Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah attend Adityanath’s swearing-in ceremony as the Uttar Pradesh chief minister in Lucknow on March 19, 2017. | Sanjay Kanojia/AFP


Beginning mid-July, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath has had a great amount of praise heaped on him by his seniors in the Bharatiya Janata Party.

First, it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who said the chief minister’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis was “unparalleled”. Days later, party president JP Nadda commended Adityanath for turning Uttar Pradesh into one of India’s “leading states”. Last week, it was the turn of Amit Shah: the Union home minister declared Uttar Pradesh under Adityanath was the “top” state in the country on the law and order front.

With just over half a year to go for Assembly elections in the state, the message is loud and clear – the saffron-clad monk will lead the BJP’s campaign as its chief ministerial candidate as the party seeks to get re-elected.

A thorny few months

Given Adityanath is the incumbent chief minister, one may argue that this was only inevitable and natural. However, it was far from a foregone conclusion as recently as the beginning of July.

For Adityanath, the months of April, May and June were beset by turbulence on several fronts. There was dissent within the ranks of the state BJP over his inept handling of the second wave of the pandemic; candidates backed by the party in the panchayat elections fared poorly.

All of this reportedly did not go well with the top leadership of the BJP who were purportedly concerned over these setbacks in a pre-election year.

To add to all of that, his relationship with Modi was believed to have come under strain over the inclusion of a former bureaucrat close to the prime minister in the state cabinet.

Many saw it as a power-tussle between a mentor and an ambitious protégé. Things came to such a head that the political grapevine in Lucknow was briefly replete with talks of Adityanath being sacked.

Back in the good books?

Against this backdrop, the unequivocal endorsement of Adityanath in the last couple of weeks by all those who matter in the BJP is somewhat intriguing. Even more so because the BJP in recent state elections has shied away from explicitly projecting a chief ministerial candidate.

Why is the BJP throwing its weight behind Adityanath whose image has taken a beating in recent times?

Central leaders, for their part, say the party feels no need to change the status quo. “The party is doing extremely well under the leadership of Yogi ji,” said Y Satya Kumar, the BJP’s co-in charge for Uttar Pradesh, referring to Adityanath as he is popularly known. “He has a proven track record.”

A shrill Hindutva-heavy campaign?

But few political observers are willing to buy the claim that it is Yogi’s governance record that has made the BJP lean on him again.The decision to hoist Adityanath, they say, is primarily the BJP falling back upon muscular brand of Hindutva politics to save the day as the country’s economy lay in a shambles.

“The economy is bad, there is no employment, farmers are upset, and Covid has destroyed the rural economy,” said Satendra Kumar, who teaches at Allahabad University’s GB Pant Social Science Institute, listing out the grievances frequently aired in rural Uttar Pradesh.

“So what do you do? You say you are building temples, protecting Hindus from Muslims,” he said, attempting to explain why the BJP was banking on Adityanath. “The more Hindutva you project, the better for you.”

In an early sign of this strategy, Kumar pointed out, the Uttar Pradesh government in July announced plans to put in place population control measures, drawing on an enduring – and mythical – Hindutva trope of a demographic threat posed by higher Muslim fertility rates.

“Things like that tantalise and stimulate Hindu voters because it is seen as an anti-Muslim move,” he said. “These elections are going to be a lot about that and so projecting a Hindu hardliner helps sends a clear message that helps bring together upper-caste Hindu votes – a formidable number in UP. ”

A man with his own constituencies

In any case, Kumar pointed out that Adityanath, despite his recent setbacks, remained the most powerful BJP leader in Uttar Pradesh. “He has a bigger base in eastern Uttar Pradesh and if the BJP were not to project him, there would be defiance which would cost them,” he said. “So organisationally it makes sense.”

Mirza Asmer Beg, a political scientist at the Aligarh Muslim University, India, concurred. “They realised it was not going to be easy to remove Yogi,” he said. “He has his own base in the Sangh Parivar. Besides, the elections are ultimately going to be about majoritarianism and he is the best man for them for that.”

A high-stake election

Others, however, believe that Adityanath’s supremacy in Uttar Pradesh may not be settled for good.

Political scientist Suhas Palshikar said while it was fairly evident that things between the BJP leadership in Delhi and Yogi were not entirely fine, Modi seems to have decided to placate the chief minister for the time being to avoid “further factionalism”. Things may change “if he doesn’t deliver fully”, said Palshikar.

“On one hand, you are buying peace with him because there is no alternative at the moment,” Palshikar said. “At the same time, you wait and see if his strength gets reduced in the upcoming elections.”

The BJP’s political opponents even contend that the party’s decision to stick with Adityanath was actually reflective of its allegedly weakened position.

“Yogi is definitely not a bigger Hindutva mascot than Modi himself,” said Satish Prakash, a Dalit rights activist and college professor associated with the Bahujan Samaj Party. But the BJP cannot afford to contest the Uttar Pradesh elections by projecting the prime minister as its leader, he claimed. “Because they know if they lose with him as the face, 2024 is over for them too. Once you lose UP, it means you are losing power.”

Modi is up for re-election in 2024.

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