The Monk Who Sold Hardline Hindutva

This is indeed a diabolically crass crossword tangle, juxtaposed within the terribly tangled twists of UP politics. The absurdity of this bad theatre unfolds the incestuous dilemmas of a typically clichéd Catch-22 spectacle, and though much of it is behind closed doors, the neon lights are out blinking green and red. With extreme Hindutva and the power play of the RSS-BJP and Sangh Parivar as backdrop, and a rising Samajwadi Party with a formidable alliance on the other side.

Anything can happen in this thriller, the end seems unpredictable, and that is why the excitement and the suspense.

For the first time since 2014, the BJP and RSS are feeling “unsafe” in Uttar Pradesh. And this is the reading on the spot, on the dot, at the epicenter of the Hindi heartland, by seasoned journalists based out there (and not in Delhi), and who have faced the brunt of the mobs since the black day of the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya. Not only the BJP, it seems both Yogi and Modi are feeling unsafe, insecure, shaky, jerky, stuck on a sticky wicket.

And herein lies the obsessive infatuations of power play; Season One of this Soap Opera is out there, free of cost, for all of us to see. Including for the politically sharp UP voter, more addicted to the underbelly of caste and power politics, then on the nuances of the political economy of development. That is why what it is and what makes UP the king-maker in Delhi, and also the worst state in terms of the Human Development Index. But no one cares a damn, neither the establishment, nor those who are toiling down there, in the invisible margins of ‘history from below’.

The first clue of this dark thriller replete with catharsis and anti-catharsis was given by Amit Shah. Call it a Freudian Slip, it indicated the prophetic fatedness of power. He said that Yogi’s victory in UP in these assembly polls will pave the way for the victory of Narendra Modi in 2024! Thus is the interwoven complexity of victories and defeats. That is, if Yogi loses now, Modi too must lose three years later. That is his fatedness. But if Yogi wins, then, what happens?

That is the clue which no one can predict. Either way, it seems a double whammy for Modi. Bad prophecy and bad faith and bad breaking news multiplied three times over.

The BJP, Yogi and Modi are unsafe in UP because they can see the rapidly shifting electoral sands, and they just can’t be sinking sinking drinking water. Yogi reportedly desperately wanted to contest from Ayodhya. He wanted a national profile and thereby become the new Hindutva Hriday Samrat. Obviously, the top brass in Delhi hated this idea. And no one knows what the top brass in Nagpur or Delhi’s Jhandewalan want or think – they being so secretive!

The clear indication is, as a hardened journalist from deep inside the Hindi heartland said, Yogi has become a bone in the throat of the Sangh Parivar, especially Modi. They can’t swallow him, nor they can throw the bone out. The RSS, which originally seems to have propped him up from nowhere, seems to be finding itself in the same dilemma – much as they tried to find another extremist Hindutva icon to replace the ‘Acche Din Messiah’ at the Centre. That is why this Catch-22 scenario.

When Yogi was first promoted during and after the last assembly elections in the state, journalists would wonder what to do with the press release he would routinely sent – he was holding no official position in the BJP. He was a BJP MP from Gorakhpur, head of the sprawling and influential Math, and much more far-right of even the BJP. He simply had no locus standi whatsoever! Nor was he a mass leader in UP or elsewhere. So why promote him?

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Yogi’s promotion was thus taken with a pinch of salt across the BJP, as well as in the secular media. His consequent actions therefore were predictable, inevitable and proved the real worth and meaning of this man. He did exactly what he was supposed to do. From the encounters, to the brutal assaults on peaceful anti-CAA protesters, to unleashing the Romeo Squads against young couples. And the burning pyre in the night of a girl violently brutalized in Hathras, barricaded from all sides by the repressive state apparatus, was seen as a sign of how a regime can turn so short, nasty and brutish.

So those who thought that Hathras depicted the final truth, had to only wait for the third surge of the killer Delta epidemic, even while the health system totally collapsed in UP, and dead bodies started floating on the holy river, with the sandy shores of Ganga full of dead bodies buried hurriedly with tattered clothes flying as miserably tragic signposts. So much so, dead bodies were being cremated in parks and public spaces, and huge fences were quickly erected outside cremation grounds in Lucknow to stop reporters and photographers to capture the mass tragedy.

And, yet, an ad campaign was soon unleashed apparently costing crores. The same tactics – turn the truth topsy-turvy, tell a lie a million times so that it appears as the truth, camouflage the bitter reality and tell the world how lovely it all is. It kind of triggered a sick taste in the mouth even as the cremations continued and so did the mass mourning, in UP and across India. That sick taste continues to remain, and will continue to haunt Yogi, Modi and the BJP in the days to come.

