Is India's largest province a test case for India's leap to the right?

India's ruling party's determination to instil a more uniform nationalism is gaining ground. The ascension of an extremist like Yogi Adityanath to the chief ministership of Uttar Pradesh is a test of India's pluralistic traditions.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

The new Chief Minister of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath arrives at the Parliament in New Delhi, India.

Jyoti Malhotra Jyoti Malhotra has been a journalist for several years and likes to write on the intersection of politics and foreign affairs in the Indian subcontinent. @jomalhotra

Days after he was appointed as chief minister of India’s Uttar Pradesh (UP) province in mid-March, Yogi Adityanath drew similarities between yoga postures and the ritual of “namaaz” that Muslim men publicly practise.

But he was so badly jeered in the media, that the high priest from the Gorakhnath temple whose reputation for a muscular anti-Muslim politics is widely known, seems to have since adopted a low profile. Even the happy announcement of a $5 billion loan write-off to small farmers in the province was made by a cabinet colleague, not Yogi himself.

Certainly, the people of Uttar Pradesh as well as the rest of the country are still learning to digest the fact that an extreme, right-wing member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been elevated to the top job in India’s largest province. With 200 million people, UP would be the fifth largest country in the world by population.

The fact that it is now headed by a Hindu priest accused of instigating an anti-Muslim riot in 2007 and making several inflammatory statements against Muslims since, means that the centre of Indian politics has irrevocably lurched towards the right-wing lunatic fringe.

Adityanath’s ascension could not have been possible without the assent of prime minister Narendra Modi, who swept the national polls in 2014 on the promise of bringing “development” to the country. On the international stage, Modi’s drive and ambition has brought him and India recognition, a son-of-the-soil determined to give India the publicity it deserves as the world’s largest democracy.

But at home, the prime minister has happily acquiesced to an extreme right-wing form of Hindu nationalism called “Hindutva,” thereby bringing out the insecurities of large minorities like Muslims (who comprise 14 percent of India’s 1.2 billion population, the third largest in the world) and Christians (who consist of 2 percent of the population).

In the name of nationalism, Modi is pushing a benign authoritarianism in which he brooks no opposition. The problem is that there is no political opposition to speak of – the grand old Congress party, which only recently celebrated its 125th year, is flailing about without a plan or vision. The same goes for other regional parties – which means that Modi’s vast accumulation of power is taking place through legitimate means, at the ballot box.

This is exactly what happened in Uttar Pradesh. Modi’s BJP swept the polls, destroying the two major opposition parties by making an open and communal bid for the majoritarian Hindu vote. They also employed a strategy that stitched together the “backward” or “lower” castes, as they are referred to.

In retrospect, it is clear that Modi’s hunger to win and install the BJP, as well as establish his political legacy across India’s largest state, won him the day. Across the state, in the run up to the polls, there was no other man’s name that the people chanted with such devotion: Modi, Modi, Modi!

And yet, Modi didn’t pick any of the 325 BJP candidates who won the election. He deliberately chose Yogi Adityanath, or, the BJP party president Amit Shah, did. Since the election, the capital has been rife with rumours that it was Shah who picked Adityanath because his version of hardline Hinduism appeals to him.

Certainly, the Yogi’s website declares that “Hindutva is the conscience of the nation". The word, Hindutva, refers to a muscular Hindu nationalism, which is vastly different from the inclusive, easy-going philosophical and very pluralist Hinduism that has always been the bedrock of India’s civilizational heritage.

With the victory in UP and Adityanath’s ascension, though, change is already apparent. The BJP’s determination to instil a much more uniform nationalism is gaining ground. When Modi came to power nearly three years ago, several BJP-ruled states banned the eating of beef. With UP under its belt, abattoirs have been shut down, the cow has been raised to an object of worship and one chief minister (not Adityanath) has said that the death of a cow will be punishable by hanging.

“Anti-Romeo” squads have been- formed, ostensibly to help the police curb the harassment of women, except they are turning out to be vigilante squads bothering adult women and men in public spaces.

India is changing, to be sure. Certainly, change is the order of nature and every government hopes to put its stamp on things. With the opposition in disarray, the absence of any real checks and balances is certainly tempting the BJP to lean in favour of an unmitigated exercise of power.

If India believes it is a unique nation with a distinct civilization, then it must clear these everyday tests with an unwavering belief in its own strength. The truth is that there are so many Indias, all held together by the invisible thread of democracy. The BJP is now trying to change the warp and weft of this fabric of nationhood. That is the true meaning of its victory in Uttar Pradesh.

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