Nationalist leaders are used to dashing liberals’ hopes. In their early periods in power, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, China’s Xi Jinping, and even Russia’s Vladimir Putin promised to strike a balance between populism and economic reform and even hinted at moving their countries in a more liberal direction. That didn’t last. And it looks like Narendra Modi is following the same regressive path, after the Indian prime minister appointed rabble-rousing Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath to one of the country’s biggest political jobs.
Following a landslide victory this month in elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and important state, Modi shocked many of his countrymen by appointing Adityanath as chief minister. The decision makes Adityanath the leader of more than 200 million people — 38 million of them Muslims — and thus one of the most prominent and popular figures in the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which Modi led back to national power in 2014.
The appointment has been greeted with barely disguised dismay by Modi’s more implacable opponents, notably liberals, and anyone worried about the health of India’s secular democracy and the fate of its sizable Muslim minority. But it has also dismayed those who voted for Modi in hopes he would focus his energy on making the country’s economy more dynamic, including, in private at least, some moderates within the BJP itself. Adityanath’s appointment was Modi’s decision, and his alone, meaning it is hard to view it as anything other than a step toward a kind of majoritarian populism that puts hard-line Hindu demands above economic development as he gears up to win re-election in two years’ time.
Dressed in his trademark saffron robes, the shaven-headed Adityanath moved quickly to describe the BJP’s victory as a rejection of the politics of “Muslim appeasement.” In a frenetic first week in power, he dominated headlines, especially by launching a crackdown on slaughterhouses, a move that is popular among Hindus, who want to see literal sacred cows protected, but which targets businesses that tend to be owned by Muslims.
Until this week, Adityanath was a mildly infamous but politically minor figure. A longtime BJP parliamentarian, he was known mostly as a pugnacious preacher and firebrand activist. After renouncing his family for clerical life in his early 20s, he rose rapidly to become the mahant (or chief priest) of a temple in the hardscrabble eastern city of Gorakhpur. From there, he first built a religious following and then a political career, where his take-no-prisoners attitude and bellicose rhetoric endeared him to the BJP’s rank and file.
That his politics are extreme is hard to dispute.
Although only 44, Adityanath has extensive experience stirring up a mob. Like many politicians in Uttar Pradesh — one of India’s poorest states, and one with a dismal record for intermingling governance and crime — he has a hefty police record, with pending charges that include attempted murder and rioting. Yet it is his talent for fomenting tension between Hindus and Muslims — who make up about four-fifths and one-eighth of India’s population, respectively — that has caused the most alarm.
Clips of his incendiary speechmaking circulated widely in India following his appointment. In one, the diminutive monk whips up a crowd with fiery anti-Muslim rhetoric. “If they kill even one Hindu, we will kill—” he calls out, pausing. “100!” the throng eagerly responds. In another, members of a radical youth group he founded in his home city are seen calling, as Adityanath looks on, for Hindu men to rape the corpses of Muslim women.
Elsewhere, he spoke warmly of Donald Trump’s ban on immigrants from Muslim countries, argued that Hindu religious idols should forcibly be placed in mosques, and called for his party to press on with plans to build a controversial Hindu temple in honor of the god Ram on the site of a mosque destroyed by Hindu activists in 1992. Perhaps unsurprisingly he enjoys warm ties with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the hard-line Hindu nationalist organization from which the BJP originated and for which Modi, in his youth, was a longtime activist.
I met Adityanath with a group of journalists and academics at his sprawling temple complex one morning this month, as Uttar Pradesh’s monthlong election campaign reached its crescendo. Outside, the scene was peaceful; elderly, bearded sadhus (or holy men) in orange robes sat cross-legged in nearby buildings while the smell of marigolds wafted through the air. Inside, Adityanath talked in Hindi with wiry intensity, sitting alone on a saffron-colored couch in a large windowless meeting room, in front of a huge portrait of his two predecessors as chief priest.
His rhetoric that morning was calm but pointed. Gorakhpur is one of India’s most benighted cities, with rubbish-strewn streets and high levels of crime — the result of decades of governance marked by lawlessness and graft. Adityanath claimed that the BJP would curb corruption, but he still blamed much of the area’s own problems on outsiders, variously criticizing a minister in the state’s previous government (who happened to be Muslim), Nepali migrants arriving from over the nearby border, and migrant laborers from nearby Indian states. Asked about economic reforms, he gave only a brief answer about farming.
As chief minister, Adityanath must now grapple with two of India’s most dangerous fault lines. On the one hand, the state suffers deep divisions over caste and religion, which often descend into violence, most recently in rioting in 2013. On the other, it is an economic backwater, enjoying little of the prosperity that has reached parts of India over the last decade. Many hoped Modi would pick a chief minister able to downplay cultural tensions and stir up investment. Adityanath seems more likely to do the opposite.
The decision is more broadly troubling. Since his election, Modi has styled himself as a champion of development. His RSS background led many liberals to doubt his sincerity, but until now he has generally proved them wrong, heading an administration that has mostly avoided playing politics with religious divisions while also making reasonable economic progress.
Now, Adityanath’s arrival has refocused anxieties that Modi will push a far more aggressively nationalistic “Hindutva” agenda that insists India is a Hindu nation that should relegate Muslims and Christians to a status as outsiders. “It is a deeply worrying decision and one that sends all of the wrong signals about Modi and the kind of government he wants to lead,” says Devesh Kapur, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. “[Uttar Pradesh] has more Muslims than Saudi Arabia. What sort of message does it send to appoint a figure who is so blatantly bigoted and prejudiced?”
Modi last week offered reassurances that he and his chief ministerial pick remained focused on economic growth as their “sole mission.” Yet his appointment remains peculiar. His previous chief ministerial picks in other states have mostly been fairly moderate, low-profile figures, if for no other reason than they were unlikely to grow into political rivals. Although liberal critics often accuse him of deploying dog-whistle tactics to appeal to hard-line Hindus, the BJP’s recent campaign in Uttar Pradesh was also notable for having relatively few divisive overtones.
It may be that the trappings of power will mellow Adityanath and that Modi will keep his focus on job creation and investment. But it seems more likely that a different calculation is at play — namely, that Modi thinks the BJP is most likely to win re-election in 2019 by signaling its support for a more aggressive form of majoritarian Hinduism, at least in heartland states like Uttar Pradesh. Coming after last year’s bold but economically questionable “demonetization” experiment — in which Modi scrapped the two largest-denomination Indian banknotes as part of a quixotic anti-corruption drive — the appointment smacks of a further turn toward populism.
Modi has never been, or pretended to be, a liberal leader. But as he contemplates re-election, the risk is that he will learn the lessons of other conservative nationalists before him. In Turkey, for instance, Erdogan rose to power by promising unity and reform but held onto it by becoming ever more hard-line. So far, Modi has proved a more moderate force. But if his appointment in Uttar Pradesh is any indication, that moderation could be about to rapidly disappear.
(c) 2017 Foreign Policy