Lucknow: Yogi Adityanath, born Ajay Mohan Bisht, is a politician with a difference in many ways. From someone who wasn’t even part of the BJP’s star campaigner list in 2017, to becoming the first UP CM in 37 years who looks set for a consecutive term in office, the 49-year-old monk-politician has come a long way.
Born in a lower-middle class home to a forest ranger and his wife in Uttarakhand’s Pauri Garhwal, the “smart boy” Ajay, had once joined the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) at the behest of a relative, only to realise that the party’s sensibilities did not suit him. He then went on to join the RSS student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), says Shantanu Gupta, who has written a biography on the UP CM titled The Monk Who Became Chief Minister.
Gupta described Yogi as a “no-gossip and curious boy”, who met the second mahant of the Gorakhpur Mutt, Avaidyanath, during the Ramjanmabhoomi movement and impressed him so much that the latter indicated to him in 1993 that Adityanath was next in line to head the mutt. In those days Adityanath was known as “Chota Mahant” by those associated with the religious organisation.
“While the religious transfer of power happened in 1994,” recalled Gupta, his rise in politics started in 1998 when “Yogi Adityanath became a parliamentarian at the age of 26”.
Meanwhile, Adityanath’s image as a firebrand, anti-Muslim Hindu leader was already being established, said Vijai Trivedi, the author of another biography of the UP CM, Yada Yada hi Yogi, owing largely to some polarising speeches made by him.
“The mutt had been the main centre of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement for over 60 years under Yogi’s predecessors Digvijay Nath and Avaidyanath, but the advent of Yogi Adityanath was marked with his aggressive approach on Hindutva along with the creation of the right wing outfit Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV). His role in the eastern UP politics in the aftermath of the January 2007 communal riots and subsequent events further helped buttress this image. The mutt, which once saw visits by Muslims in large numbers, started witnessing a decline on that front under Yogi,” he said.
Yogi’s HYV, which describes itself as an outfit dedicated to Hindutva and nationalism, is linked with the agenda of cow protection, fighting against “Love Jihad” and performing “Ghar Wapsi” — a lot of which later found resonance in the BJP’s sankalp patra and narrative ahead of the 2017 polls, which the BJP won with a thumping majority.
Rebel member to party’s UP face
Despite being a BJP member, Yogi Adityanath’s initial years in the party were rocky. The leader is said to have not enjoyed cordial relations with many in BJP, as was indicated by his support of Hindu Mahasabha candidate Radha Mohan Das in Gorakhpur against BJP cabinet minister and candidate Shiv Pratap Shukla, ahead of the 2002 assembly elections.
“Yogi has never had good relations with the BJP. In fact, he has even been critical of the BJP in his past. In a show of strength in 2006, he had organised a Virat Hindu Mahasammelan at Gorakhpur at the same time that a BJP national executive meet was on in Lucknow. In a 2007 speech in Parliament, he had said he was facing threat and that he was ready to leave his post,” Trivedi told ThePrint.
But Yogi’s appeal in Gorakhpur remained unmatched where his firebrand image has a fan base of sorts.
Trivedi remembered that soon after Yogi was arrested by police for violation of prohibitory orders during the 2007 UP religious unrest, it took the cops five hours to take him to the police station, located about one-and-a-half kilometers away.
“The entire city of Gorakhpur witnessed massive jams and came to a halt as Yogi walked towards the police station,” he said.
No mention in star campaigner list to becoming CM
Political analysts remember that in the run-up to the 2017 polls, Yogi had not even been declared a star campaigner by the BJP, in the first two phases of the elections.
“Keshav Maurya whose influence had grown in the BJP especially since the national executive meet in Allahabad and senior leader Manoj Sinha, both were said to be in the race for the CM seat. However, even as media channels were flashing these two faces, the BJP announced Yogi Adityanath’s name for the CM’s post,” said Trivedi.
Insiders point out how Yogi’s pet agendas against “love jihad”, “triple talaq”, ban on slaughter houses, subsequently became the party’s agenda.
That Yogi Adityanath is a “strict” leader, who has emerged as a “cult” in eastern UP, is pointed out by many political analysts, but they also talk about his image as someone who lacks flexibility and the allegations of “polarization” against him.
Badri Narayan, director at the GB Pant Social Science Institute, Prayagraj, told ThePrint that the UP CM’s the results of the 2022 UP polls look set to strengthen Adityanath’s standing within the BJP.
“He is a firebrand Hindutva leader, but to play a bigger role at the centre, he needs flexibility and needs to compromise, which is necessary in politics. That flexibility is so far missing in his actions. He does not think too much of what is happening around and follows his own judgement,” said Narayan.
Meanwhile, many in the party are already celebrating the UP CM’s expected return in office — Yogi will be the first CM in 37 years in the state to have completed a five-year term and making a return for a consecutive tenure.
“Despite serving a five-term, Yogiji has never lobbied for, never exhibited any hunger for power and he is seen as a “kathor (strict) leader,” said BJP spokesperson Rakesh Tripathi. “Everyone saw how he skipped his father’s funeral, keeping his duties ahead. He is the one who ordered posters to be put up against anti-CAA protesters (in Lucknow), he takes risks. As far as flexibility is concerned, Yogiji has an important territory to head and has no national expectation as such,” he said.