The Cable

What Does Yogi Adityanath Mean for Indian Politics?

BJP won India’s biggest state. Then they put a Hindu nationalist in power.


Three days after a “firebrand Hindu cleric” was appointed as chief minister of India’s largest state, eyes were already on the slaughterhouses.

On Saturday, India’s governing party, BJP, appointed Yogi Adityanath, the 44-year-old priest turned politician, to be chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Adityanath has called for India to be a Hindu nation (according to a recent census, the country is 80 percent Hindu and 14 percent Muslim) and supports the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a razed 16th-century mosque (which, given that he is now chief minister, may well happen). On Tuesday, just three days after his appointment, it was reported that butchers and meat traders are already concerned about the consequences of Adityanath. Only five slaughterhouses operate in UP legally (slaughtered meat is a point of contention in India, where cows are largely sacred and violence has been carried out against Muslims over suspicion of carrying beef).

Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said he wasn’t sure whether illegal or all slaughterhouses will be targeted. “But either way, it’s clear that the party is not shying away from a cultural agenda,” he said. Irfan Nooruddin of Georgetown University believes the slaughterhouse ban will be put into effect. “To be a Christian minority or a Muslim minority is going to be very hard” in the state of UP, he told Foreign Policy.

Why would Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, on the heels of its greatest political victory since 2014, which it won largely on Modi’s political coattails, appoint such a person?

“The results of the Uttar Pradesh elections suggested strong consolidation of much of the Hindu vote in the state,” Dhume explained, adding, “the BJP wants the symbol of that consolidation to be a confrontational figure best known for his animus toward Muslims.”

Politics in UP are characterized by three things: personal wealth amassed by corrupt politicians, nepotism within party politics, and disproportionate power of those in the coalition. Because coalitions in power were so narrow, those in it enjoyed tremendous pull, which gave rise to the idea that Muslims had disproportionate political clout, according to Dhume. Further, by choosing a head of a Hindu holy order, BJP is aiming to transcend caste, an idea that Modi put forth during the campaign.

But so, too, does it signal something else. Since coming to power, Modi has focused on “development politics” — reforms (or promises of reforms) that would develop and strengthen India and its economy. 

That doesn’t mean Adityanath signals a complete break from BJP politics. “I think that this is completely with keeping with the campaign strategy used in UP, and that we should not be surprised,” Nooruddin said. However, typically, campaigns aside, Modi and company have put in place more technocratic individuals. The five-time devout MP is not that. And so Adityanath’s appointment suggests not that the BJP may be abandoning development politics, but that it will also pursue identity politics.

And that it may be doing so to the detriment of 14 percent of India’s population.

Update, Mar. 21 2017, 3:17 pm ET: This post was updated to include comment from Irfan Nooruddin.

Photo credit: SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images

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