July 25, 2020
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A Yogi For New India

The secret of Yogi Adityanath’s success could well be his appeal across castes

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A Yogi For New India
Photograph by Getty Images
A Yogi For New India

Yogi Adityanath’s anointment as CM of Uttar Pradesh has stirred a hornet’s nest, compelling the political class, commentators and the media into a feeding frenzy of speculation: what does it presage about PM Narendra Modi’s future political agenda, the ‘New India’ he envisioned after the BJP’s spectacular electoral victory in the largest and most populous Indian state? Historically, sadhus and yogis, mullahs and fakirs have often dabbled with political power, covertly or overtly, playing both a constructive and a destructive role; their participation in the anti-colonial struggle has been well-documented and appreciated. No doubt, in post-colonial India, some sadhus and yogis from the Hindutva stock—Swami Karpatri ji Maharaj, Mahant Avaidyanath, Sadhvi Uma Bharati, to name a few—have remained controversial political players; at the same time, someone like Uma Bharati, once seen as a divisive rabble-rouser, has metamorphosed into a mature and responsible politician of sorts. Hence, before branding Yogi’s ascension as a death blow to democracy, a dispassionate and holistic discussion may help.

Legacy: The Making of a Hindu Nationalist Math

Adityanath, a Hindu ascetic, a Nath yogi or Kanphata (split-eared) Yogi, heads Gorakhpeeth, the monastery dedicated to the legendary Gorakhnath, the yogi who is said to have lived sometime between the 10th and 14th centuries. Nath literally means “lord, master; protector, shelter”. In Nath texts, Shiva is often called Adinath. Naths are also called Siddhas (perfect) and are the masters of hatha yoga. Besides having distinctive outward features and ornaments, they represent a complex and interesting mix of “competing ideals, practices and soteriologies (doctrines of salvation)”, throwing up some contradictions. While many are renouncers, others are householders; some live in monasteries, others are wanderers; some worship Shiva in anthropomorphic form, others see him as a formless spirit. The Naths had occupied important sites in both north India and Nepal such as Gorakhpur, Haridwar and Kathmandu. They enjoyed royal patronage and were able to influence ­political events from Punjab to Rajasthan. Man Singh, the raja of Marwar (Jodhpur), was so influenced by the ascetic Deonath, a follower of Gorakhnath, that he practically handed over the state and became a yogi. Many alliances existed between Nath ascetics and Rajput rulers.

Yogi champions a version of Hindutva ­centred around cow ­protection, conversion and love jehad.

Goraknath not only wrote treatises on yoga, his discourses and writings also contributed to the evolution of a strong vernacular Hindi literature. Gorakh’s medieval Hindi poetry helped construct a cultural and linguistic community, and disseminate the sense of a settled moral and social order (lok-dharma). Scholars put Gorakh somewhere between Kabir and Tulsidas in terms of poetic value. In one verse, Gorakh claims a religious identity that somehow combines Islam, Hinduism and yoga, although in other texts he seems to distance himself from both Islam and Hindu religion. Gorakh promoted social harmony bet­ween Hindus and Muslims, but his interests were too esoteric and lacked “natural feeling of bhakti and love”. The Naths inherit this complex religious, literary, yogic and political tradition that has been influential for centuries.

The history of the math in the past 100 years offers an interesting political account. Digvijaynath, before becoming the mahant of Gorakhnath in 1934, was active in Congress politics. He is said to have played a role in the historic Chauri Chaura event of 1922 before moving on to the Hindu Mahasabha. Critical of Gandhi and Partition, he was involved in the 1949 ‘Ram lalla’ episode at Ayodhya. Digvijaynath had close connections with the RSS as well; in 1952, M.S. Golwalkar set up the first Saraswati Shishu Mandir at Gorakhpur. Digvijaynath also starred in the goraksha (cow protection) movement in 1966 and was elected to the Lok Sabha the next year from Gorakhpur, backed by the Jana Sangh. Avaidyanath, who succeeded Digvijaynath as mahant in 1967, was a key figure in the Ayodhya movement and closely associated with the Sangh. He was elected five times to the UP assembly and four times to the Lok Sabha from Gorakhpur. Adityanath followed him both as mahant in 1994 (at the young age of 22) and as political heir. A five-time MP by now, Adityanath made his mark as a strident Hindutva protagonist and mandir votary.

