath is sent to places where the BJP is not doing well and has little hope of winning the seat. This happens on the request of the BJP party workers there, who demand Yogi Adityanath be sent to campaign. The idea is to charge up Hindutva-minded party workers. The electoral result is not a reflection on Yogi Adityanath’s popularity.
Fact is, Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-robed chief minister, is today the top icon for Hindu nationalists and that automatically makes a lot of people across India admire him. He has an ideological connect with voters outside his state, which most CMs don’t. This is why, in India Today’s bi-annual survey, respondents across India choose him as their favourite among the chief ministers.
This popularity is, however, limited to Hindu nationalists, the BJP’s core voter and the not the swing voter who is swayed by economic issues and governance more than ideology.
3) That the BJP sees him as Modi’s successor
We often hear the idea that Yogi Adityanath could be Narendra Modi’s successor as India’s Prime Minister. This is just a liberal death-wish. The logic is simple: Modi’s rise has shown Indian voters reward Hindu nationalism. Yogi Adityanath is top Hindu nationalist icon today. Two plus two is four.
Narendra Modi is 70 years old. Yogi Adityanath is 49. Amit Shah, the union home minister, is 56. After Modi, it is Shah who aspires to be PM. Yogi, who is younger than Shah, is part of a second-rung that is being created for Amit Shah’s potential elevation.
We are not predicting things will play out this way. The future is not linear. We are just saying the idea that Yogi is next in line ignores the centrality of Amit Shah.
4) That he forced Modi’s hand to become CM
Many wonder, to this day, why the BJP made Yogi Adityanath the chief minister at all. It seemed a rather odd choice for many reasons. The theory in Delhi is that Yogi Adityanath threatened a rebellion — his supporters did do protest demonstrations — and he thus forced Modi-Shah to make him chief minister.
This is a little hard to believe since he had very few MLAs with him, while the BJP had won a 3/4th majority by contesting in Modi’s name. Making Yogi Adityanath the chief minister served various purposes for Modi and Shah.
Apart from creating a new second rung of leadership, Yogi as Hindutva face also helped make Modi and Shah look relatively moderate. The idea was probably to shift the focus of Hindutva to a state leader — the role Modi played in the BJP pantheon when he was Gujarat chief minister.
5) Yogi’s Hindutva credentials unite different caste groups
Supporters of Hindu nationalism like to believe it overcomes caste, ‘unites’ various Hindu castes for a common cause. They would like to think Yogi Adityanath is a good example of that.
Caste is way too important in UP politics for such a neat transformation. Many see Yogi Adityanath as not just a Hindutva leader but also a leader of Thakurs, his caste. Critics allege favouritism for Thakurs in the bureaucracy. Whether the charge is true or not, politically the caste image is extant. Critics even say it has led to resentment among other castes.