THE YOGI IN HIS LABYRINTH
YOGI ADITYANATH PRESIDES OVER A TROUBLED STATE, WHICH HAS BECOME MORE VOLATILE UNDER HIS WATCH. CAN HE TURN IT AROUND BEFORE 2019?
Problems are piling up for the chief minister of India’s most populous state. Is he up to the task?
IN VEDIC SANSKRIT, yoga means to unite and a yogi is a practitioner of such an endeavour. In spiritual terms, the effort is to merge with the divine and become the One. For Yogi Adityanath, though, after he assumed temporal power, the challenge has assumed astronomical proportions. Had Uttar Pradesh been a country, with its 204-million-strong population, it would have been the fifth most populous state in the world. Bringing unity to a state known for its extreme diversity and deep divides—whether of religion, caste, class or region—would be a challenge even for the gods.
In conversation, Yogi Adityanath gives the impression that the mantle of chief minister of India’s most populous state was bestowed on him by a divine hand. At his official residence in the heart of Lucknow, the CM’s chosen seat is clearly marked by a saffron cover draped on the sofa. Swathed in his trademark saffron sackcloth, he seems to enjoy wielding the power the post brings him and oozes confidence despite the serious setbacks he has faced in recent times. In the first flush of his reign, he even ordered some government buildings and buses to be repainted in saffron to herald the return of a BJP government in Uttar Pradesh after a gap of 15 years.
When india today asked him whether assuming
such a position of power was the right path for a yogi to follow, he responded with a lofty humblebrag: “When the kings go astray, there are instances of yogis and sanyasis taking up the responsibility. Only a yogi and sanyasi can deliver better results.” He went on to justify his new calling, by blaming “the inert political leaders of the state in the past decade” for the decay of Uttar Pradesh. “The state suffered because of the politics of vested interests and weak leadership,” he said. “They ruined institutions and pushed the state towards the brink. In the past one year, we have succeeded in changing the negative perceptions in the minds of the people that they had held for the past decade”.
When the mahant of the Gorakhnath mutt emerged as the surprise choice for UP chief minister in March 2017, Yogi Adityanath became a media magnet to rival even Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In saffron circles, there was talk of the divisive ‘firebrand’ as a possible Hindutva heir to Modi. But in the past few months, troubles have come by the truckload. And the yogi has brought much of it upon himself. The first year of his rule has truly been a trial by fire and Adityanath has come out of it badly singed. It has punctured his aura as the saffron strongman of the Hindi heartland and also raised serious doubts about his ability to govern what is politically India’s most important state.
Most acknowledge, though, that he is among the hardest working chief ministers that the state has seen in recent years. He puts in a punishing schedule that begins at four in the morning and ends past midnight. His personal integrity remains unquestioned and he has pushed hard for transparency and clean dealings in a state that has the reputation of being among the most corrupt.
Adityanath has tried his best to address the big issues that the state faces: farmers under stress, poorly implemented development works, correcting regional imbalances and wooing investors back to the state (see interview, ‘Encounters are not the policy of this government’). To his credit, he has introduced an E-tendering system for all government contracts to end the mafia raj in the state and personally supervised anti-cheating measures in board examinations. Adityanath is also acutely aware of the negative fallout of the Hindutva agenda he pushed hard for when he took over, including the economic toll because of the restrictions on cow slaughter. He has subsequently gone slow on the ban as well as the anti-Romeo squads and love jihad scare-mongering. However, he remains faithful to his temple agenda, organising a grand celebration last Diwali in Ayodhya.
While he may not have yet put his personal stamp on the government, Adityanath has been diligent in implementing central government-sponsored schemes in housing and sanitation and munificent in assuaging the demands of state farmers, including wiping out loans totalling Rs 36,000 crore.
His inexperience in governance, though, is showing and has been exacerbated by the fact that most of his cabinet colleagues are also newbies. The state’s coffers are in a perilous position. His government is yet to outline a solid roadmap to bring down the state’s high fiscal deficit and debt liability which now stands at a staggering 30 per cent of the GSDP, double that of the fiscally prudent southern states.
Moreover, running such a large state needs a strong, experienced and decisive leader who knows how to balance politics and administration in an effective mix. But Adityanath appears hemmed in by multiple power circles (see graphic) which crimp his ability to take independent decisions. These include the Prime Minister’s Office, which closely monitors his progress given that the government’s performance is vital for Modi’s re-election in 2019; party president Amit Shah who has to balance the pulls and pressures of the party’s state MPs and MLAs apart from allies; his two deputy chief ministers who owe no personal allegiance to him, nor do his numerous cabinet ministers; and bureaucrats who are adept at manipulating the diffused power structure in the state, leading to paralysis in governance. Ram Govind Chaudhary, leader of the opposition in the Vidhan Sabha, jokes that “during the SP regime, the BJP always said that there were five-and-a-half chief ministers. But under the BJP, there are eight CMs in the state—along with CM Yogi Adityanath, the two deputy CMs, the BJP state president, the BJP state general secretary, the RSS, the PMO and the BJP national president are acting as super CMs in the state.”
Yogi Adityanath’s reputation took a severe knocking when the BJP lost the recent byelection for two crucial Lok Sabha seats in the state—Gorakhpur (Adityanath had been elected five times before he vacated it last year) and Phulpur (Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya had given it up when he was inducted into the cabinet). The defeat was not just a personal humiliation for the yogi but also exposed his disconnect with ground realities. It shook the ruling party, especially because the two arch-rivals, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahu-
The Gorakhpur bypoll loss was a personal humiliation and also exposed Adityanath’s disconnect with ground realities
jan Samaj Party (BSP), had combined forces to snatch a significant victory. Coming after the BJP and its allies had won a brute majority in the assembly elections (325 of the 403 seats) in March 2017 and a near-clean sweep of the Lok Sabha seats (73 out of 80) in 2014, the defeat saw the party lose its sheen of invincibility and raised doubts about its ability to win a similar number of seats in the 2019 general elections.
