The appointment of a polarizing Hindu religious leader as the next chief minister of an Indian state with almost 40 million Muslims has raised concerns about the country’s direction under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
After BJP swept Uttar Pradesh elections in a landslide last week, taking 75% of available seats, Yogi Adityanath became head of the state’s government.
Adityanath is known for his provocative rhetoric against Muslims, including once vowing in a speech about inter-faith marriage that “If the Muslims take away a Hindu girl, we will take away 100 Muslim girls.”
Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state with 204 million people – nearly a fifth of which are Muslim.
Adityanath, 44, is head priest of a Hindu temple in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh’s northeast, and five-time member of parliament for the district.
While he is popular with many Hindus, his appointment caught many by surprise, said Shekhar Gupta, a veteran political journalist and former editor of the Indian Express newspaper who currently hosts “Walk the Talk”, a political interview talk show on NDTV24x7.
“There was a great degree of polarization in this election,” Gupta said. “The Hindu vote is divided on the basis of caste, and the challenge (for BJP) was to try and use faith to reunite what caste has divided.”
BJP has defended Adityanath’s appointment, with BJP minister and spokesman Venkaiah Naidu saying in a statement that the new chief minister “is a strong politician and committed to (helping) the downtrodden.”
Unity and development
Since coming to power in 2014, Modi and the BJP have focused on fiscal growth and development.
In the run-up to its record-breaking win in Uttar Pradesh this month, the BJP campaigned on a promise of “sabka saath, sabka vikas,” which loosely translates to “unity together, development together.”
But for some, Modi’s backing of Adityanath raises the specter of Hindutva, an ideology which considers India a Hindu nation. The Indian constitution established the country as a secular republic.
“The BJP campaigned on several issues and ‘development’ was only one of them,” said Firat Unlu, lead India analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).
“The choice of Adityanath makes sense as it will help solidify the BJP’s gains among the Hindu population and the Hindutva plank was arguably more important than the ‘development’ agenda in UP.”
Multiple BJP figures have said Muslim support for the party was key to their victory in the state. However, concerns have been raised over how willing Adityanath’s government will be to reach out to Muslim residents. In recent years, there have been numerous religious and communal clashes in the state. According to an investigation by the Hindustan Times, of the 11,000 incidents of communal violence in Uttar Pradesh since 2012, around 23% were sparked by “religious intolerance.”
Uttar Pradesh: 100 million Indians to cast vote in pivotal elections
Veerappa Moily, a senior figure in the opposition Congress party, called Adityanath’s appointment a “big assault” against secularism.
“India is not Hinduism. Hinduism is not India,” he told the Press Trust of India news agency.
In a statement, Congress said it accepted it was the right of the ruling part to appoint the chief minister but vowed to act “as (a) watchdog of people’s interests.”
Gupta, the political commentator, said “if I was a Muslim in UP today, I’d be feeling very unwanted.” He accused the BJP of discounting non-Hindu supporters and choosing a “divisive” candidate.
“We thought that (Modi), who had insisted that this was a vote for development and for equality, would have come up with a more modern leader than Yogi Adityanath,” Gupta said.
Representatives for the BJP and Adityanath did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Adityanath has staunch views on the slaughter of cows, an animal considered sacred by Hindus. He also has a history of controversial statements having reportedly told those who oppose yoga to leave the country or drown themselves, and, according to media reports, claiming at a religious rally in 2016 that Mother Teresa was part of a conspiracy to “Christianize India.”
He also once compared Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan to Hafiz Saeed, the alleged planner of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, according to the Press Trust of India.
In January, he praised US President Donald Trump’s travel ban barring citizens of several Muslim-majority countries and called for India to take similar measures, according to NDTV.
On Monday, Amnesty International India called on Adityanath to retract his previous statements.
“Adityanath has been one of Uttar Pradesh’s most polarizing politicians, given to hateful rhetoric that incites discrimination and hostility against minority groups, particularly Muslims,” said executive director Aakar Patel.
“He (Adityanath) and his party have an obligation to ensure that his positions do not become government policy. It is therefore imperative that he retracts any statements which may provide a license for others to abuse human rights.”
A calculated risk
Modi congratulated Adityanath on Twitter, writing that he had “immense confidence” the new team “will leave no stone unturned” in developing Uttar Pradesh (UP).
“Our sole mission and motive is development,” Modi said on Twitter. “When UP develops, India develops. We want to serve UP’s youth and create opportunities for them.”
Following his swearing-in on Sunday, Adityanath said his government will work for all sections of society without any discrimination.”
His appointment was a “calculated risk that will polarize voters but could pay off electorally,” said EIU’s Unlu.
“Having raised expectations for economic development so high the BJP needs to advance on its ‘development’ platform,” he said.
“A stronger coordination between the central and UP governments could drive economic growth while Adityanath ensures that the base remains happy.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated for clarity.