LUCKNOW – Incumbent Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand monk and poster boy of Hindu nationalism, set to deliver the right-wing party a thumping election win in state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, partial vote counts showed Thursday.
Hardline Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath’s political stock is rising in India, where he is set to deliver a triumph for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party by a win in the most populous state despite the pandemic setbacks and fury in the state at farm reforms that were eventually repealed by the federal government.
His performance in Uttar Pradesh as a chief minister, has reinforced the perception among some leaders of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindu groups that support it that he could one day be prime minister.
Media projections indicated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a comfortable if reduced majority in the state of more than 200 million people — making it the first party to retain power there since 1985.
The BJP, helped by its deep pockets and influence on social media — including through misinformation, according to AFP and other fact-checking organisations — also appeared to have held the other three states where it was the incumbent.
The incumbent prime minister, Narendra Modi, is still hugely popular and looks set to win a third term in office when national elections come in 2024. But at 49, Hindu hardliner Adityanath is 22 years his junior, giving him time.
In the last of the five polls being held, Punjab, the opposition Congress — the only other pan-national party — was on course for a humiliating defeat to the left-leaning Aam Aadmi Party. “Just like there are Islamic countries and Buddhist countries, we should become a Hindu country,” BJP supporter Neera Sinha Varsha told AFP in Uttar Pradesh state capital Lucknow.
While BJP spokespeople declined to comment on Adityanath’s future, some political analysts believe he is too divisive a figure for the top job.
Adityanath once ran a private Hindu militia and his crackdown on crime, in which more than 150 alleged criminals and gangsters were killed in Uttar Pradesh during his first term, has drawn criticism on the one hand and appealed to many voters on the other.
India’s large Muslim minority also sees him as a poster boy for the BJP’s Hindu-first agenda that has inflamed tensions between the two communities. He denies being anti-Muslim.
“Modi is still the biggest brand on which people cast their vote,” said Rajani Ranjan Jha, a retired professor of social sciences at the Banaras Hindu University in Uttar Pradesh.
He added that Adityanath would be an option as a prime ministerial candidate only if the BJP and the religious organisations around it wanted to “go aggressive”.
Adityanath’s ability to deliver a big majority in Uttar Pradesh, where the large rural community was instrumental in resisting controversial farm laws through sometimes deadly street protests, has taken even some supporters by surprise.
The victory in a state seen as the bellwether of national politics came despite the state and federal government’s much-criticised handling of Covid-19.
The BJP’s coalition was leading in nearly 270 of the 403 seats, media reported, while the Election Commission said the party was ahead in enough seats to hold power.
BJP leaders said the likely win was the result of free staples being handed out to the poor during the pandemic, a crackdown on crime and the popularity of Modi and Adityanath, especially among the Hindu majority. Uttar Pradesh, home to more people than Brazil, is India’s biggest state political prize, sending the most MPs to the national parliament.
Adityanath’s sectarian rhetoric — coupled with a hardline approach on crime and claims of economic performance in one of India’s poorest states — has proved a vote winner, experts said.
“Yogi has positioned himself as a darker shade of saffron (the colour of Hinduism) than Modi in the last five years,” said journalist and Modi biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.
The victory is a “big endorsement of the kind of aggressive and hard-nosed politics that he has been pursuing”, he told AFP.
Adityanath, 49, rose from humble beginnings to become head priest of an important Hindu temple and founded a vigilante youth group.
Its volunteers regularly rough up Muslims and low-caste Dalits accused of slaughtering cows — sacred to Hindus — or of seeking to seduce women from India’s majority religion.
After coming to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, his administration brought in a law to ban “love jihad” — Muslims marrying Hindus to convert them — and has targeted journalists and others with what critics call spurious “sedition” charges.
Media reports say more than 100 alleged criminals — most of them Muslims or Dalits — have been victims of extra-judicial police killings, a charge Adityanath denies.
And his government is widely seen as having bungled its response to Covid-19, including by concealing the real death toll.
Congress’s projected humiliating defeat in Punjab further erodes the claim of the Gandhi dynasty’s once-mighty party to be the only national alternative to the BJP ahead of the next general election due in 2024.
With input from Al Jazeera and AFP