Yogi Adityanath, 51, is the two-term Chief Minister of India’s most politically important state — Uttar Pradesh.
The saffron-wearing monk is the hard man of Hindutva, complete with his own symbol of a bulldozer — used to level homes of some without much pretence of due process.
Yogi Adityanath revels in being called “bulldozer baba” — sui generis, nothing like him has been seen in Indian politics before. Although not a product of the saffron mother ship the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Adityanath is now totemic to Hindutva politics.
From being the monk of the Goraknath temple to the five-term Lok Sabha member of Parliament from Gorakhpur, with his own vigilante army, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, Yogi is now on a full-blown makeover as the “Vikas purush” (development man) of BJP politics.
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A similar makeover was undertaken in Gujarat by the two-term Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, with the much-hyped “Gujarat model.”
Yogi Adityanath’s model is more realistic — the bulldozer for those who don’t like Yogi’s politics.
When Yogi was the MP for Gorakhpur, his Sena used to drive around in cars and motorcycles with just YOGI emblazoned on the number plate — no number plate for them. The slogan they chanted was “Gorakhpur mei rehna hai toh Yogi Yogi kehna hai” (if you want to live in Gorakhpur, chant Yogi’s name”).
'Emperor of hearts'
Nothing much has changed as Yogi now occupies the coveted “pancham tala” (fifth floor) of the UP secretariat; the slogan is now changed pan-state.
Yogi is supposedly critical to Modi’s planned return for a third term. Modi 3.0 will only happen if the BJP can count on the majority of the 80 Lok Sabha seats that UP has, which account for its outsize influence on electoral politics. Yogi and UP as an impregnable saffron citadel are key in the big fight of 2024.
This new political equation is squarely advantageous for Yogi. And, the successor to Modi knows it fully well. A leader close to Yogi from the Vahini told me that the time had come for UP to set the agenda for national politics again as the Gujarati domination was destroying the “santulan” (balance) of Hindutva politics.
Yogi is ready to step into the premier league as the unchallenged “Hindu Hridaya Samrat” (emperor of Hindu hearts). Across UP, Yogi is universally addressed as “Maharaj” and is ready for Delhi, a euphemism Lucknow uses for the PMO.
Because he is not a product of the RSS, the Sangh nursery for future leaders, Yogi is not beholden to them like their full-time office bearers, leaders like Modi and Amit Shah, Union Home Minister.
Numerous attempts to downsize Yogi Adityanath have come to naught, even after his catastrophic handling of the second vicious delta wave of Covid when bodies floated on the Ganga.
If you ask people in Lucknow, as I did, they say that it was beyond anyone’s handling. Yogi Adityanath did not even attend his father’s funeral during Covid because of the quarantine regulations. This was made widely known and appreciated across UP.
The UP model
The machismo that Yogi projects with bulldozers and encounters (euphemism for police killing of gangsters) is widely appreciated across UP, where people like their leaders cast in a rough and ready strongman mold. Certainly, the law and order situation has improved across UP, not a small thing in a gargantuan-sized and primitively governed state.
UP is a complex state to govern, and it’s not a small thing that Yogi Adityanath has an iron grip on the administration. UP’s roads were awful earlier; Yogi Adityanath has focused on trying to improve them.
He is the most popular campaigner sought by BJP candidates, and he now mocks other leaders and cheekily talks about the “UP model” while electioneering in developed states like Karnataka.
While monks have no caste, Yogi Adityanath comes from the Thakur upper caste and has surrounded himself with officials who are from the same caste. The upper caste in UP, both Thakurs and the ten per cent Brahmins, are solidly behind Yogi.
Interestingly, with Mayawati, the Dalit leader practically withdrawing from politics, the Dalits except her Jatav caste now support the BJP because of the leadership void.
Yogi Adityanath is clear that if the BJP wins UP again, he would be the second most powerful leader in the BJP and ready to follow Modi into the PMO as his successor.
The audacity of his ambitions has upset most central BJP leaders, but you don’t hear much except as sotto voce muttering that winning the elections is more important than attacking Yogi.
Yogi Adityanath is aware that the one quiver he lacks in his bow is corporate support from the billionaires of India Inc. Brand UP is now open and ready for business.
Full-page advertisements in all national newspapers repeatedly proclaim “welcome to New India’s growth engine”; it then goes on to describe UP as “express Pradesh,” boasting of six expressways and a single window clearance.
In January, Yogi visited Mumbai and met billionaire industrialists like Mukesh Ambani, asking for investment and job creation in UP. He promised uninterrupted electricity (impossible so far in UP), tax concessions, and speedy clearances.
Currently, it’s a lot of big talk, but anything that alleviates UP’s endemic job crisis and poor health and education indices would help.
Over the years Yogi Adityanath has realised the importance of the soft power that is Bollywood. He now wants to turn Noida, where most news channels are located, into a second hub of Bollywood. The UP Chief Minister has had a series of meetings with boldface actors and has promised many concessions, including free land for studios.
Rajinikanth, the uber superstar, touching Yogi Adityanath’s feet recently, made the optics of Yogi Adityanath’s ascent public. Concern in South Block PMO office notwithstanding.