‘Ab Ki Baar, Yogi Sarkar’: Is Adityanath a Challenger for PM Modi?

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As Yogi Adityanath prepared to take oath as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in Smriti Upvan in Lucknow, a motley group of his supporters celebrated their mahant’s political victory in Gorakhpur. The posters in their hands heralded Adityanath, a five-time BJP MP known for incendiary speeches, as ‘UP ka Jaadugar.’ And next to the ‘magician’ on the poster was the slogan synonymous with Prime Minister Modi, modified to signal the coming in of a new leader – “Ab ki baar, Yogi sarkar.”

Yogi Adityanath’s appointment as the UP CM marks a new political reality where despite a thumping victory in an election fought and won in his name, it seems that PM Modi hasn’t got the chief minister he wanted. It’s a reality where Modi is not the dominant political leader in a BJP-ruled state. Instead, he is forced to share the stage with a politician who has an independent following, is popular and a Hindutva ‘poster boy’; just like Modi himself.

A Strong BJP CM Under PM Modi

Unlike other BJP chief ministers, Yogi Adityanath has always been a leader with a mind (and a following) of his own. In the 2017 UP election campaign, Modi and Adityanath didn’t hold a single rally or roadshow together. (On 3 March 2017, he held a joint roadshow with Amit Shah in Gorakhpur, but not with Modi.)

Responsible for ticket distribution in Purvanchal, he managed to overcome the embarrassment of a rebel group of his organisation, Hindu Yuva Vahini, competing against BJP candidates. He was used as a ‘star campaigner’ in the run up to UP polls, being sent to western UP for the first two phases apart from consolidating a powerful saffron vote in eastern UP. Lalmani Verma of The Indian Express writes that PM Modi had called Yogi Adityanath ‘jujharu’ and a “hardworking” MP in 2014 at a rally in Gorakhpur.

In fact, in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Adityanath was the only leader in UP apart from Modi and Rajnath Singh who had campaigned for other leaders other than himself. As chants of ‘Modi, Modi’ are met with ‘Yogi, Yogi’ in Uttar Pradesh, it would be fair to assume that Adityanath would not conform to PM Modi’s authority quietly.

Speaking to The Quint, Senior journalist Vivek Avasthi admits that Adityanath would be a ‘tough nut’ to handle for the BJP and says, “ Adityanath has always dictated his own terms. He is ambitious and headstrong in some things. It won’t be easy for PM Modi to keep him under control for long.”

But is Yogi Adityanath a challenger to Modi’s authority?

I don’t think he is challenging his authority at the moment, he could certainly be one of those people. In fact, he could be the only one in the BJP who could challenge Modi.

A Tug of War Between Modi’s ‘Vikas’ and ‘Hindu Suraksha’?

After attending Yogi Adityanath’s swearing-in ceremony, PM Modi sent out a series of tweets expressing his ‘confidence’ in the new chief minister’s ability to transform UP into ‘Uttam Pradesh.’ In congratulating Adityanath, his tweet comes across as perfunctory – and yet not quite.

PM Modi’s explicit mention of ‘development’ in his tweet is clearly significant. The BJP’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh was premised on ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ and Yogi Adityanath’s appointment as the chief minister of UP was perceived as a shift in the BJP’s agenda – from development to communalism.

But in his emphasis on ‘Uttam Pradesh’, he is positioning the BJP government in UP as development-oriented. Is this a deliberate effort to set the agenda for Yogi Adityanath, widely perceived as a communal and polarising figure?

A comparison with his older tweets congratulating Devendra Fadnavis, Manohar Lal Khattar and Manohar Parrikar shows a curious absence of deputy CMs from PM Modi’s good wishes. But in this case, Dinesh Sharma and Keshav Prasad Maurya are given equal heft as Yogi Adityanath, and in Modi’s statement, appear to form a ‘team’ working for UP’s development.

On the other hand, VHP President Praveen Togadia tweeted out his joyous congratulations to Adityanath by encouraging him to “follow in the footsteps of Mahant Avaidyanath” and ensure the “protection of all Hindus.”

And it appears that it is a sentiment shared by the RashtriyaSwayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Yogi Adityanath’s appointment has provided indirect political supremacy to the RSS in one of the most electorally significant states in India, like never before in nearly three years of PM Modi’s rule.

Yogi Adityanath’s appointment has already led many political commentators to argue that the BJP has used a ‘bait-and-switch’ strategy in UP elections – asking for votes on ‘vikas’ and appointing a CM who’s widely perceived to be polarising and pro-Hindutva. Between development and pro-Hindutva agenda, what will be the agenda of the newly-formed UP government?

Politics make strange bedfellows, and PM Modi and Yogi Adityanath seem to be a good example of unlikely allies, stuck in an uncomfortable partnership.

The question is, who will blink first?