Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Politics Of Faith

The New York Times is horrified that a Hindu monk can lead a state. It should look inwards. The inflammatory, ultra-conservative rhetoric of some of America's Christian evangelists in the Republican party make Adityanath look positively secular in contrast

Photo Credit : PTI,

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has ruffled several precocious feathers in India and abroad. The New York Times, for example, was apoplectic: "Emboldened by a landslide victory in recent elections in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, (Mr. Modi's) party named a firebrand Hindu cleric, Yogi Adityanath, as the state's leader. The move is a shocking rebuke to religious minorities, and a sign that cold political calculations ahead of national elections in 2019 have led Mr. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party to believe that nothing stands in the way of realizing its long-held dream of transforming a secular republic into a Hindu state.

"Mr. Adityanath has made a political career of demonizing Muslims, thundering against such imaginary plots as 'love jihad': the notion that Muslim men connive to water down the overwhelming Hindu majority by seducing Hindu women. Mr. Modi's economic policies have delivered growth, but not jobs. India needs to generate a million new jobs every month to meet employment demand. Should Mr. Adityanath fail to deliver, there is every fear that he - and Mr. Modi's party - will resort to deadly Muslim-baiting to stay in power, turning Mr. Modi's dreamland into a nightmare for India's minorities, and threatening the progress that Mr. Modi has promised to all of its citizens."

While the foreign media hyperventilates, in India, the stunned Opposition is still coming to terms with its historic defeat in Uttar Pradesh. Ramgopal Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav's canny uncle, said he wouldn't speak a word against Adityanath for six months. "The robe he wears is sacred," Ramgopal said. "I respect it."

Meanwhile Adityanath has got down to business. He made an unannounced visit to Lucknow's Hazratganj police station, checked its registers and gave a pep talk to police officers used more to receiving bribes than visits by chief ministers. Over-enthusiastic "anti-Romeo" squads have been warned not to harass couples. Tobacco and pan have been banned in government offices. Their pan-stained walls are being scrubbed clean. Illegal slaughterhouses are being shut down. Police across the state have been instructed to be unsparing on law breakers.

But Adityanath's real test will come over how he tackles Uttar Pradesh's chronic underdevelopment. Critics have been quick to fault his hard Hindutva mien. Can a monk, a lifelong sanyasi, run a state as complex and diverse as UP? Clearly, the foreign media thinks not. Much of India's Left-leaning media thinks not. The Indian Opposition thinks not. Fortunately for Adityanath, the only people who matter think otherwise: the electorate.

Adityanath's caste-less appeal frightens the Opposition. The state's 80 Lok Sabha constituencies suddenly look set to succumb again to the sweep of 2014 when the BJP and its allies won 73 seats. To combat the juggernaut created by a confluence of Adityanath's caste arithmetic and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's development agenda, the Opposition is scampering to put together a Bihar-like mahagathbandhan.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who sees himself as a potential prime minister, and the NCP's Sharad Pawar are leading the charge. They point to the electoral math: even with Adityanath's Hindu vote consolidation and Modi's national image along with party President Amit Shah's ground operation, the BJP-led NDA can at best win 42-43 per cent of the diverse national vote in 2019, a slight increase over the NDA's 39 per cent vote share in 2014. The math would therefore seem to suggest that, if all the Opposition parties unite in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, they can stop Modi's steamroller.

They could be grievously wrong. Arithmetic is only one factor in an election. Equally important is chemistry.

Chemistry cuts both ways. First, the Opposition has to reconcile sharp ideological differences between its own constituents. The Left and Trinamool Congress are unlikely to join the same grand alliance whatever their rhetoric today. Similarly, Mayawati's BSP and the Yadav family's SP have too many competing and overlapping vote catchment areas, especially among Muslims, to be part of the same national coalition. The DMK and AIADMK likewise cannot coexist in a mahagathbandan.

The SP-Congress alliance demonstrated the frailty of electoral arithmetic when confronted with the chemistry generated by Modi's relentless campaigning in Uttar Pradesh and Amit Shah's rainbow coalition of castes in an arc from Brahmins and Thakurs to OBCs and MBCs. The SP won 21.8 per cent of the UP vote; the Congress won 6.2 per cent. Their collective voteshare of 28 per cent, however, translated into just 54 out of 403 assembly seats - a mere 13 per cent. To rely entirely on coalition math is thus a folly in an environment charged with a combustible mix of caste and community that the 2019 Lok Sabha poll will inevitably be.

This doesn't mean the 2019 general election will be a cakewalk for the BJP. Far from it. If Adityanath's administration fails to show visible improvements in law and order, infrastructure and social harmony, disenchantment will set in. The Gujarat assembly election later this year will throw up some clues. AAP, stung by defeats in Punjab and Goa, knows Gujarat will make or break its national ambitions. It has no stake in the other four state elections before 2019 (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh).

But AAP's Gujarat gamble is ill-advised and almost pre-programmed to fail. AAP hoped to piggyback on Hardik Patel. That now seems a washout. Patel's stock has steadily declined. A triangular fight between the BJP, Congress and AAP will help the BJP secure a majority with AAP cannibalising Congress votes. As in Goa, AAP could end up with a blank score sheet.

The New York Times is horrified that a Hindu monk can lead a state. It should look inwards. The inflammatory, ultra-conservative rhetoric of some of America's Christian evangelists in the Republican party make Adityanath look positively secular in contrast. The rise of far-right, racist politicians in France (Marine Le Pen) and Holland (Geert Wilders) show how well India has handled its plural agglomeration of communities, castes, regions, languages and ethnicities.

Foreign media like The New York Times and their colonial-minded Indian derivatives are quick to judgement but too often slow to comprehend India's complexity.

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