Spinning the Yogi
Vanguard and fringe
- Published 26.03.17
The zombification of right-wing publicists in contemporary India is a small but significant part of our intellectual history. When the Bharatiya Janata Party's turn at the top comes to an end and the bruised republic shuffles back to the centre, historians of this political moment will explain why Right-leaning commentators chose to make a Hindu-supremacist turn seem respectable and how they committed intellectual suicide to join the shambling ranks of the living dead.
There are moments when the world seems to speed up and the aftermath of the BJP's massive election victory in Uttar Pradesh was one of those times. The naming of Adityanath as chief minister took the commentariat by surprise and for a political nanosecond the party's modernizing fellow travellers paused before galloping into the promised land: UP remade in the image of Gorakhpur. This is a very particular kind of pastoral: tame Muslims tending cows, squads of north Indian men keeping women safe, silent slaughterhouses and a temple stirring in Ayodhya. It is a preview of Pax Hindutva: an unnatural calm and a boding quiet.
The difficulty with these fast-forwarded moments is that they rob pundits of the time they need for plausible transitions. The political journey from a no-nonsense nationalism, to a communalized jingoism, to the snarling accents of a realized Hindu rashtra, needs time if it is to be mainstreamed as common sense. In the first three years of its term, the BJP government was attentive to this need: the rhetoric of vikas, or development, was braided with communal consolidation in a way that allowed its apologists some intellectual cover.
There is no contradiction in working for the vikas of a consolidated Hindu nation, but development as misdirection worked for those who wanted a reason to look away from the BJP's majoritarian agenda, hidden in plain sight. But the elevation of Adityanath to chief ministership after an electoral triumph that left the prime minister beholden to no individual or coalition partner, makes looking away impossible.
We are left looking at the head priest of the Gorakhnath temple whose political career has been built on the aggravation of communal division and an explicit hostility towards minorities. Adityanath's political résumé reads like a Hindutva hit parade: a political apprenticeship served in the campaign to raze the Babri Masjid; the raising of a vigilante Hindu army, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, with a hard-won reputation for violence and intimidation; the conversion of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism (ghar wapsi); the campaign against 'love jihad' (Muslim men allegedly preying on Hindu women); the related 'anti-Romeo' squads; the singling out of the meat trade because of its Muslim connection and a long history of berating the BJP for being insufficiently committed to the Hindu cause.
It's very hard to assimilate the yogi to the cause of progress because he has spent a lifetime successfully embodying reaction. And it isn't just communal bigotry that marks him out; on every major public issue, he represents a Great Leap Backwards. He defied the BJP's whip on the women's reservation bill, he was an ardent advocate of the restoration of the monarchy in Nepal, and he remains an outspoken defender of the hierarchies of caste.
How then, to 'normalize' his ascension? The party's apologists offered a set of overlapping arguments.
The first of these emphasized the democratic mandate of the BJP and the electoral clout of Adityanath. By winning around 40 per cent of the popular vote, the BJP hoovered up a massive legislative majority and Adityanath's political constituency in eastern UP contributed substantially to this victory. He was a mass leader and the BJP had the intelligence to make a charismatic leader with broad social acceptability the chief minister of a politically vital province. To criticize this was, in effect, to publicly crib about a democratic outcome.
Related to this argument was an emphasis on Adityanath's caste liminality. As a Rajput who had become the mahant of a temple with a broad following amongst backward castes and Dalits, Adityanath was the caste-transcending leader the BJP needed to symbolize its electoral success in UP.
The problem with these arguments is that the political significance of Adityanath's elevation is a matter quite separate from his eligibility for that office or his electoral history. The BJP is entirely within its rights to make him chief minister; the question that interests people outside the party faithful is what this tells us about the politics of the party and the prime minister who put him in office.
And what it tells us is this. When it is in a position of strength the BJP will, other things being equal, choose the most viscerally communal and Hindu-supremacist candidate on its shortlist. And it will choose him not despite the bigotry of his past utterances and actions but because of it. What we are seeing in UP is a textbook example of how a genuinely extremist party behaves when it is released from the constraints of coalition building and negotiation.
The chief minister and the BJP have had their differences in the past with Adityanath routinely calling the party out for cowardice in the Hindu cause. But the party never broke with him because it recognized that his explicit commitment to the subordination of Muslims was a state of political grace to which it aspired. Institutional caution ensured that Adityanath wasn't a candidate for the chief ministership; a pan-Indian political party must be prudent. But after the landslide, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah felt free to install a chief minister made in their own image. Adityanath is Hindutva unbound.
And what does Hindutva unbound look like? If you go to Adityanath's website, the home page highlights a warning. It says, "Hindutva is the special consciousness of the nation. To attack it is to invite Armageddon." In Hindi 'special consciousness' is rendered as 'sanchetna'. It is useful to listen in when the aspirations of this 'consciousness' are being spelt out. Some years ago, Adityanath presided over a 'Virat Hindu Chetna Rally'. He sat cross-legged in the middle of the stage while a rabble-rousing speaker outlined the contours of a Hindu rashtra. This was the infamous occasion when this speaker declared that the need of the hour was to dig dead Muslim women out of their graves and do unspeakable things to them. But lost in the controversy over this vile and grotesque utterance were the remarks that came earlier.
In this passage the speaker predicted that the day India became a Hindu rashtra and passed into the hands of young sanyasis like Adityanath, Muslims would be reduced to the condition of Hindus in Pakistan. They would be second-class citizens. The right to vote would be taken away from them and once that happened, no political party would be able to use a fake secularism to deceive Hindu society. At no point during this rant did Adityanath intercede or express disagreement.
The Right's publicists argue that to make him chief minister is to draw him away from the fringe into the constraining ambit of governance. His principal task, apparently, is to bring order to UP's badlands, to redress the balance that the previous regime had upset by allegedly pandering to Muslims. It is certainly the case that a chief minister who has arrived at his present eminence by naming Muslims as the enemy is uniquely equipped to make sure that the state doesn't 'pander' to them. It is less clear how a politician whose vigilante militia has been involved in multiple incidents of communal violence since 1999 can be seen as a specialist in 'law and order' unless that phrase has a coded Hindutva meaning.
The elevation of Adityanath isn't an attempt to co-opt the fringe: it is the BJP's candid acknowledgment that the fringe is the parivar's ideological vanguard. The publicists who went the extra mile to normalize this moment have earned their tawdry footnote in the intellectual history of our time.