IT IS THE STATE that played a key role in making Narendra Modi the prime minister of India in 2014 by handing him an unprecedented 71 of 80 parliamentary seats and 42 per cent vote share after he chose to contest from the holy city of Varanasi. And again in 2019, it laid the foundation on which Modi was able to amplify his vision of a new India. Uttar Pradesh (UP) has been pivotal to the Modi era for seven years now.
But UP, due again for elections this year, is not just a politically coveted state that accounts for 80 Lok Sabha seats. It is a key barometer of power at the Centre and of the popular acceptance of ideologies. The era of coalitions in New Delhi was signalled by the state in the 1990s. The 2022 Assembly election in the state has a special significance, with Modi helming the campaign not just for his party but also for the ideology it subscribes to. Modi’s adoption of the state as his “Karma Bhoomi” was a calculated strategy, meant by design not merely to boost the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) political heft but, more importantly, to reinforce the worldview he espouses. BJP’s spectacular electoral triumph in UP in 2017 after decades, with Modi—the grand victor of the 2014 General Election—and his ideological message as its prime mover, is of exceptional interest given that no party has repeated its success at the hustings in more than 20 years and Modi had handpicked Yogi Adityanath as chief minister. After the 2014, 2017 and 2019 elections, Modi and his BJP are looking for a fourth resounding and consecutive endorsement of not just their electoral triumph, one set to directly challenge the socio-political order of the past seven decades.
The 2022 UP elections will thus have a far-reaching impact—should Modi clinch them for Adityanath—on the 2024 Lok Sabha elections for the titan of Hindutva politics, not just personally and politically. Crucially and inevitably, the results of the polls—success or failure—will generate a lot of interest, pan-India, in fundamental ideological and socio-cultural terms. In comparison, the last Assembly election in UP was a ‘regular’ contest, a familiar, mandated and periodic, once-in-five-years exercise of people’s choice, albeit one that raked in a massive windfall for BJP. The 2022 electoral battle in UP, as the ideological crucible to reinforce Modi’s worldview across the country, is set to be of great import in both scope and scale—it sets the stage for a significant clash in 2024 between two rival ideas of India: on nationalism, patriotism and the Indian state itself.
For the most politically potent state in the Indian Union itself, the coming elections are set to institutionalise fundamental changes. As Modi’s main man in Lucknow, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has shown an ability to upscale his personality and popularity across the state with an iron-fisted administrative acumen despite being the first saffron-clad head of a Hindu mutt to lead a government. The only other precedent was that of Uma Bharti, who had led a government briefly in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. There is little parallel, though. Her term ended abruptly, mostly due to her mercurial nature.
Adityanath, however, has been an unabashed Hindutva warrior. He dared to tread paths that others before him from the saffron clan had not, garnered innumerable headlines over several months on account of his aggressive and, often, unconventional methods of governance and enforcing law and order.
Adityanath’s transformation of the politically crucial state has been impressive and it has proved, over the last five years, that Modi’s decision to pick him was essential to initiating the long-term ideological transformation of a state dominated for decades by caste, communal and criminal politics besides widespread corruption. His basic brief was clear: to mainstream, expand and highlight Hindutva as the core ideology in all of UP and to unite, having firmly established himself in Lucknow, under that umbrella the different regions of the state—western UP, Awadh, Poorvanchal and Bundelkhand.
Adityanath once told the UP Assembly in no uncertain terms: “I am a Hindu and I don’t celebrate Eid. At the same time, I ensure that there is no discrimination against anyone.” His elevation came at a time when not a single Member of Parliament (MP) from the minority community had been elected from the state. Adityanath used development as the vehicle to drive his Hindutva message forcefully in a state deprived for decades of basic necessities and modern infrastructure for ordinary people, including health and education, as well as to elevate UP from the BIMARU tag that had stuck to it since Independence despite the oft-repeated fact that the “road to Delhi passes through Lucknow”.
“I decided to join politics after I witnessed mafia atrocities in UP during the previous regimes,” Adityanath said in a recent interview, referring to incidents involving a state-supported mafia and criminal elements—many from the minority community as part of the Samajwadi Party’s (SP) vote-centric minority appeasement policies—that ruled the roost under the SP governments in both 1996 and 2004. Adityanath asserted: “We launched a crackdown so hard on the mafia, upon forming the government that generations of them would not forget how they were crushed.” Confronted with accusations of communally selective action, he said, “A mafia is just criminal elements (sic)…the action has nothing to do with region, religion or caste. If any trader, businessman, the poor or the innocent is harassed by the mafia, my government will deal with them with an iron hand.” If the previous BJP governments in UP after the Ayodhya movement of the early 1990s were formidable, the one under Adityanath’s baton is indomitable, heading a three-quarter majority of 325 of 402 seats, clinched solely on the strength of Modi’s popularity.