Yogi Parva: Hindutva Umbrella for Grassroots Muscle

Adityanath’s brand of politics was success in Gorakhpur for various reasons. A non-local and a relatively late entrant to the math, he was a smart learner and won the trust of his guru, taking over the mantle just five years after his initiation. His disciplinary routine, plain and tough talk, commitment, hard work and strategic moves marked him out as a no-nonsense leader. Moreover, he had inherited a favourable legacy. Gorakhpeeth always attracted reverence from the people of this poor, backward region. The charismatic Gorakhnath was a non-Brahminical, anti-varna figure who stressed equality and dignity for the subaltern.

Working on this legacy, he endeared marginalised groups such as rickshaw-pullers, small shopkeepers and footpath vendors by voicing some of their economic demands and turned it into political capital when he launched the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a militant outfit for which he recruited many young men from the backward and Dalit castes. The math’s rich resources must have come handy. He championed a muscular version of Hindutva—centred around conversion, cow protection, love jehad et al—that found support because many Hindus saw it as a deterrent against the likes of Mukhtar Ansari, the mafia don of Mau. Slogans like ‘Gorakhpur Mein Rehna Hoga, Toh Yogi Yogi Kehna Hoga’, thus, had the appeal of a protective badge.

At one end, Yogi burnished his image as a regional messiah by expanding the math’s educational network, opening schools, colleges, polytechnics and hospitals, and raising local issues as MP. At the other, he kept up a close liaison with the RSS and periodically hosted its top luminaries at parivar events on math premises. This twin leveraging of grassroots muscle and ­umbrella Hindutva politics is what helped Yogi extend his footprint beyond the region. Of course, all this hinged on his patented method of delivery: swimming into public view by vocalising issues at an ultra-high pitch. The flip side: His statements both inside and outside Parliament—often outrageous, even reactionary—have sometimes embarrassed the BJP.

He takes his job seriously, though—his attendance record in Parliament has been impressive. His Lok Sabha speeches were mostly regulation Hindutva: ‘declining’ Hindu population, the UP government spending public money on constructing walls for Muslim graveyards, the divisive potential of the Rajinder Sachar panel report on the condition of Muslims. His private member’s bills were similarly oriented—calling for India to be ­renamed Hindustan, the Uniform Civil Code, a pan-India ban on cow slaughter, forced religious conversions and so on.

Other speeches raised specific and developmental issues such as inclusion of Bhojpuri in the Eighth Schedule, opening of an AIIMS and Fertilisers Corporation at Gorakhpur, granting Gorakhpur University central status. One bill asked for a permanent bench of Allahabad High Court at Gorakhpur. Yogi had also been demanding (before becoming CM) separate statehood for Purvanchal. But outside Parliament, bristling enunciations on love jehad, the Hindu ‘exodus’ from UP, Shahrukh Khan and Mother Teresa is what he courted headlines with.

The Blueprint: Rise and Rise of the Shah-Sangh-Modi Triad

The BJP’s landslide victory and decimation of the opposition parties in UP could be a game-changer in Indian politics. It has struck upon a perfect synergistic model—Modi’s charisma floating on top, party chief Amit Shah’s strategy tying it up with micro-level politics, and the Sangh machinery activating it. This will remain the future pattern for all electoral mobilisations of the BJP. Modi’s pre-eminence in the triadic arrangement is unquestionable, but it is a shared victory. No chief minister candidate is usually projected; votes are primarily sought on Modi’s leadership and governance model. With salt to taste—a victory in UP was critical, so an appropriate dose of Hindutva was deemed necessary, to be sure. Still, despite the occasional outburst, it was covertly crafted and dovetailed with caste arithmetic.

