Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh:
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is undoubtedly the marquee campaigner in the country's 24x7 election cycle, but over the past year, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who is also the head priest of the state's famous and influential Gorakhnath temple, has been on a roll as the BJP's pan-India Hindutva
icon. His public meetings in Kerala, Tripura, Gujarat and now, Karnataka, are strategically confined to communally sensitive constituencies, where the saffron-clad sadhu's
minority baiting and Congress-bashing are likely to attract more votes than the PM's promises to end corruption and create jobs.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath
Widely acknowledged now within his party as a must-have campaigner, Adityanath in five days will be tested on his own turf when the constituency of Gorakhpur, which he represented for five consecutive terms in parliament chooses its new MP. Adityanath, to take over as Chief Minister, became a member of the state legislature. His party has selected Upendra Shukla as its candidate. At 56, Shukla is the first Brahmin candidate fielded by the BJP in Gorakhpur in 30 years: Adityanath is a Thakur as was his guru
, Mahant Avaidyanath. Thakurs are upper caste, placing one spot below the Brahmins in the hierarchy.
Upendra Shukla is the first Brahmin candidate fielded by the BJP in Gorakhpur in 30 years
Shukla also has no association with the powerful Goraknath temple. Mahant Avaidyanath was first elected to represent Gorakhpur in the Lok Sabha in 1989; he was followed by Adityanath in 1998; together, the two head priests have won eight successive elections. The politics of Eastern Uttar Pradesh has been controlled by the shrine."Yogi-ji ki bagiya hai, hum to sirf maali hain
(I am only a gardener tending to Yogi-ji's
property)," Shukla has said in a public show of deference but nobody in Gorakhpur is fooled. The rivalry between the two leaders is of 2006 vintage, when Adityanath bossed the BJP into rejecting Shukla's bid to run for the state legislature. Smarting, Shukla stood as an independent from Gorakhpur Rural, split the BJP vote and ensured a victory for the Samajwadi Party. "In local elections, Yogi has always supported Thakurs who will not pose a threat to him or the supremacy of the Gorakhnath temple. Anyone else is treated with suspicion," claims Ajay Dubey, a newspaper seller who says he has always voted for Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party. "I'm a Brahmin and I prefer to vote for a candidate from my own caste. Mayawati has great respect for Brahmins and in 2009, she even fielded one of ours (from the constituency). But this time, the BSP is not contesting, and the BJP has fielded a Brahmin, so I will vote for the lotus."
BSP chief Mayawati is supporting political rival Samajwadi Party's candidate (File photo)
In the complex caste calculus of Gorakhpur, the Brahmins and the Thakurs have a bloody equation that included a gang war in the 1990s between a pair of dons from each side. The communities remain locked into deep suspicion of each other.
For more than a decade, Adityanath succeeded in keeping the BJP's more prominent Brahmin leaders confined to the sidelines of Gorakhpur politics. Before forcing Upendra Shukla into exile, Adityanath stage-managed the defeat of Shiv Pratap Shukla, who had won four state elections from the Gorakhpur Urban constituency. Adityanath supported a non-Brahmin candidate who joined the BJP after winning the election. Having destroyed any potential competition to himself within the party, Yogi proved himself the BJP's top politician in the area.
MoS Finance Shiv Pratap Shukla has been a bitter political adversary of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath
He was therefore not entirely pleased with the BJP's strategic shift ahead of the state election in Uttar Pradesh last year.
The Brahmins form 10-12% of the population of Uttar Pradesh - they are the state's biggest upper caste group; the Thakurs, at 8-10% are runner up. Gorakhpur has nearly 1.5 lakh Brahmins and to ensure their support, the BJP resurrected Shiv Pratap Shukla. He is now the country's Junior Finance Minister.
The state election last year saw the Brahmins and the Thakurs abetting the BJP's sumptuous victory. So the party is keen to maintain its hold over both groups. Ahead of the national election, the BJP's choice of Upendra Shukla as its candidate in Gorakhpur is intended to placate Brahim voters who have been feeling overlooked as a result of Adityanath been given charge of the state, with Keshav Maurya, an Other Backward Caste, as his deputy. Maurya's constituency of Phulpur votes for its new MP along with Gorakhpur on Sunday; results will be declared on March 14.
Deputy Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Keshav Prasad Maurya with Prime Minister Narendra Modi
There is a view in Gorakhpur that there is more to the political rehabilitation of Yogi's adversaries than an attempt to balance caste. "The BJP leadership is trying to build a parallel power centre in the region. As Chief Minister, Yogi has started a slew of development works in Gorakhpur, but it's impossible for him to run the state and meddle in politics back home. This is exactly what the BJP bosses in Delhi wanted," says Gorakhpur-based political commentator Manoj Singh. "But Yogi also knew that if he wanted a larger role in UP and national politics, he would have to pay a price for his ambitions and toe the party line."
The Brahmins form 10-12% of the population of Uttar Pradesh; the Thakurs 8-10%
That involves accepting the overt moves to Brahmins via leaders that he is held responsible for uprooting. His promotion has also forced the diminution of his once-feared private militia, the Hindu Vahini, which posed as a youth party. "The BJP high command was worried that one day, the Vahini would become like the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and split the Hindu vote. Maharaj-ji
has destroyed it himself to find acceptance within the party. It's a huge mistake, because his power and strength came from the Vahini, and without it, he is just another senior BJP leader," said multiple Vahini activists who did not want to be named. "Today, Maharaj-ji
is frantically campaigning for Upendra Shukla, but everyone knows his own list of candidates was rejected." According to media reports, Yogi had given the BJP three contenders; two are Thakurs; all three are closely associated with the Gorakhnath temple.
If the BJP's decision to ignore his preferences has panged Adityanath, this is not the time to articulate any differences - in a stunning if late development, Mayawati has decided to support the candidates of her long-time rival, Akhilesh Yadav, in both Gorakhpur and Phulpur. The joint front is what opposition parties have been pushing for as a potential game-changer that could dent the BJP's considerable might in India's most-populous state.
Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav is exploring new political alliances before the 2019 Lok Sabha election
While few believe the BJP will lose Adityanath's constituency, the Samajwadi Party candidate is Pravin Nishad, a 29-year-old engineer from the Nishad or fishermen community whose number runs to 3.5 lakhs in Gorakhpur. He is also backed by the Peace Party of Pasmanda or Scheduled Caste Muslims. But he is aware that even if a sizeable chunk of Nishads, Dalits and Muslims vote for him alongwith a section of backward castes who chose the BJP but feel it has since overlooked them, victory will remain elusive.
Pravin Nishad, from the fishermen community, is Samajwadi Party's candidate in Gorakhpur
"Wider acceptance will only come," Pravin Nishad told NDTV, "when the word is out that I'm a devotee of Baba Gorakhnath. I tell the people that earlier you voted for the management of the Gorakhnath temple, this time vote for the temple's servant (Pehle math ko vote dete the, ab bhakt ko vote dijiye
If Pravin Nishad puts up a good fight, Adityanath might lose face for running an indifferent campaign for the BJP's candidate. But a win for Upendra Shukla, and the rise of a new leader in the Chief Minister's hometown holds the danger of diminishing the clout of the Gorakhnath temple in the long run. So perhaps more than anyone else, it is Adityanath who has the most to lose in this election.