By Swati Chaturvedi
Yogi Adityanath, the diminutive 49 year-old saffron-clad fire-breathing monk and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (India’s most populous and thus, electorally, its kingmaker state), head priest of the powerful Goraknath Mutt (a temple-monastery-shrine complex), part of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party but boasting a famously frosty history with its elite, whose rampant, purist Hindu nationalism many believe exceeds even Modi’s, is up for re-election.
Yogi Adityanath is sui generis in the Hindu nationalist ecosystem, known as the Sangh, as unlike the Modi and other current BJP government ministers, he has no current connection to or background in the secretive and militant Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mothership of the BJP and source of its Hindus First vision for India. The RSS has been banned multiple times, most notoriously for its involvement in Gandhi’s assassination. And yet Yogi is today a contender for the party’s top job.
The RSS and its creature, the BJP, are excited by the idea that Yogi gives voice to a brand of maximalist majoritarian politics without the filters to which Modi is subjected and thus does not dare to say, hemmed in as he is (so far) by India’s Constitution and the office of the prime minister.
Yogi Adityanath, originally called Ajay Mohan Bhist, was born into the family of a forest ranger. Having obtained a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, he apparently became disenchanted with routine life and first joined the same temple movement in Goraknath Mutt that eventually led Hindu nationalist mobs in 1992 to tear down the Babri Masjid, an act that triggered nationwide intercommunal violence and which Yogi has publicly praised. He took diksha, or ordination, as a monk disciple of his spiritual father Mahant Avaidyanth and was named his successor.
After his first win, he established a vigilante force called the Hindu Yuva Vahini, which was often accused of violence and extortion. His vigilantes would roar around in cars and motorbikes with only Yogi’s image emblazoned where the license plates were supposed to be. A popular slogan in his state amongst his supporters goes: UP mein rehna hoga Yogi Yogi kehna hoga, if you want to live in UP, chant Yogi’s name.
Till Modi and the RSS gave him his dream job ruling Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath was, together with his band of vigilantes, set on an adversarial course against them. The Sangh, though, sensed his potential as the ultimate instrument of Hindutva, finally gave him the prize in 2017.
For the RSS, the optics of a demagogic saffron-clad monk who refuses to dilute his Hindu supremacism or his exclusionary bigotry towards Muslims, ruling India’s most politically significant state is a power visual. All the more so if he wins the highest national office.
If this legislative agenda wasn’t bad enough, Yogi Adityanath routinely incites against Muslims and other non-Hindus. He declares his state government is focusing on building (Hindu) temples while non-Hindus are focused on filling burial grounds. In the run up to the UP elections he has oddly promised a “surgical strike” against the Taliban. He once launched series of attacks on Mother Teresa, accusing her of being part of a conspiracy to Christianize India.
It is only a “controlled woman” who will give birth to mahapurush (great men). Yogi Adityanath warns that women who acquire “masculine traits” turn into demons and need to controlled for the good of society.
He once sat silent on the stage during an election rally when a fellow speaker called for Muslim women’s bodies to be dragged out of their graves and raped. Yogi did not utter a word of condemnation.
Parts of India’s cheerleader media love to gush about Yogi Adityanath’s love for animals. The dairy he maintains, his loving dogs and pet monkeys, are all parts of a deliberate makeover to present India with an image of a kindler, gentler Yogi.
Soft-focus snaps of him sitting with his monkey on his lap are duly circulated in the mainstream media, but in that same media safe space, no one dares question his divisive and bigoted takes.
Despite lethal missteps in the handling of the vicious second wave of COVID which saw bodies floating on the sacred Ganges river, Yogi Adityanath has nonetheless managed to move political debate in UP back to the usual polarizing issues of Hindus versus Muslims, where he is most comfortable. A lacklustre opposition has not been able to pin down his terrible governance record.