Modi’s pattern of selection of chief ministers is unconventional. A non-Jat in Haryana, a non-Maratha in Maharashtra, a non-tribal in Jharkhand, the redeployment of Manohar Parrikar in Goa...all defy predictable patterns. As captain, he obviously values the old virtues—consistency, loyalty and ability to implement his agenda staying above factional politics. He would be factoring in inputs from Shah and the Sangh—one bringing in realpolitik, the other its own organisational logic and demands—while not necessarily being constrained by them. In most cases there is a consensus; as with Manohar Khattar and Devendra Fadnavis. A desire to break stereotypes is tangible; for him, a state leader should ideally transcend caste loyalties to deliver good governance.

Photograph by Getty Images

UP’s overwhelming mandate offered a carte blanche that itself posed problems. The triad needed to zero in on a figure who could both turn around governance and be an electoral lynchpin in 2019. Not an easy call! Modi knew that picking a controversial Hindutva hardliner would draw flak from most quarters, questioning his pledge to development. But the evolving strategic first draft for 2019—and covering all bases for it in advance—became the crucial determinant. Second, going for Yogi helped Modi signal a break from the overtly caste-ordained (Yadav or Jatav) governance model of the past. Though a Rajput, the Pauri Garhwal-born Yogi’s non-local origins and caste-dissolving asc­etic past partly extricate him from that matrix. Picking Keshav Prasad Maurya or Dinesh Sharma, with their caste-­specific appeals, would have been counter-productive. Third, as a possible SP-BSP mahagathbandhan could not be ruled out in 2019, it would help if someone like Yogi is at the helm—as a Hindutva rallying point who could have an appeal across castes and deter the populace from drifting towards bloc alignments against the BJP on that ground. Fourth, in case the mandir issue is raked up or needs to be invoked, it would have the right batsman in play. Hence, Yogi over the ‘pure governance’ type Manoj Sinha and sectional leaders like Sharma or Maurya.

Yet, once having been made, the choice presents its own challenges. Scotching any criticism that he prefers Hindutva over development may be the first imperative for Modi. The galvanising potential of slogans aside, people by and large vote on everyday livelihood issues; in UP, it’s the sheen of Modi’s model—and the promise of central attention—that would have made them jettison even Akhilesh Yadav’s belated development spree. Ensuring that Yogi largely stays on that reassuring groove, and avoids issues with a destabilising pot­ential, would be seen as desirable for Modi. Else, the BJP’s credibility may be in jeopardy well before 2019. After being sworn in, Yogi has shown great restraint, however. The portfolio distribution also gives the impression that Delhi is keeping a keen, observant eye on proceedings in Lucknow and steering events so that they stay in sync with its broad objectives.

Yogi has been a fast learner of politics. He can prove to be a fine administrator now if he chooses—as precedent, he has before him a PM who also became chief minister without much prior experience in governance. It’s perhaps time for Yogi to shed his old baggage and exp­and his vocabulary. He might wish to play a calm hand now—for no one will deny that first the campaign and then his own elevation did produce a degree of fear and insecurity in the minds of Muslims. Imparting a touch of sobriety to the polity is not minority appeasement, but good governance. No state can and should be governed with a large chunk of its population suffering disaffection and alienation. And Yogi has the eclectic religious and cultural legacy of Gorakhnath, which preaches equality and justice to all, to reflect on and draw from.

Modi talks of a New India. Its companion is a New Politics. People increasingly prefer firebrand, populist, intemperate, even demagogic leaders across the political spectrum; this has become the new normal. Modi has posed fundamental questions on the Indian political ethos of the last seven decades—redefining secularism, reinventing nationalism, reconfiguring democracy. The questions stick because of faultlines inherent in the past. At a tactical level, this choice may be a calculated risk by Modi, but the arrival of Yogi Adityanath is one more moment in that journey of questioning.

(Pralay Kanungo is ICCR Chair for the Study of Contemporary India, Leiden University, the Netherlands.)

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