One of the tropes of limited over cricket commentary is that a good partnership is one where one batsman “milks the bowling” and “rotates the strike” while the other batsman throws “the kitchen sink”(phrases copyrighted Ravi Shastri). Then once the attacking batsman gets out, the one who was playing sheet anchor (this phrase copyrighted Sunil Gavaskar) would start attacking. If however the more moderate batsman gets dismissed, the attacking batsman would then sink in to the low-risk role, letting the new arrival score aggressively. This is done to minimize the risk that both set batsmen get out very close to each other, leaving two totally new batsmen at the crease which, we are told, is not good.
For decades, the BJP has followed this principle of good partnership building. Vajpayee and Advani started it off. Vajpayee was the moderate presence, with his long pauses and deft flick of the wrist poetry, stroking the ball into the gap and passing the strike to the more aggressive Advani. Now LK Advani, that gentleman was all about clearing his front foot, and unleashing powerful “ek dhakka aur do”s while taking quick raths over a volatile pitch. Then once Vajpayee went back to the pavilion, Advani retreated into a defensive shell, becoming the polite opposition to the Congress, content to attend events in Lutyens Delhi, and express his love for Jinnah, in the way even Beliebers may find to be mildly off-putting. The mantle of the aggressor was then taken over by one Narendra Damodar Modi. So ferocious his strokes and such unerring ability to get the ball to the stands, that the bowlers began to pine for the gentle days of Vajpayee and Advani. With Modi going full-blast though, Advani found himself starved of the strike, and even though he tried to run Modi out a few times, he just could not, till he was made to retire hurt, leaving Modi alone at the crease.
And then Modi slowed down. If anything, since 2014, the BJP government at the center has been, on the core issues of the Hindu right, strategically silent. One wouldn’t know that from the English language media, who kept up their narrative of genocide enabling and intolerance, even though, on the ground, nothing could be further from the truth, demonetization, GST, foreign policy dominating the government agenda over gau-raksha and mandir-nirmaan.
With Modi now firmly in sheet-anchor centrist mode, someone though needed to hit the ropes with regularity, and keep the base cheering in the stands.
Enter Yogi Adityanath. With switch hits, ramp shots, and good old fashioned heaves to mid-wicket, Yogi Adityanath kept the required run rate up in the most important state of Uttar Pradesh, and galvanized the hard-core Right on social media and in living rooms, till finally, come UP election time, he unleashed an Yuvi on Broad, which made it impossible for the BJP central leadership to ignore his claim to become Chief Minister.
In order to deconstruct the phenomenon of Yogi Adityanath, one needs to split the analysis into three parts—1) What he means for Modi 2) What he means for BJP’s near future prospects and 3) What he means for the “idea of India”, that favorite arrow of the liberal quiver.
Let us go step by step.
There is a school of thought, to which his fiercest fans and paradoxically even his most trenchant critics belong to, which believes Modi is an omnipotent genius, and everything that happens fits into his grand scheme of things. Or to quote Akshay Kumar in Ajnabee, “Everything is planned”. So according to them, Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister was Modi’s brilliant/evil plan all along, and with this move of installing him as the CM, Modi has consolidated his hold over India in a way that is absolute, which depending on which side you belong to, either implies the advent of Ramrajya or a vision of fascist Mordor.
Allow me to, dear sirs and madams, to posit an alternative, which I believe more closely reflects reality. As a satrap firing up the base, Yogi Adityanath’s hard Hindutva was undoubtedly useful for Modi, given his own move to the center. But as the Chief Minister of India’s most populous and most politically significant state, right in the heartland of BJP’s core constituency, Yogi Adityanath has the potential to become for Modi what he became for Advani.
Potential mind you. Not that he is there yet, but potential.
The similarities between a younger, brasher Modi to the Yogi of today are striking. Both of them know how to work the crowd, both have the image of being austere workaholics, who do not settle for compromise. Their single “no family” status marks a sharp contrast to the Gandhis and the Yadavs, enabling them to make a strong case that whatever they are doing, they are not looking after their current, previous and next generation. Yogi has cultivated a parallel base in his stronghold, which while broadly aligned with the BJP, still has sufficient independence, and that rebellion of Yogi’s organization, Hindu Yuva Vahini which he quelled before the elections, no matter how it was spun, was a carefully calibrated show of what could happen if Yogi Adityanath was not made Chief Minister. And while Yogi Adityanath talks about Modi with suitable respect, it is obvious that he is very much carving out an image and creating a direct line to the throne on his own, and if he keeps delivering Uttar Pradesh on a regular basis, and that is a big if, his claims to Delhi will only increase.
This emergence of a largely independent, harder Hindutva alternative to Modi, in the heartland of BJP’s power, is not aligned with the greater scheme of Modi-Shah, whose vision of BJP moving forward is of a center-right party with Modi as the undisputed leader, surrounded by a number of malleable leaders, who draw their power from the leader, and not from the base, and who can easily replaced should they overstep their brief.
