Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent victory in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically important state, seemed a welcome affirmation of his pro-development message. It’s now at risk of becoming a triumph for narrow-mindedness. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party didn’t name a candidate for chief minister during the Uttar Pradesh campaign, instead making the vote a referendum on the popularity of Modi and his program. The party has now assigned the post to Yogi Adityanath, a five-term legislator from the state’s Gorakhpur district. Some profiles describe Adityanath as a “firebrand Hindu cleric”; other commentators are less charitable. Among other things, he’s been accused of overseeing a Hindu vigilante group, and he faces a slew of criminal charges relating to intimidation of Muslims, including rioting and attempted murder.
Modi’s decision might be explained on purely practical grounds. Adityanath was reportedly the overwhelming favorite among BJP legislators. His majoritarian message cuts across caste lines in Uttar Pradesh, uniting a big swath of the Hindu population; the hope is that he can help Modi’s re-election chances in 2019. Supporters have said Adityanath should be given a chance to govern. In his first press conference, he pledged to focus on improving the lot of all the state’s 200 million citizens.
For Modi, however, this represents an ill-advised gamble. Uttar Pradesh can hardly afford more years of slipshod governance. The state is among India’s most benighted, ranking near the bottom in virtually all development indicators. Nearly 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Almost half of the state’s children are stunted. Its youth unemployment rate is near 15 percent. The state ranks next-to-last in investment potential. Meanwhile, nothing in Adityanath’s nearly 20-year record as a legislator suggests he has any solutions to offer: Gorakhpur remains one of India’s most backward districts.
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If Adityanath governs as he campaigned — as a demagogue — Modis’s own reform agenda may suffer. Much of that national program depends on the states, where BJP-led governments have more freedom than Modi does in New Delhi to implement controversial land and labor reforms. Weak leadership in Uttar Pradesh would undercut those efforts. And as Modi learned early on, communal controversies can easily muddy and distract attention from his pro-growth message. In the last three years, various far-fetched claims and misguided campaigns by Hindu right-wingers have created consternation abroad. An investment-hungry India should be projecting a different image.
In assembling his landslide victory in 2014, Modi’s most effective move was to appeal to the aspirations — for education, development and jobs — that unite all Indians. Adityanath’s appointment risks betraying that inclusive and optimistic vision.