The party’s concerns deepened when the state administration failed to gauge the extent of the disquiet among the Dalits, who constitute 20.5 per cent of the population, over the recent Supreme Court judgment that relaxed stiff provisions in some sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Of late, the BJP had prided itself on shedding its image as a party of forward castes by successfully winning over substantial sections of the Dalit vote, in both the Lok Sabha and assembly polls. But its credibility among the Dalit population has clearly plummeted. Chhote Lal Kharwar, one of its Dalit MPs from the state, has written to Modi and BJP president Amit Shah alleging caste discrimination by the state government and local party unit. Three other prominent Dalit MPs also accused the state government of harassing the community and even claimed that the BJP was intent on ending reservations. To counter such charges, the state BJP unit reels off names of Dalit officers who occupy 25 top positions in the government and spokesperson Dr Chandra Mohan says, “The past governments had ignored Dalits while under the Yogi government, they have been duly recognised.”
Meanwhile, Adityanath’s self-image as a tough chief minister willing to wipe out UP’s notorious criminal class has begun to backfire. The BJP had made the decline of law and order under the SP regime a major poll plank during the assembly election, promising to rid the state of criminals. Finding that there was an upsurge in crime soon after he took charge, Adityanath empowered the state police to go after criminals and take them down by any means necessary. The crackdown saw the police engage in 1,322 encounters with alleged criminals in one year—almost four a day—gunning down 44 of them. Yet, accusations are now being levelled that many of these encounters are fake. And rather than apprehending the big fish, the police prefer to go after petty criminals to meet the targets set for them.
A recent example of such an encounter is that of 25-year-old gym owner and instructor Jitendra Yadav in Parthala village of Noida. On February 3, he was returning home from a wedding reception at around 10 pm. Yadav had stopped at a pizza outlet when a police posse headed by sub-inspector Vijay Darshan, acting on a complaint, told him to turn down the music system playing in his car. When he refused to do so, they started thrashing him and in the altercation that ensued, Darshan took out his revolver and shot Yadav dead. He then told his seniors that he had killed a criminal in an encounter killing. When Yadav’s family lodged a complaint, the initial inquiry showed otherwise. Darshan was arrested and sent to jail while the other three policemen were suspended. O.P. Singh, Director General of Police, says, “We are monitoring the activities of police personnel. Any personnel engaged in crime will be punished.” But the impression persists that the police have become trigger-happy.
Worse, for the chief minister, he was seen as not acting swiftly and impartially against his own party members indulging in criminal activities. On April 8, a 17-year-old girl accused state BJP MLA Kuldeep Sengar of raping her and tried to immolate herself in front of the chief minister’s residence over police inaction. The next day, the girl’s father died in custody in Unnao jail allegedly because of injuries sustained when he was assaulted by the MLA’s supporters a week ago. Though
The Dalit unrest in UP has undone the BJP’s recent effort to shed its image of being a party of forward castes
SP chief Akhilesh Yadav; BSP supremo Mayawati; the April-May 2017 DalitThakur clashes in Saharanpur
four persons were arrested in the case, the MLA in question is yet to be booked.
Nor has the administration been seen as impartial in Kasganj when clashes broke out on Republic Day in a Muslim-dominated locality after Hindu supporters carried out a tiranga yatra and shouted anti-Pakistan slogans. When Bareilly district magistrate R.V. Singh, in a Facebook post, commented on the trend of taking out “processions by force in Muslim areas to trigger violence”, he was promptly transferred. And his government’s decision to withdraw some of the criminal cases concerning the 2013 Muzaffarnagar and Shamli riots further alienated the Muslim population.
Not surprisingly, opposition parties are dismissive of Adityanath’s performance so far. Former chief minister and BSP national president Mayawati called it “Ek Saal, Buri Misaal”. Her successor and SP chief Akhilesh Yadav added, “In one year of its rule, the BJP government does not have a single work of its own to showcase and on top of it, the chief minister is inaugurating projects that I had completed.”
But things aren’t as dismal as his critics sometimes suggest. All is not lost for the monk-turned-chief minister and he can regain the initiative if he strives to do so. With the SP and BSP getting together, the BJP leadership still regards Adityanath as the best bet to champion a unified Hindu front if push comes to shove in the state. He will also be perfectly placed to push the temple agenda depending on the verdict in the Ayodhya case.
Meanwhile, Adityanath has also toured the state extensively and developed his own grassroots network of contacts to give him feedback. Over the year, he has also begun to understand what needs to be done. (Akhilesh too was a slow starter and fumbled through his first year in office.) What the chief minister needs to do is to stop believing in official claims of “progress” in various schemes and monitor them himself, ensuring that these are implemented effectively. In Lucknow, for instance, people scoff at his rhetoric of ensuring 24x7 power in urban areas, when the city still experiences frequent power cuts. Similarly, his other claim of fixing all potholes on the state’s highways within 90 days of taking over is easily punctured; only 50 per cent of the potholes have been repaired. He is also yet to live down the death of 30 children in Gorakhpur’s BRD Medical College last September, the incident a grim reminder that all is not well with the state’s public healthcare system.
Equally important for Adityanath is to develop a core team of ministers and officials he can trust and who are willing to execute big-ticket development plans with speed and quality. Asked whether he enjoys being chief minister, Adityanath says, “It is quite clear in my mind that this chair is not for enjoyment. I regard it as a service for the state and the nation. I don’t have any personal life.” In the coming months, he needs to rise above religious and partisan considerations and prove his claim that a sanyasi can run a state better than anyone else.