Now as to how Yogi Adityanath’s prominence would affects BJP’s prospects in the elections moving forward, I would not be so bold as to definitely conjecture, but here is what I can say. If BJP’s strategy is to not only hold Uttar Pradesh, which it very well might with a Yogi at the helm, but to increase its influence in places they have traditionally never been a player, the North-East and Bengal for instance, their messaging needs to be “centrist Modi” on a “development platform” rather than “hard right Yogi Adityanath” on a “back to Hindu basics” one.
Let me talk about Bengal, a state I have some knowledge of. Over the last few years, because of Mamata Banerjee’s aggressively unapologetic policy of minority appeasement, blatant enough to have actually created a blowback even in this, the most liberal of states, and the absorption of the erstwhile CPM and Congress into the TMC, the BJP has emerged as Bengal’s opposition party. A few decades ago, this would have been considered impossible, principally because the BJP was seen as a party of “Hindustanis” and “Marwari”s, the Bengali word for Hindi-speaking heartlanders, whose core constituents were businessmen, a class of people Bengalis are predisposed to despise, and whose perceived ethos of temples, ghee, Hindi, and suddh vegetarian food was considered to be too “non-Bengali” for Bengali tastes. For the first time though, Modi, and again depending on who you ask this is because of his excellent PR skills or his record of achievements, has forged an identity that has transcended the party he belongs to.
In the middle of this comes Yogi Adityanath, reinforcing every stereotype of BJP, of militant vegetarianism and bovine purity, notions that Bengalis have been uncomfortable with. In a widely circulated Whatsappable, which I sincerely hope is a false flag operation, Rabindranath Tagore is insulted as a namby-pamby anti-national and consumption of fish dubbed anti-Hindu, and if someone seriously thinks that this is going to make Bengal get under the saffron flag, well, would you like to buy Mashrafa Mortaza for your franchise for $600,000? Now according to extreme right elements, “Bongolis” can join Bangladesh for all they care, and that is a fine stance to take on social media and in online comment spaces, or that degenerate Bengalis can be brought around to become true Hindus, and that is also a fine objective to work towards, but given that, for now, the state has a large number of seats in Parliament and Bengal is unlike to join Bangladesh or undergo a sea change, any time soon, no political party with pan-India ambitions can ignore ground realities.
Not that the BJP does not get it. From promising quality beef in Kerala, to its campaigning in the North-East, the BJP central leadership is mature enough to realize that how hard they go with Hindutva needs to be calibrated based on state. However the risk of Yogi Adityanath’s strong messaging, and trust sections of the media to strategically amplify it, is that it may drown out moderate center-right narratives Modi-Shah may want to establish, pushing people into the familiar arms of a Trinamool Congress, the devil they know, who might not deliver on their promises of turning Kolkata into London, but will at least deliver quail biriyani and gandharaj turkey.
Now Yogi Adityanath supporters would say, with some justification, that he has targeted illegal meatshops, not the consumption of meat in general, and eve-teasing, and not consensual public displays of affection, but it is also true, that for his supporters on the ground, such distinctions are lost, and any political leader in India, be it Modi or Kejriwal or Mamata Banerjee or Yogi, will give their base some leeway. Just the way things work.
But does this mean that we are finally on the path to Hindu radicalization of India, that cataclysm promised to us by the Sardesais of the world in Drinkfests all over the day Modi took power, but one that has yet to be realized, except outside the speculative fiction of what passes for mainstream political commentary?
The answer is no. The “idea of India” is not under threat. The difference between Yogi Adityanath, the chief ministerial candidate, and Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister, is almost immediately obvious. In the span of a few weeks, he has chided his supporters for moral policing, and re-iterated his drive against “illegal slaughterhouses”, in the finger-wagging way that leaders in India deal with their core constituents. Such is the electoral exigencies of a diverse population and a first-past-the-post system, that even the most extreme of ideologues have to move to the center in order to rule, and so what ends up happening is that the system moderates the individual, rather than the individual subverting the system, as it happens in many other countries.
Will Yogi Adityanath be a Nehruvian secular? Of course not. He has the mandate not to be. The people elected him on his current platform, on a socially conservative and economically populist (aka loan waivers), in the same way they elected Mamata Banerjee on a diametrically opposite social platform and similarly economically populist platform. And while Mamata Banerjee’s extreme vision of secularism might meet the approval of the “idea of India” crowd, she is no different, and that they invoke different reactions from the mainstream media, is purely because for them democracy is democracy when their guy gets elected, and fascist theocracy when their guy does not, a vindication of the “idea of India” when one side wins, and ‘Hindu patriarchy Nazism’ when the other side does.
Would I have voted Yogi? No definitely not.
I am just not his type. He is not mine.
However, as a liberal in the way I understand the term, I would not endeavor to de-legitimize him or his mandate or the issues that he and his electorate hold dear to their heart, just because their world-view does not align with mine.
For now though I will be watching. Interesting times lie ahead.