Yogi Adityanath, the diminutive 49 year-old saffron-clad fire-breathing monk and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (India’s most populous and thus, electorally, its kingmaker state), head priest of the powerful Goraknath Mutt (a temple-monastery-shrine complex), part of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party but boasting a famously frosty history with its elite, whose rampant, purist Hindu nationalism many believe exceeds even Modi’s, is up for re-election.
And if the BJP wins the crucial state elections that are just four months away, Yogi, who is universally addressed (according to his own request) as Maharaj (King) will be the front runner to be the heir and successor to Narendra Modi, the hardline Hindutva prime minister of India.
Yogi Adityanath is sui generis in the Hindu nationalist ecosystem, known as the Sangh, as unlike the Modi and other current BJP government ministers, he has no current connection to or background in the secretive and militant Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mothership of the BJP and source of its Hindus First vision for India. The RSS has been banned multiple times, most notoriously for its involvement in Gandhi's assassination. And yet Yogi is today a contender for the party's top job.
So what explains the rise and rise of Yogi as the new Hindu Hriday Samrat (Emperor of Hindu Hearts), an obsequious piece of puffery over which, until recently, was Modi's favored epithet? In two words: Muslim hate.
The RSS and its creature, the BJP, are excited by the idea that Yogi gives voice to a brand of maximalist majoritarian politics without the filters to which Modi is subjected and thus does not dare to say, hemmed in as he is (so far) by India's Constitution and the office of the prime minister.
Yogi Adityanath, originally called Ajay Mohan Bhist, was born into the family of a forest ranger. Having obtained a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, he apparently became disenchanted with routine life and first joined the same temple movement in Goraknath Mutt that eventually led Hindu nationalist mobs in 1992 to tear down the Babri Masjid, an act that triggered nationwide intercommunal violence and which Yogi has publicly praised. He took diksha, or ordination, as a monk disciple of his spiritual father Mahant Avaidyanth and was named his successor.
Yogi has always mixed realpolitik with Hindutva. He has won five parliamentary elections, representing the constituency of Gorakhpur. From the start, he's recognized the power of a cult of personality, absolute loyalty backed up by physical coercion.
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After his first win, he established a vigilante force called the Hindu Yuva Vahini, which was often accused of violence and extortion. His vigilantes would roar around in cars and motorbikes with only Yogi’s image emblazoned where the license plates were supposed to be. A popular slogan in his state amongst his supporters goes: UP mein rehna hoga Yogi Yogi kehna hoga, if you want to live in UP, chant Yogi’s name.
Till Modi and the RSS gave him his dream job ruling Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath was, together with his band of vigilantes, set on an adversarial course against them. The Sangh, though, sensed his potential as the ultimate instrument of Hindutva, finally gave him the prize in 2017.
For the RSS, the optics of a demagogic saffron-clad monk who refuses to dilute his Hindu supremacism or his exclusionary bigotry towards Muslims, ruling India's most politically significant state is a power visual. All the more so if he wins the highest national office.
Yogi Adityanath has singlehandedly brought the term "love jihad" into both common use and has even criminalized it in Uttar Pradesh (a move several other BJP-ruled states then followed). "Love jihad" is a baseless conspiracy theory attacking interfaith relationships by accusing Muslim men of seducing and Hindu women and then forcing them to convert to Islam.
He has closed down slaughterhouses and abattoirs using cows which were mainly run by poor Muslims and Dalits, and has banned the sale of beef: killing a cow or its progeny now incurs a ten-year jail sentence.
If this legislative agenda wasn’t bad enough, Yogi Adityanath routinely incites against Muslims and other non-Hindus. He declares his state government is focusing on building (Hindu) temples while non-Hindus are focused on filling burial grounds. In the run up to the UP elections he has oddly promised a "surgical strike" against the Taliban. He once launched series of attacks on Mother Teresa, accusing her of being part of a conspiracy to Christianize India.
He has compared Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan to the Pakistani arch-terrorist Hafiz Sayeed, mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 civilians, and after Khan spoke about growing intolerance in India, proposed he go live in Pakistan. He told Indian Muslims suspicious of increasingly coercive efforts to institute yoga in schools they should either leave the country or drown themselves in the sea.
Women are not spared Yogi Adityanath’s Stone Age views. On his website, the monk writes that, "Women always need to be protected lest their energy go waste." He adds that the patriarchal protection accorded to a woman by her father, husband and brother is only to "channel" her energy and her power – for the good of perfect procreation.
It is only a "controlled woman" who will give birth to mahapurush (great men). Yogi Adityanath warns that women who acquire "masculine traits" turn into demons and need to controlled for the good of society.
He once sat silent on the stage during an election rally when a fellow speaker called for Muslim women’s bodies to be dragged out of their graves and raped. Yogi did not utter a word of condemnation.
Yogi’s government routinely files cases against journalists for simply doing their job under a terror law called the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Sedition Act. In one case, the journalist Siddique Kappan was on his way to report a rape case and was booked before he even filed a single report. Because of the stringent provisions of the Act, Kappan is still in jail for an imaginary crime.
The idea is to sufficiently intimate the independent press that they give up trying to cover his tenure as chief minister, and any future national-level campaigns, leaving the field to obedient pro-Hindutva shills.
Parts of India’s cheerleader media love to gush about Yogi Adityanath’s love for animals. The dairy he maintains, his loving dogs and pet monkeys, are all parts of a deliberate makeover to present India with an image of a kindler, gentler Yogi.
Soft-focus snaps of him sitting with his monkey on his lap are duly circulated in the mainstream media, but in that same media safe space, no one dares question his divisive and bigoted takes.
Despite lethal missteps in the handling of the vicious second wave of COVID which saw bodies floating on the sacred Ganges river, Yogi Adityanath has nonetheless managed to move political debate in UP back to the usual polarizing issues of Hindus versus Muslims, where he is most comfortable. A lacklustre opposition has not been able to pin down his terrible governance record.
While Modi, reluctantly, pays lip service to the Constitution of India with its guarantee of equal rights for all citizens, Yogi Adityanath is unfazed and wants an institutionalized "Hindu Rashtra" (Hindus-first state) where non-Hindu minorities will be, explicitly, second class citizens.
That has always been the goal of the RSS. They see in Yogi Adityanath a successor to Modi who will outperform even his populist Hindutva towards the goal of a truly theocratic nationalism, or even a clerical fascism: fully saffronizing India.
Swati Chaturvedi is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist. She regularly contributes investigative stories and analysis to NDTV.com and Gulf News, and is a frequent political commentator on television. She is the author of "I am a Troll: Inside the BJP’s Secret Digital Army" (2016). Twitter: @bainjal