Yogi Adityanath, who likened Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan to a terrorist and praised Donald Trump’s travel ban, to lead India’s most populous state
A firebrand Hindu priest who praised Donald Trump’s Muslim ban and once likened the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan to a terrorist has been chosen to run India’s most populous state.
The Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), which last weekend won a landslide victory in local elections in Uttar Pradesh state, announced after a party meeting on Saturday that Yogi Adityanath was its unanimous choice for chief minister.
The party of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, runs on a religious nationalist platform, arguing the country’s identity and culture are inherently Hindu in character.
But the elevation of Adityanath, 44, came as a surprise to many observers after an election campaign in which Modi and other BJP figures emphasised economic development over the party’s “Hindutva” agenda.
Television footage late on Saturday showed cheering BJP workers in the state capital, Lucknow, giving garlands and sweets to the MP, who was sworn in on Sunday.
The chief priest of one of Uttar Pradesh’s largest temples, Adityanath has regularly stirred controversy – and significant personal popularity among rightwing Hindus – with incendiary rhetoric about Indian minorities, particularly Muslims, who make up one-fifth of Uttar Pradesh’s 220 million residents.
Adityanath is facing criminal charges of attempted murder, defiling a place of worship and inciting riots in Uttar Pradesh, a state where communal tensions run high and religious violence four years ago killed more than 60 people.
He spent 11 days in jail in 2007 for violating public restrictions imposed in an area at risk of erupting into Hindu-Muslim violence, and vowed in one speech: “If one Hindu girl marries a Muslim man, then we will take 100 Muslim girls in return ... If they [Muslims] kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men.”
In 2015, after Khan complained of growing “extreme intolerance” in India, Adityanath said the Muslim actor was “speaking the same language of [terrorist leader] Hafiz Saeed”.
He has also called Mother Teresa “part of the conspiracy to Christianise India” and often warns his followers that Muslims are conducting “love jihad” – a discredited but potent idea that Muslim men deliberately woo Hindu women for conversion and marriage.
One of the men appointed as his deputy, Keshav Prasad Maurya, told the Indian Express the state’s Muslim population had “no reason to worry”.
“We don’t see Muslims as separate. For us, all the people of UP are one,” he said. “We will work together for the development of all without any bias against community and religion.”
A senior Congress party leader, Veerappa Moily, said Adityanath’s selection was “an assault on secularism”. “India is not Hinduism. Hinduism is not India,” he told the Hindustan Times.
Priyanka Chaturvedi, a Congress party spokeswoman, tweeted that Adityanath had gone from the fringe of Indian politics to the mainstream, adding that the “mask is truly off” the Modi government.
Swapan Dasgupta, a right-leaning commentator, said Adityanath was associated with “a certain brand of militant Hindu assertion” but that he was also “one of the most charismatic and captivating politicians in Uttar Pradesh”.
“He has made provocative statements in the past and the question is whether he continues that style of politics as chief minister because the new job entails new responsibilities,” he said. “You have to change when you’re in government compared to when you’re in agitational politics.”
Hindu nationalism, in contrast to the ostensibly liberal principles of the Congress party that has governed India for much of the 70 years since independence, has grown in popularity since the early 90s, culminating in Modi’s election as prime minister nearly three years ago.
Adityanath’s appointment has been interpreted as a sign that, with national elections pending in two years, the BJP intends to double down on its strategy of stitching Hindus, traditionally riven by caste distinctions, into a larger voting bloc.
But Dasgupta said Modi’s reelection as prime minister in 2019 would require more than identity politics. “In 2019 the issue will be the performance of Narendra Modi over the past five years, and what expectations people have of him in the next five years,” he said.