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‘If they kill one, we will kill 100’: how can this man lead India’s biggest state?

The new chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, visits New Delhi. Photo: AP

New Delhi: What an epic betrayal. After three years of talking about “development for all Indians” irrespective of religion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appointed a Muslim-baiting and Muslim-hating Hindu priest, Yogi Adityanath, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in the country, after his Bharatiya Janata Party’s thundering victory in the state election on March 11.

In criticising this choice, the problem is where to begin? Maybe the BJP’s slyness is a good place to start.

Why did the BJP not say during the election campaign that this 44-year-old MP was the man they would appoint if they won? Given his controversial image, it would have been fairer to voters if the party had been upfront about it rather than coyly refusing to name him during the campaign and springing the surprise later.

Then there is the man himself. As India tries to become a developed, modern and progressive nation, it now has a Hindu priest in orange robes governing the 220 million people of Uttar Pradesh. His religion is irrelevant; were he a pastor or a mullah, it would be bad news. The point is what is India doing creating a theocratic state in Uttar Pradesh when its constitution is that of a secular republic?

If the “holy man” were gentle, peace-loving, and benign, it might have been some small compensation, but Adityanath is a hardline advocate of Hindutva, the divisive ideology that seeks Hindu supremacy over all the Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and other minorities in India.

In Adityanath’s worldview – if such a grand word can be used about his grubby beliefs – Muslims can only live in India on sufferance. They need to “know their place” and subordinate themselves to the Hindu majority, or else … and the “else” is the threat of violence. On several occasions he has said he will “not stop” until India is turned into a “Hindu nation”.

This man has talked of forcibly converting Muslims to Hinduism, of installing Hindu idols in mosques, and even exhorted followers to kill Muslims, and has more than a dozen criminal cases pending against him, including incitement to violence.

“If they [Muslims] kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men,” he has said, in a state with a history of Hindu-Muslim riots.

Indian children read the Koran at a mosque in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. India's Muslim minority numbers roughly 184 ...

The shock at the news was widespread. The Indian Express newspaper called his appointment a “tragic letdown” which exposed the falsehood of the BJP’s claim that the hate talk that has bubbled up frequently since the party came to power in 2014 was merely the talk of “fringe elements”. The “fringe” is now in charge of India’s most politically important state.

As though the defects already enumerated were not enough, there is also the small matter of Adityanath having no intellectual heft, administrative experience or economic expertise.

Yogi Adityanath, centre in saffron robes, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, second from right, after ...

The million-dollar question is why Modi chose such a polarising and unsavoury character above all others? Political commentators have been racking their brains over this one and the only feasible explanation is that Modi, despite his talk of development, plans to consolidate Hindus behind him by turning Muslims and other minorities into the “other” in the run-up to the 2019 general election in order to secure a majority.

This explanation ties with the theory that Modi and the BJP are Janus-faced: where it suits them, they speak of a modern, developed India where all citizens are equal; where it doesn’t – such as when they want to win Hindu votes – they spew a hate-filled agenda designed to make Indians turn on one another.

Stray cows - sacred to Hindus - roam on a street as volunteers of the Hindu nationalist  Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ...

The other mystery is this. Has the average Hindu voter bought into the regressive ideas that Adityanath embodies? If so, how does this tally with survey after survey showing that young Indians overwhelmingly desire a stable, prosperous, forward-looking and developed India, not one mired in ancient hatreds?

In a way, it’s good that the BJP has come clean. Now, stripped of doublespeak, every Indian knows what the party stands for and where it wants to take India. Educated Muslims are seriously worried. As one of them said recently: “If they win in 2019 and the opposition continues to be as pathetic as it is, what’s to stop them altering the constitution to delete the word ‘secular’?

Narendra Modi (depicted here as the sun) promised to govern for all Indians. But the appointment of Yogi Adityanath has ...

As messages go, the choice of Adityanath was crude. It stuck two fingers up at the roughly 184 million Muslims of India. To its opponents, the BJP seemed to say: “We got a brute majority in the election and we’ll do whatever we like. If you don’t like it, go jump in the lake.”