India's most populous state gets Hindu firebrand leader
By Nirmala Ganapathy
20 March 2017

NEW DELHI (The Straits Times/ ANN) - Firebrand Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath's appointment may signal swing towards a Hindu nationalistic agenda. 

Firebrand Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath, who praised United States President Donald Trump's Muslim ban, has been sworn in as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the controversial appointment signalling the importance of the Hindu nationalistic agenda for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory in the Uttar Pradesh election, securing 312 out of the 403 state assembly seats.

The win was seen as an affirmation of the popularity of the Prime Minister, who campaigned extensively and promised development ranging from better power supplies to health and education facilities in one of India's poorest states.

But the BJP faced criticism for choosing a leader who has propagated converting India, a multi-faith country, into a Hindu nation. Muslims make up nearly 20 per cent of the population in Uttar Pradesh.

Known for his inflammatory speeches against Muslims, Adityanath lauded Trump for banning refugees and immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, and said India needed similar action to check terrorism. In 2015, he likened Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim, to a terrorist.

As for himself, Adityanath has several criminal cases against him, including charges of attempted murder and inciting riots.

After his swearing-in yesterday, the new chief minister pledged that his government "will work for all sections of the society without any discrimination".

Modi expressed confidence in the new government, saying that the state would have "record development".

Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in India, with more than 204 million people; it is home to 6 per cent of the world's poor.

However, it is also the country's most politically important state because it sends the most number of MPs - 80 - to the federal Parliament. It is often said that the road to Delhi or federal power in Indian politics runs through Uttar Pradesh. Modi himself contested and won the 2014 general election from the holy city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.

Still, many wonder if Adityanath can provide strong governance, strengthen the economy and free the state from corruption.

"With such a big minority population and the kind of statements this man has made, how do you build trust in the leadership in Uttar Pradesh?" asked political analyst Sandeep Shastri.

"This is a very disappointing decision in a sense. But clearly, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) has asserted its position."

The RSS, a Hindu nationalist outfit, is known to be the ideological backbone of the BJP, and its ground level support is crucial for the party.

Analysts also see Adityanath's appointment as a sign that the BJP would be pushing its Hindu nationalist agenda with greater fervour in the run-up to the 2019 general election, and as a test of Modi's pledge of inclusive governance.

"It is a message in favour of consolidating the Hindu communal vote," said Delhi-based political analyst Amulya Ganguli.

"At the same time, this is a very big test for Modi," he noted.

"If he fails to tame Yogi, then it will show that his talk about development was bogus... He has to bring Yogi in line and that will be a huge achievement."

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