Hindu Nationalism in India's Heartland

7 MINS READApr 5, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
Hindu Nationalism in Uttar Pradesh
With the appointment of Hindu cleric Yogi Adityanath (C) as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Amit Shah aim to appease their base supporters.
Forecast Highlights

  • Newly installed Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath will walk a fine line between appeasing his Hindu nationalist supporters and inflaming communal tensions.
  • Sweeping support on religious and cultural issues will give the new government space to shift focus to economic development.
  • The realities of governance will force Adityanath to moderate his hard-line views in favor of a more pragmatic approach.

Just as a wave of conservative populism is sweeping across Europe and the United States, a similar pattern is unfolding in the world’s largest democracy. During recent state elections, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s center-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a commanding victory in the all-important state of Uttar Pradesh. As a result, about three of every five Indians — 740 million people — now live under a state government run by the BJP or an allied party — seven times the number who live under the six state governments ruled by India's historically dominant Congress Party and its allies.

Emboldened by its sweeping success in the country's heartland, the BJP is doubling down on its Hindu nationalist platform — as evidenced by the party’s choice of Hindu cleric Yogi Adityanath as the new chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath wasted no time in pursuing Hindu nationalist priorities, immediately launching a crackdown on beef sellers in the state. Such moves will help sustain the support of the BJP base as the new government takes on the task of reviving the state's languishing economy. But economic motives — along with the heightened risk of widespread communal unrest — will also limit how far Adityanath's administration can push its nationalist advantage.

To Unite or Divide?

Adityanath’s appointment is controversial for a several reasons. As the head priest of a politically influential temple, Gorakhnath Math, Adityanath was known for stoking anti-Muslim sentiment. For example, he once said that 100 Muslims should be killed to avenge every killing of a Hindu. At one point, his divisive rhetoric earned him a ban from from Allahabad, a holy city located at the confluence of the Ganges and Jamuna rivers that hosts a massive pilgrimage of Hindus every 13 years. Adityanath's temple was also involved in the 1992 campaign to demolish the Babri Masjid, a mosque in Ayodhya believed to have been built on the birthplace of Ram, a prominent deity in the Hindu pantheon. The incident sparked a spasm of violence across India that left at least 2,000 people dead.

Communalism is a common factor in India’s identity-driven politics. During the Uttar Pradesh election campaign, in fact, Modi himself subtly stoked Hindu-Muslim divisions by asserting that every village with a Muslim graveyard should feature a Hindu cremation ground as well. The appointment of Adityanath was a more overt nod to the state’s Hindu nationalist base — and one that will likely encourage firebrand supporters on contentious issues such as calls to rebuild the Ram temple.

Population Density in Uttar Pradesh

But as was demonstrated in 1992, such flashpoints are capable of triggering wider communal tensions. And this highlights the core challenge facing Adityanath and the BJP more broadly: how to reap the political benefits of communalism without provoking widespread instability that would undermine the party's ability to govern. Adityanath, a five-time member of the lower house of India’s parliament who campaigned doggedly for the BJP in eastern Uttar Pradesh, has no executive experience in government. Nonetheless, he is running a state that has a population exceeding Russia's and that suffers from high poverty rates and low levels of infrastructure and economic development. The state's current gross domestic product per capita is $876, roughly half the national average.

Adityanath focused his inaugural speech on development and steered clear of the temple issue. Given the challenges of governance, he likely will be forced to moderate his image somewhat — particularly as he attempts to cultivate the sort of investment-friendly climate needed to boost industry. Indeed, Modi likewise rose to power carrying an anti-Muslim stigma (he was accused of complicity in riots pitting Hindus against Muslims in the western state of Gujarat in 2002) before shifting his narrative largely to development upon taking office.

Still, progress on the economic front will likely be slow, giving Adityanath and the BJP powerful political incentives to keep the party's base focused on cultural and religious issues while moving to expanding support among the state's Hindu population. For example, Adityanath is taking on two deputy chief ministers — a first for the Uttar Pradesh state government — in part because of the scope of development tasks at hand, but also to secure Hindu support from outside his Thakur caste. (One deputy, BJP state-level president Keshav Prasad Maurya, hails from the non-Yadav OBC — a lower-caste community. The other, former Lucknow Mayor Dinesh Sharma, is an upper-caste Brahmin.) This combination is part of the BJP’s strategy of maintaining Hindu cohesion in the state ahead of the 2019 national elections.

The Sacred Calf

The BJP's attempt to balance Hindu nationalist political priorities with economic concerns is already being illustrated in the contentious politics of beef in Uttar Pradesh. Shortly after taking office on March 19, Adityanath's administration launched a campaign to shutter slaughterhouses and meat shops across the state operating without a licence. (According to rough estimates, there are 50,000 unlicensed meat shops in Uttar Pradesh.) The move was applauded by Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which demands a total ban on beef consumption.

The slaughter of cattle, taboo among Hindus, has long been an explosive issue in Hindu-majority areas of India, particularly Uttar Pradesh. In 2015, the National Green Tribunal ordered the closure of all illegal slaughterhouses in the state on environmental grounds, citing concerns about improper disposal techniques. But the Samajwadi Party, which ruled the state at the time, did not prioritize the issue, largely because the lower-caste party relies heavily on the support of Muslims, which are well-represented in the meat industry. The BJP has no such political concerns. Of the 312 state assembly seats the party bagged in the recent election, none will be held by a Muslim.

Naturally, Adityanath's crackdown mobilized the meat industry. Earlier this month, industry groups such as Lucknow Bakra Gosht Vyapar Mandal organized a statewide strike by meat purveyors that lasted five days. The move was not necessarily a defense of unlicensed slaughterhouses — some meat sellers welcomed the crackdown — but rather over claims that even licensed slaughterhouses were being subject to harassment by overzealous supporters of the operation.

The state, which is home to more than half of India's 75 government-approved slaughterhouses and processing plants, accounts for around 50 percent of the country's meat exports. And the importance of the industry appears to have tempered how forcefully Adityanath is willing to cater to his base. According to the industry groups, the meat sellers agreed to stand down from their strike after the chief minister agreed to issue licenses to illegal slaughterhouses within 20 days.

The issue demonstrates how the demands of office will push Adityanath toward a more moderate version of Hindu nationalism, adopting rhetoric that, while more strident than that of his predecessors, is less belligerent than what was featured in the election campaign. He will resort to highlighting religious and cultural issues when needed to placate a base that otherwise would grow restless with the sputtering pace of economic progress. But if taken to lengths that spark extensive social instability, such rhetoric would hinder the ruling party's momentum in the state and open a window of opportunity for the three main opposition parties — the Indian National Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Samajwadi Party — to put aside their own differences and unite against Modi and the BJP in the 2019 elections. As it stands, Adityanath’s appointment reflects Modi’s momentum and the ruling party's position of strength in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP remains the party to beat.

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