UP elections: It's Yogi vs Secularism

By Vazhipokkan

9 min read
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The ongoing UP elections constitute one of the most crucial tests for Indian democracy. An experiment that is being intensely watched by secular India.

Yogi Adityanath

Imagine the scenario if CPM had decided to choose Kanthapuram Aboobacker Musliyar as the CM of Kerala in 2021 after its thumping victory in the assembly elections. Similarly, imagine if Congress had decided to anoint Dr Soosa Pakiam, the then Archbishop of Thiruvananthapuram as the CM in 2011 when its alliance won the majority in the state assembly elections. BJP did exactly this in Uttar Pradesh five years back. The saffron party presided over one of the biggest political coups when it chose Yogi Adityanath, the chief priest of Gorakhnath Math as the CM of UP.

Fali S Nariman, an internationally recognised Indian legal luminary, observed that it was a major challenge to the Indian Constitution. ''The Constitution is under threat.'' Nariman's words were precise and accurate. He was pinpointing the message BJP was sending across by handing over one of the most powerful constitutional posts to the head of a religious establishment in secular India. ''With the massive electoral victory in UP, a priest has been installed as the chief minister at the insistence of the prime minister. If you cannot see this signal you must have your head and eyes examined." Nariman wanted the media and the MPs to ask the PM if it was the beginning of a Hindu State.

Quite often we talk about the elephant in the room. The elephant is there in the room standing tall. But many don't see it or rather pretend not to see it. The elephant in the UP assembly elections is the pertinent question by Fali S Nariman. It was not the people of UP, but the BJP leadership, who made Yogi CM in 2017. Yogi was then the MP of Gorakhpur, not an MLA. But now he is contesting from the Gorakhpur assembly seat. Yogi is the most vocal proponent of Hindutva in the nation. Dr Radha Mohan Agarwal, a loyal follower of Yogi, announced once: ''Gorakhpur is Hindu Rashtra, Yogiji is the President and PM here.'' This time Yogi is seeking the mandate of the people to implement the Hindutva agenda.

Nariman puts forth a striking observation in an interview with Shekar Gupta. ''85% of the Constitution Assembly, that gave us the Constitution based on secularism, were Hindus. The majority of these Hindus were highly orthodox like Dr Rajendra Prasad, who was the first President of independent India. But they had no hesitation to pronounce that secularism was an inbuilt feature of the nation. It is this Constitution that is standing face to face with Yogi in UP right now.

Yogi and Gorakhnath Math

Yogi Adityanath was 26 years old when he was elected for the first time from Gorakhpur in 1998. He was the youngest MP in Loksabha then. Mahant Digvijaynath and Mahant Avaidyanath, the predecessors of Yogi, too got elected from this constituency earlier. Gorakhnath Math has a history of many centuries. It is said that math was founded by Gorakhnath in the 11th century. Matsyendranath was the guru of Gorakhnath. The texts and legends stand testimony to the fact that Gorakhnath math was beyond the confines of caste and religion.

Yogi Adityanath | Photo: AP

Sufism had a great impact on the thoughts and activities of the chief priests of Gorakhnath. The couplets of Kabeer were engraved on the walls of the Gorakhnath temple. There have been a lot of Muslim Yogis in and around Gorakhpur. Manoj Singh, a media person, has recorded some interesting dialogues of such Muslim yogis in one of his articles. One of the Muslim yogis who met Manoj remarked: ''These are bad times. We are Muslims but we keep the Ramayana in our homes alongside the Quran. We narrate the tales of Baba Gorakhnath and his disciples Gopichand and Bharthari. Earlier, we were only yogis. Nobody asked us whether we were Hindus or Muslims. But nowadays, there is a lot of fear. Wherever we go, we are asked about our religion.'

The character of Gorakhnath math underwent some drastic changes when Mahant Digvijaynath joined Hindu Mahasabha in 1937. Digvijaynath was there at the forefront of those who went to Ayodhya to install the idols of Ram inside the Babri masjid in 1949. Under the leadership of Mahant Avaidyanath, the math deviated more to the Right-wing. Yogi was anointed as the chief priest of math by Mahant Avaidyanath. There were never two ways in front of Yogi. UP saw Yogi evolving as the most vociferous proponent and campaigner of Hindutva in the heartland of India.