The Yogi Adityanath government has been able to convey a clear message of development through infrastructure-building, including expressways, highways and gram sadaks, besides efficient delivery of welfare measures during the pandemic. The Hindutva project went hand-in-hand with development and welfare for both Modi and his man in UP
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Adityanath’s missionary zeal in propagating a unified Hindu identity, cutting across castes, in a thus far caste-ridden UP, has involved a mix of tough realpolitik and straight-talking. He came down heavily on the mafia, most from the minority community and seen as beneficiaries of ‘minority appeasement’ by the SP government. His strident “thok denge” message took the shape of a fearsome campaign that sent many criminals packing and others, for fear of facing an ‘encounter’ death, opting for jail instead. Adityanath went all out to identify anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protestors and penalise them, including enacting legislation to publicly name and shame protestors and rioters as well as to confiscate the property of agitators to compensate for the destruction of public property. His government has been able to send out a clear message of development through infrastructure-building, including expressways, highways, inner roads and gram sadaks, besides efficient delivery of social welfare measures to the economically weak during the pandemic.
The Hindutva project went hand-in-hand with development and welfare measures for both Modi and his man in UP. For BJP and the prime minister, the restoration of the Kashi Vishwanath temple—which began with the grand inauguration of the corridor leading from the ghats to the temple of Baba Bholenath—in his constituency in the sacred city of Varanasi was a larger project: that of reasserting Indian nationhood. The ancient temple at Kashi, among the most revered shrines for Hindus, was destroyed by Aurangzeb to bolster his image among the Muslim clergy and to consolidate himself as commander of the faith. But most importantly, Aurangzeb was among the rare rulers of the subcontinent acutely aware of the significance of the shrine to Hindus. He knew how deep a cut its destruction would deliver to generations of the majority community. After Rani Ahilyabai Holkar, it was Narendra Modi who conceived of a grand project to restore the Kashi Vishwanath shrine to its original glory and sanctity for the believers.
SOME COMMENTATORS steeped in Western scholarly perspectives have argued that India is being re-sculpted by Modi into an ethnic majoritarian democracy. The use of these terms exposes the poverty of the intellectual establishment—that they cannot think of an expression befitting this country and its civilisation’s distinct socio-cultural and historical moorings. However, they may have got the spirit right. Taken along with the reconstruction of the temple city of Ayodhya—after a valiant fight in court and sacrifices made on the street for centuries—these acts indeed collectively symbolise an effort to redraw the cultural and political landscape of the country.
For his part, Adityanath has already not just printed Ayodhya and the upcoming bhavya mandir to Lord Ram there on the collective Hindu consciousness—with over nine lakh diyas lit on Diwali, the town has already entered the Guinness World Records—but also internationalised its spiritual significance among Hindus of the subcontinent and worldwide. Both Modi and Adityanath have gone about the recovery and restoration of these two holy places with an undaunted sense of duty, an assertiveness that is the hallmark of a civilisational obligation.
The contrast with the restoration of the temple at Somnath in Gujarat could not be starker. That shrine was also destroyed by Muslim invaders as part of a deliberate political statement—to flaunt it as a mark of fidelity to their faith and the subservience of the majority community. When independence presented the nation with an opportunity to reclaim the spot, which was part of its spiritual heritage, Jawaharlal Nehru frowned upon associating with the project. At the time of rebuilding the Somnath temple, one of the several contrived arguments Nehru put forward was that the move would lead to Hindu revivalism.
But in the efforts to restore the Kashi Vishwanath temple, however, it was the prime minister himself who was at the forefront. Just as in Ayodhya, where he had presided over the foundation laying ceremony for a temple to Lord Ram, Modi was in the lead as the country saw Kashi resurrected for the honour it deserved but was denied because of a dishonest insistence on “Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb”— a compromise that required Hindus to erase the memory of the destruction of the Vishwanath shrine and acquiesce in the sacred temple being reduced to a part of the larger Baba Viswanath-Gyanvapi complex.
The reconstruction of the temple city of Ayodhya and the restoration of the Kashi Vishwanath temple to its former glory symbolise an effort to redraw the cultural and political landscape of the country. Modi and Adityanath have gone about these projects with an undaunted sense of duty, as a civilisational obligation
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After being stunned and put on the backfoot for much of Adityanath’s time in office, the ancien regime is trying desperately to attempt a self-resurrection through issues like Jinnah, the attempts to divide the Jat community that had moved to the BJP camp for the last two Lok Sabha elections and the last Assembly polls, and to win over smaller castes like the Rajbhars. The hope is that an alliance between two communities—Yadavs and Muslims—and a deal on the division of the loaves and fish of office among the ambitious leaders of smaller castes will help challenge BJP credibly.
The anti-BJP forces have the advantage of the support of the intellectual class that would have otherwise baulked at these compromises and would be concerned about issues like law and order. However, they have now dropped even that pretence. Those from this class who have benefitted from the previous regime have thrown their weight fully behind the challenge to Adityanath.
When the results are out, though, they will decide not just the fate of Adityanath and his party. The results will also decide the future of the ethos Yogi Adityanath and Narendra Modi have tried to champion in UP—development, with a strong cultural connect. In that sense, what is at stake in this year’s UP elections is the most powerful challenge thrown by Modi to the ‘idea of India’ advocated by Nehru and propagated by the Left.