Careful image makeover
There was an element of subterfuge in the BJP's selection of Yogi Adityanath as the UP chief minister. Throughout the campaign, the party maintained a deafening silence on its chief ministerial candidate. Various names did the rounds like those of Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Minister of State for Railways Manoj Sinha and others, but there was no mention of the firebrand mahant of the Gorakhnath Math, credited with being the most popular BJP leader in the state.
Was the party scared that an announcement of his name would frighten not only the minorities but several other sections of the electorate as well? So it played its only card - Narendra Modi - whose appeal cuts across caste and religious barriers. The ploy worked with the BJP winning a mammoth 312 seats out of 403. When the state was safely in the bag, the Yogi emerged from the wings to be at the centre of the stage.
Although there hasn't been any egregious misstep by him till now, the BJP is apparently a trifle nervous. Hence, its intemperate reaction to a New York Times editorial which has said that the Yogi's choice was a "shocking rebuke to religious minorities and a sign that cold political calculations" before 2019 have made the BJP "believe that nothing stands in the way of realizing its long-held dream of transforming a secular republic into a Hindu state".
Considering that it was no more than an opinion piece, it was strange that the Modi government would wheel out an external affairs ministry spokesman to express misgivings about the "wisdom of doubting the verdicts of genuine democratic exercises … both at home and abroad".
The last four words are particularly intriguing for they suggest that the Modi government is disapproving of not only the NYT's comments on Indian politics but also on American affairs. Is the Indian government telling the NYT and, by implication, the entire US media, not to be critical of Donald Trump and thereby trying to keep the new US administration in good humour?
There have been suggestions that the Modi government's intention is to reassure the international community and particularly the investors that Yogi's appointment does not signify any change in Modi's development-oriented priorities. Yogi, too, has echoed his master's voice by promising development for all and appeasement of none. He has told the anti-Romeo squads not to harass courting couples and assured meat-sellers that only the National Green Tribunal's norms would be followed concerning the abattoirs, which the BJP threatened to close down in its manifesto.
Arguably, this show of moderation by the former rabble-rouser is an exercise in what can be called soft or controlled Hindutva, which eschews the earlier rabid variety. However, some of that venom is still oozing out as can be seen from a BJP MLA's threat to break the bones of those who do not say Vande Mataram or kill cows. But, overall, Yogi is emulating Modi's tightrope walk between his economic agenda and the saffron brotherhood's communal inclinations.
As of now, it is a winning formula since it appeals to a broad cross-section of the people as the UP outcome has shown. It is evident, however, that a misstep can upset the delicate balance. This is what happened in Gujarat in 2002, which robbed Atal Bihari Vajpayee of his expected success in 2004, as he later said, and handed the Congress a victory on the platter.
The BJP cannot afford to make the same mistake again although the Congress's Mani Shankar Aiyar said in 2014 that his party was waiting for the Godhra moment to unmask Modi. That moment hasn't yet arrived. The BJP is acutely aware that amajor communal conflagration can undo the advantages it gained since 2013 when it won four state elections in the build-up to the party's 2014 success.
Given Yogi Adityanath's reputation, most observers would have thought that the BJP was taking too much of a risk by entrusting him with the top job in UP. But the step may have been intended to send a message to all saffron hardliners to hold their fire. If Yogi pipes down, as he did earlier when he backed off from the gharwapsi and love jihad campaigns, then the other hawks cannot but cool off.
How long Modi - and Yogi - will be able to keep the hotheads at bay is a million-dollar question, not least because the BJP is only one wing of the Sangh Parivar. There are others like the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, which are not interested in the economy so much as in their communal agenda of advancing towards the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra. They have been waiting since Vajpayee's time for the BJP to start building the Ram temple as the first step towards fulfilling their dream of a Bharat where the minorities will be second class citizens. But the cautious moderation of the BJP leaders from Vajpayee to Modi has been thwarting their ambition. Now Yogi has become the latest addition to the list of moderates.
IPA(The writer is a political analyst. Views expressed are strictly personal.)