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Yogi Adityanath: Scarface in ‘cow belt’

Political accountability has been yoked on a ‘Yogi’ or hermit in India’s largest state, with the BJP coming up with a redux of L.K. Advani with ‘Louhapurush’ (Ironman) 2.0!

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Ajay Singh Bisht had a penchant for Mathematics — and a strident trident!

He left home when he was only 18, in search of a hermit’s life and in pursuit of a robust Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) agenda. He crossed the threshold of the Lok Sabha when he was only 26 — one of the youngest to make it to the Lower House of Indian parliament. And by the time the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) top brass picked this radical saffronite as the next Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Ajay’s metamorphosis into a ballistic Yogi Adityanath was indeed past its crucial launch phase, positioning himself in the orbit of 24X7 public life.

After a landslide victory in the recent UP assembly elections, the BJP mandarins had two choices for the post of the chief minister. They could have either gone for a ‘stock’ option like Union Home Minister and former UP CM Rajnath Singh, or preferred a ‘shock’ option: An out-of-the-box choice that would leave political punditry of even the most astute variety flummoxed. Yogi Adityanath, the Mahant (head priest) of Gorakhnath Math (temple), was the name that was filtered out after hectic parleys between Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and several other party bigwigs. And let’s make it very clear — the choice was primarily that of the formidable Modi-Shah duo, with the rest of the party heavyweights eventually falling in line.

Neutralisation of caste-based politics

Catapulting a firebrand Hindu rightist to the post of chief minister in India’s largest and most populous state, after having won the polls on a development plank, was risk-taking of the highest order. But both Modi and Shah decided to walk on the edge.

This UP election has shown the neutralisation of caste-based politics in the heart of India’s “cow belt” in the most definitive terms in recent times, thereby reducing Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party as political also-rans in their own backyard. With Yogi Adityanath firmly in the saddle, the BJP can look forward to further gains from a highly polarised electorate in the 2019 general elections — with deliverance coming from a saffronite, who isn’t a stooge of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the radical Hindu nationalist outfit that has its unmistakable imprint on the BJP’s DNA.

But for Yogi Adityanath, this new role has plunged him into a vortex that he has to come to terms with at the earliest. For someone who has until recently been spewing venom at just about anything and everything that didn’t quite synch with his notion of militant Hinduism and an ultra-right agenda, speaking the language of an administrator, upholding communal harmony and respecting heterogeneity can pose formidable challenges.

Born in a Garhwali Rajput family in June 1972, Adityanath, then known as Ajay Singh Bisht, left his home and family to be part of the Ayodhya Ram Temple movement in the 1990s. Soon, he came under the tutelage of Mahant Avaidyanath, the chief priest of Gorakhnath Math. Years later, he was accorded the title of ‘Yogi Adityanath’ and was made the head priest of Gorakhnath Math upon Avaidyanath’s death.

Interestingly, even after having embraced the life of a hermit, this Mathematics graduate’s penchant for a career in politics kept him active in public life. And soon after being elected to parliament for the first time on a BJP ticket in 1998 from Gorakhpur — a seat that he has won five times in succession — Yogi Adityanath formed a militant youth wing called Hindu Yuva Vahini (Hindu Youth Brigade) that has been time and again accused of fomenting, aiding and abetting communal disharmony in eastern UP. The area had witnessed at least six incidents of communal violence in the very first year since the group’s emergence.

Even with his party BJP, Yogi Adityanath has often been at loggerheads. Time and again, he has defied party whips and diktats and acted independently, both inside as well as outside the parliament. Referring to the practice of religious conversions through inter-religious marriages, he had once reportedly said: “If they take one Hindu girl, we will take 100 Muslim girls.” Even actor Shah Rukh Khan was not spared the Yogi’s rage for his candid view on growing “intolerance” in India, as the Yogi thundered: “Shah Rukh Khan should remember that the majority population of the country [India] has made him a star. And if they boycott his films, he will be left wandering on the streets.”

A different ball game

From rioting to encroaching upon cemeteries to murder, Yogi Adityanath has had at least half a dozen cases filed against him, which are currently under the jurisdiction of various courts in UP.

Wearing his religious and ideological leanings on his sleeve may have come easy for this staunch practitioner of radical Hinduism, but playing the role of an unbiased arbiter and administrator in a communally-charged state like UP may be a completely different ball game.

The Modi-Shah duo has opted for this radical element with a clear game plan in mind: BJP needed someone to do all the hard-talk and walk the rightist-nationalist street, keeping the polarisation matrix intact, even as Modi would continue playing the role of a statesman, keeping the ‘development’ storyboard alive and kicking — a throwback to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-Advani combination, with Vajpayee playing the sagacious prime minister and Advani catering to rabble-rousing through his Rath Yatras (chariot rides).

Thus, political accountability has been yoked on a ‘yogi’ with the BJP coming up with a redux of Advani with ‘Louhapurush’ (Ironman) 2.0!

Only time will tell whether Yogi Adityanath will merely serve the purpose for which his party bigwigs have picked him or whether he will deviate from the script and chalk out an independent course. But for now, one thing is certain — this ‘hermit’ has definitely outgrown his hermitage.

You can follow Sanjib Kumar Das on Twitter at

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