The Bharatiya Janata Party yesterday picked controversial firebrand leader Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, where it won a landslide victory last week.
The BJP won an absolute majority in the northern state, home to 220mn people and seen as a bellwether of national politics, in a massive vote of confidence for Prime Minister Narendra Modi halfway into his first term.
After an hours-long meeting with local BJP legislators yesterday, senior party leader and federal minister M Venkaiah Naidu announced 44-year-old Yogi Adityanath as the next chief minister.
“Tomorrow Yogi Adityanath will take oath as chief minister,” Naidu said at a press conference in Lucknow late yesterday.
Earlier television footage showed BJP workers garlanding and feeding sweets to the Hindu hardliner who was draped in his iconic saffron-coloured robe.
A five-time MP, Adityanath, 44, is a popular leader known for his fiery Hindu rhetoric who has stirred controversies over his polarising and inflammatory speeches against Muslims.
Most recently, he lauded US President Donald Trump’s travel ban that aimed to halt immigrants from a handful of Muslim-majority countries from entering America, saying India needed similar action to check terrorism.
He has often fanned flames over religious conversions, inter-religion marriages and has reportedly been arrested and charged with several crimes in the past including rioting, attempt to murder and trespassing on burial places.
The rise of the Hindu priest-turned-politician in Uttar Pradesh, a state prone to sectarian strife, surprised many after Modi made his development agenda the focus of his campaign in the region, which is traditionally fractured along caste and religious lines.
Observers questioned whether Adityanath would continue pushing his “Hindutva”, loosely translated as “Hinduness”, ideology as chief minister.
“PM @narendramodi says development & growth is his primary agenda. Allowing Hindutva hardliners to helm a major state is a costly mistake,” said senior journalist Malini Parthasarathy on Twitter as #YogiAdityanath became a top-trending topic in India.
But the BJP, which won 312 of the total 403 seats in Uttar Pradesh, reassured Adityanath would work for development and anti-corruption.
“This is a watershed moment in the history of BJP,” said Naidu, federal information & broadcasting minister.
“The mandate is for development, good governance and against caste politics.”
But Manish Tewari, senior leader of the Congress Party, tweeted that Adityanath’s appointment was a “harbinger to greater polarisation.”
Trinamool Congress MP Saugata Roy said it was the prerogative of the BJP to make the choice but “it is evident that it wants to pursue a strong Hindutva line.”
Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat said: “The choice is a clear RSS agenda because they want to develop Uttar Pradesh as the centre of Hindutva project.”
With last week’s clear win in the politically crucial state, the BJP hopes to boost Modi’s chances for a second term in 2019 general elections but it was unclear whether Adityanath’s appointment would help it get there or backfire.
Professor Sudha Pai, an expert on Uttar Pradesh politics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, said Adityanath “is not a good choice and will not help Modi’s development agenda.”
Modi’s dominance has been largely unchallenged since he won the first overall majority in three decades in 2014 elections on a pledge to wipe out corruption and kickstart the economy.
Federal Home minister Rajnath Singh, Minister of State for Railways Manoj Sinha and BJP state president Keshav Prasad Maurya had also been seen as contenders for the post of chief minister.
Maurya however has been made one of the two deputy chief ministers - a first in the state. The other is Dinesh Sharma.
Naidu said Adityanath - who comes from the Rajput community - wanted two other “senior leaders” to help him run the government smoothly.
BJP sources said this was done to balance caste aspirations since now there is a Rajput as chief minister and an MBC (most backward class) and a Brahmin face as deputies.
Yogi Adityanath is greeted after he was elected as Uttar Pradesh chief minister, in Lucknow yesterday.