Asia Unbound, March 20, 2017
BJP Puts Religion in the Front Seat in India’s Largest State
by Alyssa Ayres
Modi has expended enormous political capital in domestic and foreign policy highlighting the urgency of India’s development, and during his nearly three years in government has initiated countless initiatives geared toward providing better sanitation and infrastructure for the whole country, encouraging more foreign direct investment, enticing manufacturers to set up in India, calling for “women-led development,” plumping for greater innovation, and positioning India as a new “leading power” on the world stage. These emphases can be summed up in his party’s national campaign slogan, sab ka saath, sab ka vikaas—everyone together, development for all.
The BJP conducted their campaign in UP without naming a chief minister candidate for the state. Over the weekend, the chief minister was selected, and let’s just say his claim to fame to date has not been development. Instead, Yogi Adityanath, the new chief minister of UP, is a popular, five-time member of parliament who leads a Hindu religious order in Gorakhpur, in the eastern part of the state.
Adityanath has attained fame in India due to his oratory, nearly always described as “fiery,” with him frequently described as a “firebrand” leader of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism. I will refrain from enumerating some of the many speeches he has given over the years that illustrate his antipathy for Muslims. You can learn more about his public remarks here, and about the pending criminal charges against him here. The point is that he will now be responsible for overseeing the development of this critically important state, one with enormous problems and enormous needs, and one in which Hindu-Muslim tensions continue to be a concern.
Indian parties do not choose their politicians with a view to what the world might conclude, but there is no denying the signal this pick sends: with a huge mandate, the BJP has decided to lead with the face of religious nationalism—not the forward-looking, twenty-first century face of the New India—in their most important state. Some Indian commentators have used the phrase “the mask has come off” or “bait and switch” to describe this abrupt shift from a development-focused platform. I hope this does not signal that UP will become enmeshed in religious conflict, unable to advance its development agenda.
Adityanath supporters will say he deserves a chance to prove himself. He does, but his past inflammatory remarks—the reason for his national notoriety—are surely cause for concern.