The elevation of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh is an odious and ominous development. It is an odious choice because the BJP has picked someone who is widely regarded as the single most divisive, abusive, polarising figure in UP politics. He is a politician who has, for most of his political career, been the mascot of militant Hindu sectarianism, reactionary ideas, routinised conflict and thuggery in political discourse, and an eco-system where the vilest legitimations of violence are not far away. It is an ominous development because it sends as clear a signal as it is possible to send at this time; the already accomplished political fact of the marginalisation of minorities in UP and elsewhere will now be translated into a programme of their cultural, social and symbolic subordination.
It signals that the BJP will now be dominated by extremes, its politics shaped largely by resentment rather than hope, collective narcissism rather than an acknowledgement of plurality, hate rather than reconciliation, and violence rather than decency. Hubris has set in. The party believes it can get away with anything. It now intends to.
The election results gave Prime Minister Narendra Modi an unprecedented mandate. It is true that most of us who did not expect the mandate are hardly in a position to explain what the results represented. All we know is that for a variety of reasons, people reposed trust in Modi overwhelmingly over his rivals. He got credit for leading from the front. He has chosen to interpret his mandate in a way that licenses and empowers the worst tendencies of his party. This is now not a statement just about UP: It is a statement about the prime minister’s inclinations and judgement. In the moment of his political triumph, he has chosen to defeat India.
BJP supporters are hiding behind the façade of party democracy to legitimise this choice. Yes, the formal imprimatur of the legislative party is behind him. But given Modi’s power, this explanation is hard to digest. If Adityanath was so clearly a popular choice, what was the hesitation in declaring him the chief ministerial candidate before the elections? If it was uncertainty about his ability to win across the state, then the result does not alleviate it. So, the only conclusion is that it was a duplicity of sorts —”of sorts” because the ideological currents were apparent in the prime minister’s speeches and the BJP manifesto.
But every argument that leads to legitimising this choice bodes ill for the country. If the legislature electing Adityanath is indeed the best interpretation of the mandate, then Indian democracy is corroded to the core: For it is effectively saying that India is now communalised to the point where a figure like Adityanath is the popular choice. We have to then give up the last vestiges of democratic hope in the idea that while the people may misjudge or commit mistakes, while they may occasionally excuse a crime, they will not vote for the wholescale destruction of basic values. It has been hard to resist misanthropy towards the role of citizens in Indian democracy. Many elites have succumbed to it in a self-defeating way. But it is that democratic respect that has perhaps made us underestimate our capacity to legitimise political evil.
Taking a stand against a democratic mandate, without losing democratic faith, is not an easy political act to juggle. If Adityanath is indeed the popular choice, then the crisis of Indian democracy deepens: It will essentially seem like a contest between fundamentalism and democratic misanthropy, both destructive of the idea of democracy. On the other hand, if his elevation is a misreading of the mandate, then too we are in deep trouble: For it will show the limits of democracy in containing sheer hubris. Either way, unless there is some imaginative ideological regeneration, India will become a democracy intoxicated by sheer power.
“Every saint has a past and every sinner a future.” This refrain has often been used to excuse big political crimes in India. And it has to be said, from Rajiv Gandhi to the current prime minister, leaders have got away with a lot of political culpability. But even in the tainted annals of our democracy, sinners have had to keep up appearances of reinventing themselves, positioning themselves to show they had something more than the taint to offer — what is striking about Adityanath’s political career so far is that there is not even a whiff of acknowledgement that he might need to speak to something larger, acknowledge civility, or stay away from fear-mongering and the legitimisation of violence. There is nothing else here, other than a tissue of resentment and hate, unless you think the Gorakhpur model of politics is a harbinger of development.
There is an element of truth in Yogi Adityanath’s claim that the BJP is consolidating a politics that goes beyond caste, at least in the way it was conventionally understood. But we are left with the disquieting conclusion that the form of consolidation “beyond caste” he practises will rely on an even more insidious communal politics. The political challenges of this moment are going to be immense. Modi’s rise to power has empowered a lot of nasty characters. Now they get wholescale control of the state apparatus in India’s largest state, and with every intention to reshape it in their image.
A forcing of the hand on the Ram Mandir issue is now an imminent prospect. Visible opposition will be difficult to mount because of the BJP’s total dominance, and this will likely make the situation worse. The usual safety valves of Indian democracy are slowly shutting. We have no idea of what kind of politics this suffocation will spawn. India’s enemies will be exulting that at a moment in world history, when all India had to do was to have a sensible policy, we have chosen to empower the worst of ourselves.
Naths have a distinguished spiritual tradition. But militant Nath yogis have a destructive history in politics: They were even patronised by Aurangzeb. They were influential in Jodhpur, my home town. The 19th century ruler, Man Singh, was a disciple. He called his kingdom an “arpan” to the Naths. Raja Man Singh was talented. He fancied himself a poet, a king and a yogi. The only catch was that he was not the self-possessed ideal king. He had frequent bouts of madness. He was paranoid, had power but could not master it. Now we have been again asked to do a political arpan to the Naths. Madness cannot be far away.