BJP in­stalls con­tro­ver­sial Hindu priest as head of Ut­tar Pradesh

Yogi Adityanath known for rhetoric about mi­nori­ties Sur­prise choice af­ter fo­cus on econ­omy in cam­paign

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Michael Safi Delhi

A fire­brand Hindu priest who praised Don­ald Trump’s Mus­lim ban and once likened the Bol­ly­wood star Shah Rukh Khan to a ter­ror­ist has been cho­sen to run In­dia’s most pop­u­lous state.

The Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), which this month won a land­slide vic­tory in lo­cal elec­tions in Ut­tar Pradesh state, an­nounced af­ter a party meet­ing on Satur­day that Yogi Adityanath was its unan­i­mous choice for chief min­is­ter.

The party of the prime min­is­ter, Naren­dra Modi, runs on a reli­gious na­tion­al­ist plat­form, ar­gu­ing that In­dia’s iden­tity and cul­ture are in­her­ently Hindu in char­ac­ter. But the el­e­va­tion of Adityanath, 44, came as a sur­prise af­ter a cam­paign in which Modi and other BJP fig­ures em­pha­sised eco­nomic devel­op­ment over the party’s “Hin­dutva” agenda.

Tele­vi­sion footage late on Satur­day showed cheer­ing BJP work­ers in the state cap­i­tal, Luc­know, giv­ing gar­lands and sweets to the MP, who was sworn in yes­ter­day.

Adityanath, the chief priest at one of Ut­tar Pradesh’s largest tem­ples, who has sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­lar­ity among rightwing Hin­dus, has reg­u­larly stirred con­tro­versy with in­cen­di­ary rhetoric about In­dian mi­nori­ties, par­tic­u­larly Mus­lims, who make up one-fifth of Ut­tar Pradesh’s 220 mil­lion res­i­dents. He re­cently praised Trump’s ban on refugees and im­mi­grants from seven Mus­lim coun­tries, say­ing sim­i­lar ac­tion was needed to con­tain ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties in In­dia.

Adityanath is fac­ing crim­i­nal charges of at­tempted mur­der, de­fil­ing a place of wor­ship and in­cit­ing riots in Ut­tar Pradesh, a state where com­mu­nal ten­sions run high, and reli­gious vi­o­lence four years ago killed more than 60 peo­ple.

In 2015, af­ter Khan com­plained of grow­ing “ex­treme in­tol­er­ance” in In­dia, Adityanath said the Mus­lim ac­tor was “speak­ing the same lan­guage of [ter­ror­ist leader] Hafiz Saeed”. He has also called Mother Teresa “part of the con­spir­acy to Chris­tianise In­dia” and of­ten warns his fol­low­ers that Mus­lims are con­duct­ing “love jihad” – a dis­cred­ited but po­tent idea that Mus­lim men de­lib­er­ately woo Hindu women for con­ver­sion and mar­riage.

One of the men ap­pointed as his deputy, Ke­shav Prasad Mau­rya, told the In­dian Ex­press that the state’s Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion had no rea­son to worry. “We don’t see Mus­lims as sep­a­rate. For us, all the peo­ple of Ut­tar Pradesh are one,” he said. “We will work to­gether for the devel­op­ment of all with­out any bias against com­mu­nity and re­li­gion.”

Veer­appa Moily, a se­nior Congress party leader, said Adityanath’s se­lec­tion was an as­sault on sec­u­lar­ism. “In­dia is not Hin­duism. Hin­duism is not In­dia,” he told the Hin­dus­tan Times.

Priyanka Chaturvedi, a Congress spokes­woman, tweeted that Adityanath had gone from the fringe of In­dian pol­i­tics to the main­stream, say­ing of the Modi gov­ern­ment that the mask was “truly off ”.

Swa­pan Das­gupta, a right-lean­ing com­men­ta­tor, said Adityanath was as­so­ci­ated with “a cer­tain brand of mil­i­tant Hindu as­ser­tion”, but that he was also one of the most charis­matic and cap­ti­vat­ing politi­cians in Ut­tar Pradesh.

“He has made provoca­tive state­ments in the past and the ques­tion is whether he con­tin­ues that style of pol­i­tics as chief min­is­ter, be­cause the new job en­tails new re­spon­si­bil­i­ties,” he said. “You have to change when you’re in gov­ern­ment com­pared to when you’re in ag­i­ta­tional pol­i­tics.”

Hindu na­tion­al­ism, in con­trast to the os­ten­si­bly lib­eral prin­ci­ples of the Congress party, which has gov­erned In­dia for much of the 70 years since in­de­pen­dence, has grown in pop­u­lar­ity since the early 1990s, cul­mi­nat­ing in Modi’s elec­tion as prime min­is­ter nearly three years ago.

Adityanath’s ap­point­ment has been in­ter­preted as a sign that, with na­tional elec­tions in two years, the BJP in­tends to dou­ble down on its strat­egy of stitch­ing Hin­dus, tra­di­tion­ally riven by caste dis­tinc­tions, into a larger vot­ing bloc.

But Das­gupta said Modi’s re-elec­tion as prime min­is­ter in 2019 would re­quire more than iden­tity pol­i­tics. “In 2019, the is­sue will be the per­for­mance of Naren­dra Modi over the past five years, and what ex­pec­ta­tions peo­ple have of him,” he said.

Pho­to­graph: Pawan Ku­mar/ Reuters

From left, Naren­dra Modi, Ut­tar Pradesh gov­er­nor Ram Naik and Yogi Adityanath at the swear­ing-in cer­e­mony yes­ter­day

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