On the evening of April 11, 2002, word leaked out from Gujarat’s Raj Bhavan that Arun Jaitley would be arriving later that night to meet with then chief minister Narendra Modi and obtain his ‘resignation’. The Gujarat riots were still fresh in public memory and Atal Bhari Vajpayee, who was prime minister, had sent Jaitley to tell Modi to go. We do not know what Jaitley and Modi discussed that night, but the two men flew to Goa the next day for the BJP’s national executive meeting. There, Modi offered to step down, but some national executive members immediately jumped to their feet, saying, “No no, istifa mat do (Don’t resign)”. Modi emerged stronger from the meeting, and Vajpayee was left bloodied, as if he had been punched in the face.
Yogi Adityanath‘s appointment as UP chief minister does not exactly parallel this incident but bears a certain resemblance. After romping home with 315 seats thanks to a Modi-led electoral campaign in the recently concluded assembly elections, the BJP’s choice for chief minister seemed to be swaying towards Manoj Sinha, the union minister of state for telecom with independent charge. A civil engineer with B. Tech and M. Tech degrees from Banaras Hindu University, and who was promoted from minister of state for railways to minister with independent charge in the July 2016 reshuffle of ministers, Sinha was believed to be Modi’s favourite to run UP.
By the evening of March 17, Sinha’s native district of Ghazipur in eastern UP was abuzz with anticipation that he was going to the be named the next chief minister. It’s also probable that the district’s administration had received ‘semi-official confirmation’ of this since the district’s policemen were ready to offer Sinha a ‘guard of honour’ the following morning. But there was no guard of honour when Sinha arrived in the district on March 18, before proceeding to Varanasi on a temple visiting spree.
Overnight, the RSS had nixed Sinha’s name and approved Yogi Adityanath’s candidature for UP chief minister instead. Considering that the RSS’s joint general secretary (and the outfit’s second in command) Dattatreya Hosabale had been in charge of the BJP’s UP affairs for the past three months, he was clearly involved in the decision. “On the evening of March 17 we were getting signals that Sinha would be the chosen one. But then something changed that night and by morning we were getting confusing signals,” a Lucknow-based senior journalist told me. Yogi’s name was finally announced on the evening of March 18, after a day’s worth of media speculation on whether it would be him.
But this choice left many, including those in the Modi camp, confused. This was not surprising given that Modi’s extensive campaigning and Amit Shah’s ground level strategy and planning had led to the saffron party’s massive victory. Journalists in Lucknow asserted that they had seen this as a ‘Modi election’ and said that Adityanath had not played any role in the party’s seat distribution beyond that for the assembly segments of the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha constituency. Moreover, the party had not used Adityanath extensively in the UP campaign; he had been deployed only for select seats, where, as analysts perceived, there was a wide communal divide. Adityanath, however, had two helicopters at his disposal. For the record, Sinha did a little bit of electioneering in Varanasi, but nothing much.
There is logic behind the chief ministerial choice devolving to Adityanath. Political analysts have speculated that the RSS – which completes a century of existence in 2025 – wants India to be a Hindu rashtra by then. What exactly is a Hindu rashtra has not been defined precisely. Since the RSS is an organisation that has ‘socio-cultural’ objectives, presumably this means a country with an overt manifestation of a Hindu identity. Adityanath as UP chief minister will certainly help the Hindutva agenda and keep intact the vote consolidation of Hindus that the BJP achieved in the recent elections. If nothing else, it will help the organisation build the stalled Ram Temple in Ayodhya, they assert. The construction of the temple has been stuck in a legal quagmire in the Supreme Court. Now the apex court judges have advocated an out of court settlement. While campaigning, Adityanath waxed eloquent about the obstacles to the temple’s construction being removed ‘one by one’. Is the process already getting underway?
Interestingly, all the Ramjanmabhoomi ‘heroes’ who have been shoved into oblivion by the party – L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharati – were present at Adityanath’s swearing in ceremony, though they have avoided attending several others.
Modi’s cult of personality
While the RSS maintains its strong support for the prime minister, some in the organisation are also a little uncomfortable about the ‘personality cult’ being built around him, which enlarges his individual ability to do things independent of the Sangh. For the RSS, Adityanath’s elevation sends a subtle signal that no one is above the organisation and nobody is indispensable.
Meanwhile, sections of the national press that have virtually eaten out of Modi’s hands ever since he became prime minister are currently engaged in portraying an alternative theory for this move. Their take on the surprising choice is that Modi and Shah actually decided on Adityanath many months ago. And that the selection of two deputy chief ministers in Modi’s way of keeping the yogi on a straight and narrow path.
Of course, Adityanath is not going to do anything to deny this. On the contrary, he has picked up Modi’s line of ‘sab ka sath sabka vikas’. In his first interaction with secretaries of the UP government, Adityanath too emphasised the importance of sanitation – Modi’s pet project. However, those who have seen Adityanath up close say that he is a tough no-nonsense man and they are not expecting him to play second fiddle to anyone. In that sense, Adityanath is distinctly unlike many of the recently-appointed BJP chief ministers who seem to toe the line set by the party ‘high command’.
The victory of Modi in 2014 saw Hindutva moving centre-stage. The rise of Adityanath in 2017 has begun the process of dragging the centre to the right.
Kingshuk Nag is the former resident editor of The Times of India. He is the author of several books, including The NaMo Story: A Political Life.