The Gorakhpur Math, locals say, started in as a secular monastic Shaivite mode, close to the Bhakti ethos, assimilating all currents and respecting all communities and religions, almost treading on the same path as the wisdom of Kabirpanthis. The Nath cult was universally tolerant and secular. The turn towards extremism came with Mahant Digvijay Nath participating in the sacrilege by installing idols at the Babri Masjid, joining the Hindu Mahasabha and contesting elections. He was also one of the accused in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.

His rise and fall was followed by Mahant Avaiydanath, the guru of Yogi Adityanath, both ‘Bisht and Thakur’, who turned the original Nath philosophy upside down and pushed it into hardline Hindutva, even more extreme than the softer, moderate line followed in the early days by the Jan Sangh, with leaders like Atal Behari Vajpayee at the helm. The muscle-flexing and street power they hold in Gorakhpur with huge property in their grasp, with the aggressive vanguards of the Hindu Yuva Vahini calling the shots, is well known in the town. Yogi is a product of this ethos. Indeed, associated with the BJP as a winning candidate from Gorakhpur, he is not really a die-hard BJP or Sangh Parivar loyalist. That is another dilemma for the party.

The situation thereby is complex: Modi is apparently not with Yogi, and Yogi is apparently not with Modi. And not only that, even backward leaders like Keshav Chandra Maurya, the current deputy CM, and several MLAs, are apparently not with Yogi. Maurya is eyeing the CM post for long. Hence, there is a hidden rift within rift within the fragile fortress, and a possibly simmering implosion. Truly, when it comes to UP, anything can happen. 

Come what may, as of now, the BJP is on a sticky wicket. And the ground below its feet seems to be slipping. Surely, as Amit Shah so prophetically predicted, perhaps, paving the way for 2024.

Bypoll Results: Diminishing Modi Magic

Almost no crackers on the festival of lights in pollution-free Kolkata and Bengal, while Delhi chokes and gasps for breath. And even while North India celebrated Deepawali with worshipping Goddess Lakshmi, Bengal worshipped the fiery Goddess, Kali, sometimes darker than darkness, her hair let loose, and at other times, ‘shyama’ – her face in blue.

Following Covid protocols and the no-crackers campaign, A subdued festival it was, though, post-Deepawali, all across Kolkata, the goddess was taken in small processions with the resonant beat of the dhakis and ghantas, and the auspicious echo of ulluk dhwani and shankh, for immersion in various ponds, water bodies and rivers, and this went on all day, until midnight.

Undoubtedly, the festival season has arrived with a heady note in West Bengal despite the sadness and restrictions of the pandemic earlier. The BJP has received a drubbing of its life in four assembly constituencies in the recent byelections. The Durga and Kali Puja also symbolise the universal celebration of ‘shakti’ in the state, where neither Jai Shri Ram nor the Ram temple in Ayodhya could make even an iota of religious or political breakthrough. Nor did the polarising politics of ‘termites’, outsiders, infiltrators, backed by huge money and muscle power, and pomp and show, with the prime minister and his home minister literally camping in the state, turning it almost into an ego issue. The drubbing therefore is yet another reminder that Bengal is continuously showing the way to the nation, and with no holds barred, just as Kerala and Tamil Nadu had shown earlier.

The recent by-elections, therefore, are more than symbolic indicators of the possible decline of the star power of Narendra Modi, and the polarising electoral power of communal and hate politics and Hindutva. The marginal reduction in excise duty on petrol and diesel, under tremendous civil society resentment and opposition pressure, is the first sign of backtracking and retreat by a regime in Delhi which remains absolutely unilateral, arrogant, unmoved and adamant in terms of popular demands, angst or anger, so sure it is of its 31 per cent hardened fanatic vote bank.

Not only have LPG prices been exorbitantly raised suddenly, again and again, inflation in terms of essential commodities, even during the festive season, is sky high. There is deep resentment inside crisis-ridden ordinary families, while millions are jobless or in serious economic distress, and even while a handful of super rich billionaires close to the current regime have reportedly amassed millions during the pandemic.

With UP elections round the corner, and signals from both Western and Eastern UP not bringing happy tides, the BJP, it seems, is clearly worried. Indeed, despite the BJP victories in Assam and the North-east, the signs from Bengal, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana means a different wind seems to be blowing in the country, and the BJP led by Modi seems on a sticky wicket.

