Identity Politics à la Modi
Modi Taps Nationalist Firebrand To Head India’s Biggest State

The triumph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in recent state elections has given BJP a major governing mandate in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. With Modi’s appointment of a fiery Hindu nationalist as chief minister, however, some are questioning whether liberal economic reforms will take a backseat to divisive identity politics. Financial Times:

After being sworn in, Yogi Adityanath, the chief of a Hindu temple in Gorakhpur, a backward corner of an impoverished state, pledged inclusive development. On Twitter, Mr Modi also insisted “our sole mission and motive is development”.

But such claims ring hollow. As a public figure, Mr Adityanath is notorious for stoking tensions, and fanning smouldering resentments, between India’s majority Hindu population and its downtrodden Muslim minority. […]

In choosing such a polarising figure to run India’s biggest state, which has a history of communal violence, Mr Modi has cast doubts over his own agenda, as he gears up for re-election in 2019, against a weak, demoralised, fragmented opposition.

We have written before about the two sides of Modi’s political persona: the liberal economic reformer and the Hindu nationalist. Since taking office, Modi has usually tried to de-emphasize the latter, but Adiyanath’s appointment is raising fears among the commentariat that the BJP could turn in a more sectarian and nationalist direction. Adityanath’s record certainly raises hackles among Uttar Pradesh’s Muslims: he has called for India to be a Hindu nation, denounced interfaith romances as “Love Jihad,” and leads a right-wing nationalist youth force accused of stoking anti-Muslim violence.

At the same time, it is premature to assume that one appointment will send BJP full-tilt down the path of Hindu nationalism. The fact that Modi and Adityanath are explicitly talking about “inclusive development” suggest other priorities, as well as an awareness of the controversy the appointment would provoke. And as Prime Minister, Modi has previously acted to rein in BJP leaders who have emphasized contentious Hindutva agendas; perhaps he will bring the same moderating influence to bear on Adityanath.

Whatever course BJP charts, the party’s efforts in governing Uttar Pradesh bear close watching. If BJP can show tangible improvements in economic growth and poverty reduction there as it did in Gujarat, the party could further boost its national credibility, even among minorities. If those efforts stall and the party instead pursues a divisive nationalist agenda, ethnic tensions and religious violence could heat up quickly.

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