Yogi is not just a person in Gorakhpur, he is a movement. Yogi was not on good terms with the BJP leadership in the 2002 elections. BJP felt the heat of Yogi's wrath then. While Dr Radha Mohan Agarwal, who had Yogi's support, got elected, some of the BJP candidates who didn't enjoy Yogi's confidence, got routed. Usually, BJP does not tolerate such disobedience. But the leadership knew that Yogi was a different cup of tea. We should also recall here the defeat of the BJP candidate in the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat in 2018 which got vacant with Yogi's ascent as the CM of UP. BJP repeated the blunder of fielding a candidate who was not in the good books of Yogi. It won't be hyperbolical to state that not even a leaf would fall in Gorakhpur without the knowledge of Yogi. Remember the slogan of the Hindu Yuva Vahini: ''If you want to stay in Gorakhpur, chant Yogi, Yogi.''

The Significance of UP

2025 is the centenary year of RSS. The Nagpur based outfit in particular that there should be a BJP govt at the centre and UP when the Sangh turns 100 years old. Yogi was made CM in 2017 as a part of this mega plan. It was with this aim that BJP then declared that no Muslim would be fielded as a BJP candidate. BJP had no CM candidate in 2017. PM Modi was the sole face and voice of BJP in that election. Yogi was made CM by BJP with the blessings of RSS after the party won 312 seats out of 403 seats in the state. But now after five years, Yogi has become the face and voice of BJP in UP. And we must give due credit to Yogi for this tremendous achievement. The political observers in the state didn't give Yogi much chance when he was chosen to lead the state. But now the nation sees for the first time a BJP CM completing five years in the most populous state. Let us not forget that this is an achievement that eluded even Rajnath Singh and Kalyan Singh.

BJP never anticipated the setback they had in the Bengal assembly elections. They just can't afford any such lapses in UP. Jitin Prasada, the former Congress leader was lured into BJP with this agenda. The entry of Aparna Yadav, the niece of Mulayam into the BJP camp too was part of this plan. UP, which holds 80 Lok sabha seats, has a special place in BJP's scheme of retaining power at the centre in 2024. Right now BJP has 97 members in Rajyasabha which has a total strength of 245. That means BJP is short of 26 seats for the absolute majority. BJP has won 21 out of the 31 Rajyasabha seats from UP. 11 seats in UP will fall vacant this year. If BJP does not enjoy a majority in the assembly it will definitely reflect in the upper chamber of the parliament. The Presidential election too will take place this year. It means just one thing, BJP can't simply afford any risks in UP. BJP is trying to create a Gujarath out of UP. BJP has not lost power in Gujarat after Modi was made CM in 2002.

Corona and farmers' protests

Yogi was rattled first not by the opposition but by the coronavirus. The dead bodies that floated across the Ganges gave sleepless nights to Yogi and BJP. The nation saw a state which was left in the lurch by the onslaught of the second wave of the pandemic. Shortage of oxygen, hospital beds and medicines haunted the Yogi government. The situation became so bleak that those who complained about the dearth of oxygen had to face the threat of imprisonment. There is no bigger tragedy than seeing the dear ones gasping for breath. No ideology could surmount the wrath of the people who undergo such a trauma. But, the UP elections were still nine months away.

Yogi claims that his government has been active on the developmental front. He says that his government has brought in much improvement in the health sector. There were 12 govt medical colleges in UP when Yogi assumed power. Now the government is building 30 more medical colleges. The Yogi administration is planning a mega film city in Noida. More airports are also in the pipeline. Yogi never fails to point out his actions against the land mafia in the state. He goes out and out in projecting the encounter deaths of mafia dons including that of Vikas Dubey as his govt's remarkable victories. Yogi claims that under his govt the state's finance grew from Rs 10,90,000 to Rs 21,73,000. He also pinpoints the fact that the ration shops distribute pulses and edible oil apart from wheat and rice. Anti Romeo squads, laws against love jihad and the imprisonment of Journalists like Siddique Kappan may be anathema to the democratic society. But Yogi and BJP consider them as inevitable to cater to the sentiments of their vote bank.