The BJP has been decimated in Bengal. In Dinhata in North Bengal, Trinamool Congress candidate, Udayan Guha, once a Leftist from Forward Bloc with his father once a minister in the erstwhile Left Front government, polled a massive 84.15 per cent of the total votes. Near the Sunderbans in South Bengal, at Gosaba, the Trinamool candidate has polled 87.19 per cent of the total votes. The BJP was reduced to 11.31 per cent and 9.95 per cent of votes in the two assembly constituencies. The CPM stood third. In the four assembly polls, Trinamool won comfortable victories.

Social scientists and political observers point out that the BJP’s communal cards have been thrown into the garbage can in the face of secular politics in Bengal, and due to the grassroots development and social welfare initiatives of Mamata Banerjee, especially among women and the economically weaker sections. Indeed, during the lockdown and pandemic, the scheme of free food at the doorstep for the poor and economically marginalised, has been highly effective and it continues till this day, including other schemes such as Lakshmi Bhandar with monthly cash deposits for poor women and those belonging to the SC-ST communities, along with other schemes in health and education.

Tweeted Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee: “My heartiest congratulations to all the four winning candidates. This victory is people’s victory, as it shows how Bengal will always choose development and unity over propaganda and hate politics. With people’s blessings, we promise to continue taking Bengal to greater heights.”

The Congress had uplifting news from Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. In Rajasthan, anti-incumbency is a crucial trend every five years, and the political dispensation inevitably changes. After three years of power in Rajasthan, and with Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot claiming to win another term in the next assembly polls in 2023, the Congress candidates won Vallabhnagar and Dhariawad assemblies with margins of 18,725 and 20,606 votes. Indeed, it is a fact that in the by-elections in the last two years, the Congress has scored victories under the leadership of Gehlot, even while the state BJP is a divided lot with two factions pitched against each other.

Barring Yogi Adityanath in UP, the BJP has changed chief ministers in Uttarakhand and Karnataka, to recover lost ground and fight anti-incumbency. There are reports that the chief minister of Goa might also be replaced after a lacklustre performance and all-round unhappiness against the BJP’s abysmal record in governance in the scenic state. However, there is real bad news for the BJP in Karnataka, especially because it seems to be losing the support base of the formidable Lingayat community which backed its protégé, BS Yedurappa, who was recently removed from the chief minister’s post.

Has the Lingayat community vote got divided, or, is it nursing some deep-rooted angst — that remains a conjecture. The BJP won with its support in Sindgi in the Vijayapura district, but had to face a major embarrassment when it lost the Hanagal constituency in the Haveri district. Significantly, and ironically, it is the home terrain of the new Chief Minister, Basavaraj Bommai, also a Lingayat, but without the clout of Yedurappa. So, will the BJP start looking for a new CM now, even in Karnataka!

The victory of Abhay Chautala from Elenabad in Sirsa district, against the might of the Kanda family backed by the BJP, is significant. Chautala had earlier resigned in support of the farmers’ struggle. The united farmers movement had called upon the people to vote against the BJP-JJP candidate in a predominantly rural constituency. Clearly, despite a tight contest, rural Haryana has voted for the farmers’ struggle.

Seasoned journalist Ramsharan Joshi, who has covered the Hindi heartland for decades, has an interesting, analytical perspective. He says, “When Amit Shah says that the victory of Yogi is a must in the assembly elections in UP so as to pave the way for the victory of Modi in the next Lok Sabha polls, it sounds like a Freudian slip. Why is he linking the two polls – is he not confident of Modi’s charisma in UP or in the rest of the nation, anymore! Indeed, the statement reflects three things: Yogi’s graph is fast declining in UP, Modi is for the first time dependant on Yogi’s victory in the assembly polls, and that the two have become sadly dependent on each other because both have become seriously weak, despite their similar brand of politics. Despite the communal violence in Bangladesh and Tripura, the BJP was unable to polarise in the current by-polls, except in Assam. Where ever there is a strong opposition alternative, the BJP’s communal card fails to play, though this is what they will do again in UP.”

There is another fact. Modi’s vote-catching ability for the Centre, has somehow not really translated always, across the Indian geography, when it comes to state politics and polls. This has yet again been reflected in the recent by-polls. No wonder, the ‘kabristan, namaaz, Pakistan’ discourse of hate politics seems to be getting resurrected all over again. If nothing else, it also reflects a sign of desperation.