Candidate Yogi Adityanath from Ayodhya was done-and-dusted. So much so that prime time debates were lit with “Yogi Brahmastra from Ayodhya” and “Hindutva against caste”.
The news of the Chief Minister relocating from his long-time constituency to Ayodhya was leaked from the BJP’s election meetings being held in Delhi in an attempt to overtake the headlines of different ministers quitting the government in Uttar Pradesh to join Akhilesh Yadav.
But today comes the announcement that Yogi, 49, will run from Gorakhpur, which he has represented five times in the Lok Sabha, and where he the presiding monk of the Goraknath mutt (sect) which has singular influence over the way “Purvanchal” (eastern UP) votes.
For Yogi, switching to Ayodhya would have been very much on-brand for two reasons: it would further amp up his stature as a Hindutva icon and, given the BJP’s emphasis in this campaign on the party paving the way for the construction of the temple in Ayodhya, it could prove a through line to the country’s top job.
After all, if you bring “Ram Rajya” to Uttar Pradesh, the biggest flex in Indian politics with 80 Lok Sabha seats, you cannot but be seen as a contender for a promotion.
Yogi can cross off some items on his wish list – the PM and Amit Shah have endorsed him as the presumptive Chief Minister of their party – but in retaining him in Gorakhpur, the PM has drawn some boundaries with an unmistakable message to Yogi: wait your turn. There can only be one iconic Hindutva “Hindu Hridaya Samrat”, and currently, that position stands filled.
Yogi Adityanath, before he was made Chief Minister five years ago, was unequivocal that he wanted the job, telling your columnist that he had no interest in “Dilli ki bekaar raajneeti” (Delhi’s irrelevant politics). In fact, he had been on a collision course with the Sangh because he wanted to call all the shots in eastern UP. Yogi is still very much his own man and his acolytes don’t tire of telling journalists that he is the ideal saffron-wearing candidate for PM.
After his government spectacularly bungled the second wave of Covid, leading to international scrutiny of the missteps, the Modi Government stepped in and took charge of urgently-needed corrections. Sources say at the time, the PM and Amit Shah were displeased with Yogi’s handling of the pandemic, which is why the RSS sent a team to Lucknow for four days to check on the public perception of the Yogi Government. Many BJP law-makers including a cabinet minister publicly notified the poor condition of healthcare services in the state. Swami Prasad Maurya, backward caste leader who this week exited the BJP, also spoke out at the party meet about Yogi’s poor Covid handling. But Yogi was unrepentant, dismissive of criticism, and eventually emboldened by the Sangh declaring him in the clear.
I asked some members of Yogi’s vigilante army, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, about the no-go on Ayodhya. They were candid, sharing that “Maharaj”, as Yogi is called in UP, had set his heart on Ayodhya because he had “freed Bhagwan Ram from exile and brought him home”. But his popularity as the preeminent Hindutva icon is problematic for some leaders. Maharaj contesting from Purvanchal will have a good effect in the entire belt,” said these Yogi loyalists who manage his elections. Gorakhpur Sadar is possibly the safest seat for Yogi Adityanath and will leave him free to campaign in western UP, the Jat belt where the BJP apprehends reversals because of angry farmers.
Yogi had publicly said that he would contest these elections to spotlight the fact that his main rivals are not. They include Priyanka Gandhi Vadra of the Congress, Mayawati who heads the Bahujan Samajwadi Party, and Akhilesh Yadav who has co-opted three ministers from the Yogi Government this week. Mayawati has already said she will not run for election; the other two Opposition leaders will have to decide whether Yogi’s candidature is compelling cause for them to also stand for election.
Effectively, with the first list of candidates released today by the BJP, the PM and Amit Shah have made it clear that while Yogi loves to be perceived as an independent who cannot really be told what to do, they are very much in control. Yogi’s deputy, Keshav Prasad Maurya, was desperate to contest from Mathura – the city of the Krishna Janmabhoomi where a movement has been launched for a new temple to replace a mosque. Instead, he has been directed to contest Sirathu in the Prayagraj district. Mathura will be contested by incumbent MLA Srikanth Sharma. Maurya and Sharma don’t see eye-to-eye. The tactic is not subtle.
Out of the 107 tickets announced today 44 have gone to OBC candidates, 19 to Dalits and ten women candidates.
Significantly the mini-OBC revolt and exodus of three ministers and their supporters is showing results already. 63 of 83 incumbents have been allowed to contest again, relegating to the past the Amit Shah formula of culling 40 percent of sitting MLAs to beat anti-incumbency.
The BJP has repeated as candidates all its dynasts. Pankaj Singh, son of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, gets another go from Noida; so does Kalyan Singh’s grand-son Sandeep Singh, and Mriganka Singh, daughter of the late BJP MP Hukum Singh, who will run from Kairana, where the BJP alleges a Hindu exodus.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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