Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath Image Credit: PTI

Yogi Adityanath, 49, Chief Minister of India’s most populous state — Uttar Pradesh — has made a swift transition from being a Saffron idol to the man standing between Narendra Modi and a historic third term for the Prime Minister.

Yogi Adityanath’s handling of the second wave of COVID-19, which saw deadbodies floating on the sacred Ganga river, his use of the sedition provision in India’s law to silence critical voices, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP’s) losses in recent panchayat polls (losing Modi’s Varanasi constituency) and his self-promotion as the natural heir to Modi, seems to have upset many in the BJP.

To understand the UP Chief Minister and the BJP’s current predicament, you need to know the back story on Yogi Adityanath. He insists on being addressed as “Maharaj” (emperor) and is not a product of the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS) — the mother ship of the Sangh.

Not an RSS man

Unlike Modi, he has never been a pracharak (Sangh full timer) and has had many confrontations with the RSS in his fiefdom — Gorakhpur — where he is the “Mahant” (priest/monk) of the Goraknath mutt. Yogi Adityanath started his own vigilante group, Hindu Yuva Vahini, which even took on the RSS cadre in his turf in Eastern UP.

Unhappy at not being given complete say in ticket distribution in Eastern UP, Yogi Adityanath has even set up his own candidates against the BJP candidates in the past.

Even today, when Yogi Adityanath heads a BJP government in UP, his Twitter bio has no mention of the party.

Yogi Twitter
Screen grab of Yogi Adityanath's Twitter bio Image Credit: Yogi Adityanath/Twitter

The friction between the Sangh and Yogi Adityanath is real and protracted. He has never been part of the Sangh ecosystem.

Historically the RSS has the final word on its obedient members like L K Advani, who quit as BJP president after a Sangh directive and quietly made way for Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate.

With months to go for the UP elections, the central BJP is finding Yogi Adityanath a hard nut to crack. Despite being under watch by the BJP high command — with several BJP MLAs complaining about his COVID-19 handling — he remains unperturbed.

Politically key state

A senior BJP leader who is a central minister from UP told Gulf News, “Maharaj hamarey galey ki haddi ban gaye hain” (Yogi is like a bone stuck in our throats).

Politically, the office of the UP Chief Minister is considered next only to the Prime Minister's office. India's biggest state sends 80 lawmakers to the country's parliament. Two landslide election wins in UP were instrumental in making Modi the Prime Minister of India.

If the BJP can’t deliver UP in the upcoming state elections (scheduled for February next year) — widely seen as a semi final for Modi 3.0 — then BJP will be in political trouble.

The BJP under Shah and Modi broke the caste vote banks of regional heavyweights — Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) — to storm in to power.

The BJP managed to get the Other Backward Class (OBC) vote except for Yadavs, which had traditionally voted for the SP and the non-Jatav schedule caste vote of Mayawati’s BSP. The upper caste Thakur and Brahmins also voted for the BJP.

This unlikely voter alliance gave the BJP a huge flex and propelled it to power in Delhi. Now with Yogi running, what is widely called a “Thakur Raj” (his own caste), many UP voters are angry. Says a Dalit UP leader “chehra dikhaya Modi aur Dalit ka, raj diya Yogi ka.” (They showed us Modi and a Dalit face, and gave power to Yogi).

Shah had cautioned Yogi Adityanath when he was being made the Chief Minister that he needed to carry all castes in UP along. It appears that Yogi Adityanath has ignored all counsel and Shah’s warnings as well.

Yogi Adityanath has funded a huge campaign which portrays him as the natural successor to Modi who is considered the Hindu “Hriday Samrat” (emperor of Hindu hearts) with a development agenda. Yogi is trying to co-opt the emperor slot but sees no reason to pretend to be a development figure.

The critical thing that Yogi Adityanath lacks at this point is sustained corporate support from India Inc, which threw its weight around Modi’s during his ascent.

Modi had corporate endorsement while he was Gujarat Chief Minister and continued to enjoy it during his Prime Ministerial campaign. Ever since Yogi Adityanath became the Chief Minister, corporate investment has been dismal in UP. This is the key difference between Brand Modi and Brand Yogi.

Nevertheless with his huge public relations budget, Yogi has seen huge coverage domestically and internationally, winning many “best CM” media surveys. This has naturally upset the central BJP who believe that Adityanath has outsize ambitions.

Those close to Yogi claim that the office of UP Chief Minister is important. “Can the RSS or Modi ask a monk swaddled in saffron to resign?” asks an MLA from the Yogi camp. That is Modi’s dilemma in a nutshell.

Yogi may have grown too big for the Sangh to even act against him. Relations between Yogi and Modi are frosty, reflected in both Modi and Shah not wishing him (on social media) for his birthday recently. Spinners are already underplaying this but the rift is real.

Significantly Yogi Adityanath was not invited for the BJP and Sangh stocktaking (of the upcoming assembly elections), held recently where his poor handling of the pandemic came in to question. Though all is well signals were sent out by some high level BJP leaders, differences remain.

As the Sangh battens down the hatches for the UP elections, a real source of anxiety is the monk in Saffron.