Yogi Adityanath, the Hindu-monk-turned-state chief of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, has been viewed for a long time as the country's future prime minister by a considerable section of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The support for his elevation to national politics among his own party --the BJP -- had been substantial in recent years. But his meteoric rise was disrupted as the COVID epidemic ravaged through India's ‘Hindi heartland’, the region lying in the Gangetic plains of north India and inhabited by Hindi speakers.
In Uttar Pradesh, which has a population almost equal to that of Brazil, the effects of the second wave have been particularly severe and drawn international attention. It is largely due to the corpses of alleged COVID victims found floating in the Ganges river around cities such as Prayagraj.
At the peak of the second wave in April, the state was recording a COVID positivity rate of 16.83 percent, with a record 310,000 cases reported on 30 April.
The COVID numbers have since declined, thanks to inspections of the major COVID-hit centres in the state, directly overseen by State Chief Adityanath. On Tuesday, the state recorded fewer than 11,000 new cases, with a positivity rate below one percent.
However, the damage to Adityanath’s reputation, and probably his prime ministerial ambitions, has already been done.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a biographer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, tells Sputnik that before the COVID pandemic struck Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath was widely seen as a potential threat to Modi [in terms of his growing popularity as a BJP leader].
"That was because he adopts a more hardline than Modi as far as asserting the Hindu identity politics is concerned," notes Mukhopadhyay.
The acclaimed author recalls that in the pre-pandemic period, Adityanath's politics directly challenged the political status of Modi, which was not to the prime minister's liking.
"The prime minister didn't want Yogi to be the chief minister of the state when the BJP won the state election in Uttar Pradesh in 2017. But it was the other legislators and the state unit of the BJP which wanted Yogi to helm the state," he recalls.
However, things have changed for Yogi since the COVID pandemic hit the state and drew international attention, largely due to the dead corpses found to be floating in the Ganges, a revered river in Hindu mythology.
At a high-level meeting called by the federal leadership of the BJP to chalk out the election strategy for next year’s Uttar Pradesh state legislature polls, a consensus is believed to have emerged on changing the leadership structure of state politics.
The meeting was attended by Prime Minister Modi and senior members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP. Any BJP prime minister contender, including Modi in the past, must seek support from the RSS, as per established party practice.
Sources in the state BJP told Sputnik that Yogi's loyalists could be relegated to the sidelines in the coming days. They further say that if the BJP under Adityanath manages to win the state polls next year, it won't be good news for Modi's own ambition to become the prime minister for the third time.
Only one Indian prime minister - Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru of the Congress party - has ever managed to win three federal elections in a row, a feat Modi seeks to emulate in the 2024 federal polls.
Sources said that Arvind Kumar Sharma, a member of the legislative council (MLC) and formerly with the Prime Minister’s Office, has emerged as the choice for the post of deputy state chief for Uttar Pradesh.
Sharma hails from Uttar Pradesh but has spent most of his bureaucratic career in PM Modi's home state of Gujarat. He was tasked by the federal government to bring back in control the deteriorating COVID situation in Varanasi, a Hindu holy city represented in the federal parliament by Prime Minister Modi. Varanasi was among the worst-hit cities in Uttar Pradesh in the ongoing second COVID wave.
For Adityanath’s supporters, bringing in Sharma, first to state politics and then to Varanasi, is a sign of things to come.
The region around Varanasi in eastern Uttar Pradesh is also a stronghold of Adityanath, who heads a Hindu cult in the nearby Gorakhpur city.
"The biggest challenge for Yogi, before he eyes the PM's seat in 2024, is getting re-elected in UP next year. The COVID pandemic couldn't have been handled in a worse manner. But Yogi has been as arrogant as ever," says Mukhopadhyay.
The author reckons another formidable challenge that Yogi will have to ward off is that from within the BJP, with a perennial threat from Modi. There is talk within the party to either remove him as state chief or get someone appointed who breathes down his neck.
"Yogi must take into account that someone from within the BJP doesn't pull his leg," says the author.
“Yogi also has to reclaim the lost support base among BJP supporters, many of them now openly critical of him due to the handling of the pandemic and the farmers' stir,” states Mukhopadhyay.
In private conversations, Yogi’s supporters do admit that Prime Minister Modi has been unfazed by the Hindu monk’s popularity, particularly among BJP’s hardline Hindu base.
“We definitely see and want Yogi Adityanath as the next Prime Minister of the country,” Yogendra Singh Rana, the vice-president of radical Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV), tells Sputnik. The HYV was founded by Yogi Adityanath in 2002 and it describes itself as a “fierce” cultural and nationalist organisation dedicated to Hindutva and nationalism.
In the past, the organisation has attacked unmarried couples on St. Valentine’s Day and barred the entry of “non-Hindus” to temples, among other things. Its members have also been accused of attacking Muslims and other minorities in hate crimes, endearing the outfit to many supporters of the BJP.
Advantage Modi For Now
The organisational changes in Uttar Pradesh’s BJP proposed at Sunday’s meeting were backed by the RSS, which has started to hint at its displeasure with Modi. In a rare occurrence, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat this month publicly criticised the government for its handling of the pandemic.
However, sources say that even the RSS can’t go against Modi for now. “The RSS has expanded its footprint to almost every corner of the country since 2014 (parliamentary elections). Besides, Yogi must prevail in the 2022 polls for the RSS to take any call on its future choice (for the 2024 parliamentary elections),” say sources.