In the last fortnight, India's chattering classes received a double whammy. Contrary to their hopes and desires, the BJP swept the UP assembly elections with a mind-blowing majority, winning 325 seats (including its relatively minor allies) in a house of 403. Throughout the campaign and month-long polling process, commentators were hopeful that the SP-Congress alliance would romp home. Others had predicted a Mayawati victory with the BJP finishing third. So much for the sagacity of our experts and political pundits! Their expectation was based on the arithmetic of the percentage votes polled by SP and Congress in the last assembly elections of 2012. Assuming further that Muslim votes would consolidate fully behind this "secular" alliance, most commentators felt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's electoral juggernaut would receive a jolt as big as in Bihar.
The second blow came with the election of the saffron-robed head of the Gorakhnath Temple, Yogi Adityanath, as Chief Minister of India's biggest state. The English-speaking elite of this country has a deep-seated derision for those who don saffron robes and insist on religion, or rather dharma, having a place in politics. Such people are demonized by a section of the media and accused of spreading communal venom. Their place, it is argued, is in the Math and mandirs
, and not in the arena of politics or administration. The same criticism had dogged Uma Bharti when she was anointed Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister many years ago.
That Yogi Adityanath has won five consecutive Lok Sabha elections having become the youngest MP in the House way back in 1998 is of no consequence to his critics. That he has administered a huge temple and affiliated trusts for so many years does not count as administrative experience to his detractors. Thus, even after swallowing the bitter pill of recognizing BJP's stupendous victory, they did not anticipate that the coveted Chief Minister's crown would adorn the head of the 44-year-old Sadhu.
But there are solid reasons why the BJP central leadership opted for the Yogi. First, his popularity among the youth of UP is unquestioned. A talented speaker and skillful organizer, Adityanath exercises phenomenal control over much of eastern UP, particularly the Gorakhpur region. He is highly regarded as a man of religion who spends several hours each morning in prayers in one of the biggest Maths of the state where an estimated 15,000 devotees from India and Nepal throng every day. Credited with an astute political mind, he retains a firm grip on local politics: it is said that without his active support no candidate can hope to win from at least five assembly seats in and around Gorakhpur, in addition to the Lok Sabha seat which he himself holds.
His experience also stems from the fact that the Gorakhnath Math has a long political tradition and its head has played an important role in politics for decades. In the 1960s, the then head of the Math, Mahant Digvijay Nath, contested the election against Indira Gandhi on a Hindu Mahasabha ticket. His successor, Mahant Avaidhanath, similarly, was a powerful Mahasabha leader who fought several elections. The family was inducted into the BJP in the wake of the Ram Mandir Movement of the early 1990s, by which time the Mahasabha had lost political relevance. The Saivite Gorakhnath Math has a long martial tradition too. As a result, it is the only Hindu shrine of significance traditionally headed by a Rajput, although the headship is not hereditary.
As administrator of the vast temple and affiliated charitable educational, medical and other trusts, the head of the Math has to carry out major administrative and social responsibilities. Adityanath is known to be highly accessible, regularly attending weddings and cremations of his constituency's people. But the Yogi and his predecessors have often been accused of making inflammatory speeches with a communal tinge. Interestingly, however, local Muslims bear little antipathy towards the Math or its head.
In the course of covering the UP elections, I paid a visit to the Math in early February. While leaving the premises after a longish meeting with the Yogi in his spartan office, I found around 50 Muslims sitting among the crowd assembled outside his office. Talking to some of them revealed that the Math had traditionally helped needy people irrespective of religion or caste. In fact, some Muslims insisted they had voted for him too, arguing his utterances needed to be seen as his personal views that did not impact his actions.
So when the Yogi reiterated Modi's mantra of "sabka saath, sabka vikas
" (development for all) after he took oath as Chief Minister on March 19, there is no reason to disbelieve him. Arguably, he is a man of conservative views, but the kind of conservatism he displays is not uncommon to male politicians of the Hindi heartland.
His elevation to this position augurs well for the BJP. If Narendra Modi is to repeat his 2014 performance of winning 73 of UP's 80 seats barely two years down the line, he would need an efficient, authoritative leader who can help the consolidation of Hindu votes. The no-nonsense Yogi has promised to ensure the return of law and order, the Achilles' Heel of the previous regime. Although he is a Rajput by birth, caste labels don't attach to a man of religion. As the Hindi saying exhorts: "jaat na poochho sadhu ki
" (Ask not the caste of a holy man). A leader who is seen to be above caste biases will be able to push forward the BJP's agenda of winning over non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits. This was largely successful in the party's electoral mobilization in 2014, and the Yogi can be expected to widen his party's outreach to these communities. His image as head of a Math which has always stood by the underprivileged will go a long way in firming up the pro-poor image Prime Minister Modi is building up for the BJP. Since the Yogi carries little political baggage, he can also be seen as being above internal factionalism.
All things said and done, this was undoubtedly the best and most unorthodox choice the BJP could have made in UP. In Narendra Modi's long-term scheme of things, he needs someone who can retain UP for the BJP for many years to come. Although the Ram Mandir issue may have lost some traction, it is important to try and build a "Hindu vote" - something that has eluded the BJP all these years. Yogi's task will be to ensure that Hindu consolidation does not take on an anti-Muslim complexion, for any communal conflagration will detract from the promise of good governance. But the level-headed man he is, Adityanath can be trusted to deliver promises made to the voters through a plethora of popular schemes so that both the BJP's and Narendra Modi's sky-rocketing credibility remains intact.(Dr. Chandan Mitra is a journalist, currently Editor of The Pioneer Group of Publications. He is also former BJP MP, Rajya Sabha.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.