Uttar Pradesh chief Yogi Adityanath is a radical Hindu cleric who could one day lead the world’s second-most populous country with an iron fist.
Nearly 90 million voters took part in the elections that came to a close this month in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, making them the world’s largest subnational elections. But as grand a democratic exercise as they were, their results are as deeply ominous.
The elections in Uttar Pradesh — a state so huge that it would be the world’s fifth-most populous country were it independent — are a leap forward in India’s march toward becoming an authoritarian, Hindu majoritarian state.
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which also rules at the centre and in 17 states, won its second consecutive Uttar Pradesh state elections, breaking a cycle of anti-incumbency that goes back decades.
The BJP’s victory is a vote of confidence not just in the party, but also in Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu militant monk who has served as the state’s chief minister for the past five years.
These elections enable Adityanath to stay on as chief minister and bolster his national star power. Many observers now view him as the most likely successor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi later this decade.
Under Modi, democracy, civil liberties, and secularism have all backslid, and this has been no surprise. Modi, after all, oversaw deadly anti-Muslim pogroms as chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002. Many voted for Modi precisely because they saw him as a muscular Hindu nationalist leader intent on dismantling the country’s secular system.
But as bad as Modi has been for Indian secularism and the rights of Christian and Muslim minorities, Adityanath is expected to be far worse; he represents an even more pernicious brand of the Hindu nationalist ideology in India known as Hindutva.
Before coming into office, Adityanath founded a violent, anti-Muslim vigilante group, the Hindu Yuva Vahini. Militants from the group have been involved in numerous incidents targeting Muslims, including arson, attempted rape, murder, and rioting.
Adityanath was once jailed for inciting anti-Muslim riots. He also called for a “religious war” and the abduction of Muslim women to avenge Hindu women marrying Muslim men. As chief minister, he has promoted a conspiracy theory that falsely claims that Muslim men woo Hindu women in order to trick them into converting to Islam.
Adityanath is also keen on erasing the Muslim cultural influence on India. He’s renamed numerous Indian cities that have had Muslim or Islamic names, giving them ones associated with the Hindu tradition. Adityanath has even claimed that the iconic Taj Mahal — the Islamic mausoleum that is India’s single-largest tourist attraction — “does not reflect Indian culture.”
The dangers of an Adityanath-led India also extend beyond the country’s borders. A religious militant, Adityanath speaks obsessively of epic medieval battles that he frames as between Hindus and Muslims.
A man like Adityanath leading India in the future puts the country's nuclear weapons at risk, especially at a time when New Delhi is loosening its nuclear doctrine and coming closer to abandoning its “no-first-use” nuke policy.
Now, even if Adityanath’s national ascent ultimately stalls, the future of India’s Muslims is grim.
In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has retooled its political strategy, preserving its anti-Muslim rhetoric and Hindu nationalism while incorporating generous cash handouts to compensate for its poor handling of the economy and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Through extrajudicial killings and the jailing of journalists and political dissidents through national security laws — both disproportionately targeting Muslims — Adityanath has also bolstered the party’s law and order image.
Given the BJP’s poor handling of the economy and the coronavirus pandemic, many experts believed the party might struggle to retain power. But its marrying of anti-Muslim rhetoric with subsidies is now a proven winning model that can carry the party through periods of slower economic growth.
The BJP has also made the Muslim vote increasingly irrelevant, if not toxic. Hindu nationalist leaders make no secret of their dreams of disenfranchising the country’s Muslims. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP not only proves that it can continue to win handily without the Muslim vote — but that in today’s India, opposition parties that are seen as “pro-Muslim” will suffer. Muslims may continue to retain the right to vote in India, but they are now the country’s political outcasts.
Uttar Pradesh is seen as a bellwether for national elections. The BJP’s resounding victory there signals its political dominance will endure, especially as the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, remains in tatters. The only way to defeat the BJP in the next national elections is if India’s opposition parties band together and fight the next elections jointly.
Radical Hindu nationalism is now mainstream in India.
The country could soon pass the point of no return if it has not already. It remains to be seen whether America and other Western countries will change course and take a stand on democracy and human rights in India before it is too late. Successive US administrations have been averse to holding India accountable for violations of religious freedom, even in symbolic ways.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has already recommended that India be put on a list of “countries of particular concern” for religious freedom, but the State Department opted not to do so, despite the grave threats to Christians and Muslims from state-linked actors.
Today, Washington is facing the critical challenge of taking India, its supposed ally, to task — be it through the designation of India as a violator of religious freedoms or the sanctioning of Indian officials and ruling party members who have orchestrated religious violence, including the anti-Muslim pogroms that took place during President Donald Trump’s 2020 visit. Or, it can sit back and witness the world's second-most populous country transition into a majoritarian autocracy.
The Biden administration claims that human rights are a cornerstone of its foreign policy. But these claims will be proven hollow if it continues to look away from India’s descent — not only are religious minorities at risk, but so too is America’s credibility as a defender of democracy and freedom.
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