It's not Covid but the farmers who disturb Yogi now. Four farmers, who were participating in a protest march against the farm bills, were killed in Lakhimpur Kheri by the convoy of Ajay Mishra, the central minister. Akhilesh Yadav, the Leader of SP, thinks that the sentiments of the farmers will stand in the way of Yogi's victory. He feels that the tie-up with RLD, the party that is led by Jayanth Choudary, the grandson of Charan Singh, the former PM, will fetch the farmers votes to the SP camp.

Akhilesh was the CM of UP from 2012 to 2017. He is no novice in politics. He has taken control of SP from his father Mulayam, one of the shrewdest politicians of UP. It is reported that the heir to the Yadava dynasty has learnt his lessons well. He is fighting Yogi and BJP with all his resources that could move the caste equations in his favour. Akhilesh knows how crucial this election is. If he falters here, the price he will have to pay will be heavier.

Divided opposition

Yogi finds solace in the divided opposition. Congress and SP fought together in 2017. It was the turn of the SP-BSP combination in 2019. But BJP couldn't be defeated. The fact remains that only a unified opposition can capitalize upon the sentiments of the farmers. Mamata could reap a bumper harvest in Bengal because of the mobilisation of the minority votes in her favour. But in UP the Muslim votes which come around 20% of the population, get scattered among BSP, SP, Congress and the alliance led by Asaduddin Owaisi. There are reports that the Muslim community might stand behind Akhilesh in toto in this election. If that happens, UP may see something unexpected on March 10th when the votes will be counted.

Akhilesh Yadav | Photo: AP

It's not easy for BJP to replicate Gujarat in UP. Narendra Modi's rise in Gujarat gave birth to a neo middle class there. It is this middle class, that has been moulded in the furnace of Hindutva, that ensures the continuation of BJP rule in the state. But UP doesn't have such a middle class. A huge section of voters in UP have been the beneficiaries of Mandal politics. The implementation of the Mandal commission report by the VP Singh Govt in 1990 empowered the backward castes in UP tremendously. It was in this context that L K Advani started his Rath Yatra in 1990 to Ayodhya, the birthplace of Ram. This was basically the RSS' strategy to neutralise the impact of Mandal politics. And the 2017 assembly elections bore witness to the efficacy and success of this communal polarisation. But the backward castes are no longer that much impressed by the Hindutva brigade. The exit of leaders like Swamy Prasad Mourya points to the trust deficit that has developed between the backward castes and BJP.

Surge of Hindutva

This year's central budget presented by Nirmala Seetharaman was conspicuous by the absence of any populist measures. It was widely expected that the budget would contain some populist schemes in the context of the assembly elections to the five states including UP. But the BJP had other plans. The saffron party seems to be convinced of the potential of Hindutva to win elections in a major way. The call for genocide by a group of Hindu monks at Haridwar set the stage rolling. Yogi followed it up with his announcement that this time the battle in UP was between 80% and 20%.

Nirmala Seetharaman | Photo: ANI

It's alarming that the ruling party has no qualms in declaring its communal agenda so blatantly in the public. Yogi's take on Kerala, Kashmir and Bengal should also be seen in this context.

BJP should be believing firmly that Hindutva could be the bulwark against the farmers' sentiments and the covid deaths. There is a famous couplet in Ghorak Bani, the philosophical text of the Gorakhnath math: ''A Hindu by Birth, a yogi by action and a Muslim by the intellect.'' This has been the hallmark of the age of tolerance. Neither Yogi nor the proponents of Hindutva would like to chant these couplets now. The Muslim yogis who used to sing the lores of Ramayana are fast becoming a chapter in history. Tolerance is marked as alien when religion and communalism are deployed to retain power. The ongoing UP elections constitute one of the most crucial tests for Indian democracy. An experiment that is being intensely watched by secular India.

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