x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Right-wing yogi has no time to breathe

A Hindu priest and MP is an extremist who takes his antiterrorism message on the election trail in India.

Yogi Adityanath, the Bharatiya Janta Party's candidate, is known for espousing right-wing views.
Yogi Adityanath, the Bharatiya Janta Party's candidate, is known for espousing right-wing views.

GORAKHPUR, INDIA // It is 8am at the Gorakhnath Mutt, a much-venerated Hindu temple abutting the Nepal border, and already a crowd is gathering. They are waiting to see Yogi Adityanath, the temple's 36-year-old head priest, who is revered as both a religious and political leader. In this communally fractious landscape, known to be a bastion of hardline Hindu politics, he is known for espousing and propagating extremist right-wing views. Representing the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), he has been a member of the Indian parliament representing Gorakhpur for three terms, and is now running for a fourth. Political pundits predict yet another cakewalk victory. When this lean, slight man with a shaved head emerges from his air-conditioned office, he is swamped by the crowd. Some fall at his feet asking for a blessing; others hope he can use his political influence to help them with their paperwork. But the yogi-ji has no time for any of them; he has 20 campaign rallies to attend. "He doesn't have time to breathe," said his campaign manager. Even a five-minute chat with a reporter would eat too much into his tight schedule, he said. I only have one option. I will need to shadow him on his campaign trail and try to snatch a conversation with him in between rallies. The cavalcade comprises half a dozen Jeeps full of gun-toting bodyguards, supporters and campaigners, and led by motorcyclists waving saffron-coloured flags. Chasing a high-profile politician such as the yogi is akin to chasing a tornado. His first stop is Nakaha village, 15km away. "Our society is in the grips of Islamic terrorism and Naxalites [India's Maoist rebels]," I hear him thunder on a public address system, as my taxi pulls in. "This country has witnessed one bomb blast after another in various cities. Terrorism has cast a pall on our Indian culture." He adds: "Our Hindu culture is in danger. It is my duty - and yours - to save it." A crowd, gathered under a tent, listen raptly. I am frisked by security before being allowed anywhere near him. "Yogi is on a Fidayeen [Islamic] sleeper cell's hit list," a supporter said, explaining how Mr Adityanath was attacked by protesters last year as he addressed a rally in Azamgarh, a mainly Muslim district. The yogi escaped unscathed and reached the rally where he again spoke out against terrorism. I am unable to ask him about that attempt on his life as he sprints to his car as soon as his speech is finished. His next stop: Gudiya Mai Temple in the Kusmi jungle area of Gorakhpur. We board a rusty boat to get there. His speech is again full of antiterrorism slogans. It is an important week, he tells the crowd. "The BJP declared its manifesto last week" and Hindutva is back on the agenda. Ever since he became an MP at the age of 26 in 1998, Yogi Adityanath has been unapologetic for his aggressive brand of Hindutva politics. Indian secularists have long baulked at his vision of a hegemonic Hindu nation in this multi-ethnic country of 1.2 billion. When he steps down off the stage, I elbow my way through the crowd to ask about the need to peddle an aggressive Hindutva campaign. "Only aggressive Hindutva can fight terrorism," he said, making a move towards his car. I keep pace, asking if he supports the BJP position of rebuilding Ram Temple at Ayodhya. In 1992, Hindu fundamentalists razed a mosque built on the site of the Ram Temple, which led to nationwide riots. Since then, the BJP has consistently said it would rebuild the temple. "We want to build it. If the BJP comes to power on its own, it will be a high priority," he said. "But if a coalition comes to power, we will have to abide by the wishes of our political partners." Before I can ask the next question, he gets into his car and is off again. Next stop: Chandahi village. But as we reach the gathering, cars and motorcycles are already turning back. We are too late. Our taxi makes a mad dash for the next stop: Rakshwapar village, a 10-minute drive from Chandahi. This time we are early and I have some time to chat with his supporters who have gathered under a sprawling tent. "If you are a true Hindu, you will vote for yogi-ji," a campaigner bellows into a microphone. "This is more than an election rally. This is a part of his antiterrorism campaign he launched long ago called 'Hindu awakening'," one supporter said. The supporter, who did not want to be named, said the hardline stance was necessary given the "increase in ISI activities through madrasas on the Indo-Nepal border", referring to Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI. "Yogi-ji has set up cow sheds in Gorakhpur to check the smuggling of beef to neighbouring Bangladesh," he said, referring to Mr Adityanath's efforts to protect the animal sacred to Hindus. When his cavalcade finally arrives, he is garlanded by cheering supporters. He climbs on top of a podium and starts his speech. "Don't vote for messiahs who only cater to Dalits or Muslims for their vote bank. Vote for those who will work to build our Hindu rashtra." After his speech, he sits on a low podium and I am able to sit next to him and rattle off questions even before he can absorb my presence. I gently rib him about a priest taking up politics. In a multi-ethnic and diverse country such as India, is it not reckless to mix religion and politics? His face puckers. "People don't repudiate the idea of mixing religion and politics," he said. "Politics without any morals is meaningless. Religion fills the vacuum of those necessary morals values." After his cavalcade leaves, I melt into the crowd. Shakuntala, an aged labourer from a village farm, had walked five kilometres to hear Mr Adityanath. Is terrorism the biggest issue that affects you personally? I ask. "Terrorism, huh?" she replies with a furrow in her brow. She thinks for a moment. Finally she says: "There's scarcity of water in this village. I urgently need a water pump in my backyard." achopra@thenational.ae