Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht. Photo: AFP/ Sanjay Kanojia
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht. Photo: AFP/ Sanjay Kanojia

While many hope that key elections in France and Germany this year will hush the growing global clamor of right-wing populists, an Indian state — with a population that dwarfs both of those countries combined — has just appointed a fiery Hindu nationalist leader. And so, regardless of what happens elsewhere, the world’s largest democracy — and future global economic powerhouse — will continue to be an ardent torchbearer of divisive politicking, for the time being at least.

Yogi Adityanath’s appointment as Uttar Pradesh’s next chief minister — following the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) recent landslide electoral victory there — illustrates that Indian prime minister, and BJP member, Narendra Modi, sees value in supporting polarizing nationalist rhetoric — as long as it helps to meet his broader political goals.

Adityanath has an enviable track-record for any aspiring religious zealot. He’s the head priest at a major Hindu temple in Uttar Pradesh and has pushed himself into the public limelight with a series of provocative statements — flanked by his own militant Hindu youth group, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, which he set-up following the first of his five constituency victories in 1998.

His incendiary speeches have since been linked to Hindu-Muslim riots, violence, and the desecration of places of worship. In a 2014 public speech captured on You Tube he equated the life of one Hindu to 100 Muslims. In 2015 he called on minorities who do not partake in Yoga to leave the country. Adityanath has also added post-truth conspiracy-intrigue to his repertoire, claiming Mother Teresa was “part of a the conspiracy for [the] Christianization of India.”

And so, his leadership of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state at 220 million people — 20% of whom are Muslim — is beyond reckless. Now, the 44-year-old Adityanath has greater responsibility, and the power to act on his dogmas, which are underpinned by Hindutva — the enshrining of India’s “Hinduness.”

He’s a strong supporter of laws protecting cows, given their veneration in Hinduism — and is likely to empower so-called ‘cow vigilantes‘ who have violently targeted beef-eating minorities. He also supports the controversial construction of a Hindu temple at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, on the site of a mosque which was violently demolished in 1992 by Hindu nationalists who consider the location the sacred birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram. What began as a rally — fueled by BJP members — turned into an uncontrolled religious riot with a legacy, not for the first time. And what’s more, Adityanath has also recently heaped praise on US President Donald Trump’s divisive travel ban, claiming some “similar action is needed to contain terror activities in [India].”

Simply put, for a restive state with a bloody history of communal tensions, Adityanath’s appointment is like putting a bull in a china shop. But, by placing the Hindu cleric at the helm of India’s most politically consequential state, Modi clearly attributes the BJP’s success there to the support of Hindu nationalists. And, in order to gain greater support in both the lower and upper parliamentary houses — with the BJP lacking a majority in the latter — Modi has demonstrated he is willing to sacrifice race relations in pursuit of his reforms and a re-election in 2019.

Modi has always portrayed himself as a Hindu nationalist, leading his BJP election campaign in 2014 on an “India First” platform. And, he has often avoided criticizing fervent rhetoric and actions of the religious right-wing for fear of alienating a key voter base. But Modi of all people should know that playing Machiavellian politics for popularity points is neither straightforward nor always in one’s control.

The prime minister still has question marks surrounding his negligent, and potentially incendiary role in the 2002 Gujarat riots — when he was then the state’s chief minister — which saw thousands die, mostly Muslims, in religious violence. And as Modi places the firebrand Adityanath into a position of power — further galvanizing Hindutva believers — he may find that nationalism metastasizes into something far more pernicious and beyond his control. It may be a successful political strategy, but it will come at a severe cost if a legacy of restive religious relations — and the fervent beliefs of religious nationalists — is anything to go by.

On the BJP campaign trail in 2013, Modi stated that “what India needed is modernization, not westernization.” But with the backward religious populism of his government — enhanced by the high-profile appointment of the Hindu cleric Adityanath — Modi has stalled India’s modernization and, at the same time, brought the country closer to the political turbulence that currently plagues parts of the Western world.

Tej Parikh is a global public policy analyst and journalist. He was previously an associate editor and reporter for The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh. He tweets @tejparikh90.

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