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