Face up on Yogi: framing politics as secularism vs Hindutva alone won’t cut it politically

Share this with your friends


Liberals, predictably, are incensed at the anointment of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. The sight of the saffron-clad Peethadeeshwar of Baba Gorakshnath Peeth in the top seat in Lucknow has turned their incredulous disbelief at BJP’s massive UP mandate into snorts of self-righteous derision.

The intellectual response to the Yogi has ranged from dire predictions of a looming end of the republic, to renewed calls for a hallowed battle in defence of secularism versus Hindutva, to Rajmohan Gandhi’s evocative invocation of Tulsidas and his portrayal of a ‘virath’ Raghubeera (chariot-less Ram) girding up in the Ramayana’s final battle against a ‘rathi’ (charioted) Ravan.

Talking chiefly to the converted, these angry responses – calling for a renewed defence of what liberals see as a huge breach in the great wall of Indian secularism – may make them feel better about their notions of resistance. But, politically speaking, they miss the plot entirely.

First, highfalutin talk of ideological battles is always intoxicating and comforting to one’s own self-image. But election after election has shown that a large section of Indian voters are not ideological any more. They, and especially the younger ones who make up the bulk of our electorate, vote for what suits them best materially in a given local context.

BJP’s Hindutva credentials have never been in doubt. With its audacious gamble on Adityanath, who was among its most popular state leaders in pre-poll internal surveys, the party has done nothing more than pin its own colours to the mast, making a clear play for a Hindu consolidation leading up to 2019. Critics saying with horror that the saffron party is Hindu don’t tell voters anything they didn’t know already.

With Yogi as its political UP mascot, BJP’s political signalling couldn’t be clearer. Hindutva is not something we use only instrumentally to get votes, the party seems to be saying, and then junk after winning elections. It is intrinsic to its development focus too, with a notion of progress that is intertwined with notions of Hindu-ness. The two are inseparable, not separate compartments to pick and choose from.

No appeasement, no apologies, no double meaning: this is the political message. The collapse of UP’s caste praxis and the Mandal vote has led to a hard calculation that the party has very little to lose from such a gambit.

It is betting that those who don’t like it ideologically will never vote BJP anyway and the rest of the voting public won’t care as long as developmental gains keep coming, and as long as Hindutva aims are pursued within the bounds of constitutionality.

Second, the secular versus Hindutva fault line has lost its power as a rallying cry because of the sheer hypocrisy of the secular side of the argument. Mayawati’s unambiguous pursuit of the mullah constituency, politically discredited clerical voices like the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid and criminal types was a case in point.

From the notorious Shah Bano case in the 1980s to the promotion of stereotyped meat-trader-musclemen candidates in 2017, nothing has been more damaging to the cause of secularism than repeated cynical manipulations of the Muslim vote by avowedly secular leaders themselves. From Azam Khan to clerics whose only aim is to protect a more obscurantist view of the shariah than practised in many Muslim countries – witness the debate on triple talaq – secularism has long been an empty slogan.

Its degeneration from its lofty origins as a principle to defend cultural plurality, to a fig leaf that ended up protecting the backward-looking Muslim religious right, damaged its legitimacy. Little wonder then that invocations to secularism, like critiques of demonetisation before it, may excite well-heeled drawing rooms in Delhi but elicit little enthusiasm where it matters: on the political streets.

Third, a saffron-clad monk holding political office is not new by itself. Uma Bharti preceded Yogi Adityanath. In the end, he will be judged by what he does in office.

From leading the love jihad campaign to asking those who didn’t do the surya namaskar to leave India, the founder of Hindu Yuva Vahini has long been seen as embodying the fringe. But his parliamentary record is interesting.

The five-time Lok Sabha MP has participated in 55 debates since mid-2014 and asked 284 questions. The documented record shows only eight of these debates (14.5%) and two questions (0.7%) were related to Hindutva-related causes. The majority pertained to other issues, on topics ranging from inclusion of Bhojpuri in the Constitution’s Eighth Schedule to encephalitis.

This indicates that the firebrand political monk is more than a one-trick pony. The real question is, which side of his will be dominant in running UP?

From chasing illegal slaughter-houses to setting up Romeo squads, Adityanath has done nothing so far that BJP did not promise in its manifesto. His publicly stated course-correction after the negative feedback on harassment of couples by Romeo squads shows tactical awareness and most of his first detailed speech since taking office focussed on BJP’s developmental objectives, including Rs 6,000 crore of farm loan-waivers.

As long as he can keep polarisation from spiralling into violence, like that seen at a meat shop in Hathras, demonising the Yogi plays into the old anti-Modi model. The more you criticise, the more it strengthens his vote base.

Liberals need a new narrative and a fundamental rethink, that goes beyond the old secular rhetoric.

Comment on this article

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>