There have always been two sides to Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister. As chief minister of the state of Gujarat he won a reputation as a slick administrator who drew in investment and got things done. He was also a dedicated member of the ultra Hindu nationalist RSS, affiliated to the Bharatiya Janata party, and was censured for his failure to prevent the mob killings of 800 Muslims in 2002. To reach the apex of Indian politics Mr Modi toned down that darker side, leaving his lieutenants to stir the passions of the BJP’s core Hindu nationalist base, and played up talk of jobs and development. Undoubtedly India was in need of both. The BJP’s campaign ahead of last week’s state elections in Uttar Pradesh, which with a population of more than 200m is by far India’s most populous state, replayed that familiar script. More than almost anywhere in the country, the state needs the jobs and development that Mr Modi has promised on a national scale. Corruption is rife, the state’s electricity supply is abysmal. Health, sanitation and education indicators are too.
Uttar Pradesh is also a flashpoint for tension between majority Hindus and the Muslim minority, who make up 20 per cent of the population, more than the national average. What the state needs is a slick administrator who gets things done, not a rabble rouser who stokes the fires of Hindu chauvinism. The BJP won an overwhelming victory, and has consolidated its hold on power at regional and national levels. By appointing Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindu cleric, as the state’s chief minister, Mr Modi has served a worrying reminder of his dark past and raised legitimate concerns among secularists and Muslims that the BJP will now use its increasing dominance to drive a more muscular Hindu nationalist agenda ahead of general elections in 2019. Mr Adityanath is the head priest of a temple in UP’s impoverished eastern city of Gorakhpur. He has sat in India’s parliament since 1998, and is the founder of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a youth group whose members have been involved in numerous incidents of violent unrest.
He has no record for economic management. Rather he is notorious for fanning hostility towards Muslims and pursuing a supremacist religious agenda. His like has never been in charge of the state, which because of its size has resonance on a national scale. There are two ways of looking at this appointment. Mr Adityanath is no doubt popular. His ideas, even the most poisonous ones, no doubt resonate too. By raising the profile of a potentially loose cannon, and giving him the chance to manage such an important state, the prime minister may hope to keep him under closer control. A less charitable interpretation is that Mr Modi is succumbing to his own worst inclinations, which as prime minister he has kept largely under wraps.
Since assuming office, he has had some success on the economic front. He has survived the turmoil surrounding recent demonetisation with his popularity apparently unscathed. But Mr Modi is still far from delivering the 1m jobs that India requires to absorb newcomers to the labour market each month. His record on infrastructure development has fallen short of expectations too. To maintain his absolute majority, and secure another landslide, he may be calculating that he will have to stir up another narrative.
The appointment of a rabble-rousing Hindu cleric to such a sensitive job certainly suggests as much. This sends an alarming message both to Indians and to the world. This article has been amended since initially published to remove incorrect figures for the BJP election result.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.