The Yogi in His Labyrinth

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As Yogi Adityanath completes one year in office, his supporters expect him to be an effective administrator rather than a potential kingmaker

THE SAMAJWADI PARTY’S office in Lucknow is teeming with people. After the party’s victory in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur bypolls for the Lok Sabha, there is palpable excitement in the air. The rush of vehicles on the road leading to the party office has caused a massive traffic jam. Stalls selling party paraphernalia are doing brisk business. “Humein sambhaavna dikh rahi hai (I can see a possibility),” a man in his twenties tells someone on the phone as he crosses a metal detector installed at the main gate. Inside, security personnel in safari suits steer towards one corner throngs of young men who now see a possibility of the party’s electoral revival.

In the main auditorium, about a hundred journalists await the SP president and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav. They sit on plush red chairs—just like the ones in multiplexes—in front of a platform. It has a red background, with a bicycle, the SP’s symbol, hung in the middle of it. On both sides are busts of socialist stalwarts.

A few partymen go around, distributing small packets to journalists that contain cheese pakora, laddoo and Amul Lassi. Akhilesh is running late, journalists are told; he is caught in a TV interview. Journalists pass their time by cracking jokes and exchanging gossip. Religious cellphone ringtones erupt here and there. A local journalist tells another from elsewhere that he has heard Akhilesh speak fluent English, but he does not do so in public because he wants to be seen as a leader of the masses.

Akhilesh finally arrives, over an hour late, with senior party leader Azam Khan and others in tow. The former Chief Minister is all smiles; he looks at the journalists and cracks a joke. Someone in the audience quips that there is ‘sannata’ (silence) in the ‘other’ office—alluding to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s defeat in the bypolls. “It happens,” says Akhilesh, “We have also dealt with it.”

Afterwards, Azam Khan begins to speak with a poetic flourish about his party’s recent understanding with the Bahujan Samaj Party. He terms the BSP a ‘shareek-e- hayat’, a partner. “We will be with them till [the] last breath,” he declares.

Minutes later, two young men are introduced; they will be joining the party, announces Akhilesh. One is a former contestant of the popular TV show Big Boss, while the other is presented as a neurosurgeon. Khan says the doctor holds a record for doing a surgery in the shortest time. Akhilesh adds he is the son-in-law of a BJP minister in UP. The doctor, Naval Kishore, turns out to be a surgical oncologist; he was married to UP state minister Swami Prasad Maurya’s daughter (the two are currently separated).

As his name is announced, Kishore adjusts the party’s red cap on his head and stands up. With a statue of Buddha held in one hand, he raises his other arm and stays on his feet till a securityman asks him to sit down.

Outside, the crowd has swollen further. Men wait for Akhilesh’s cavalcade, hoping to meet him and get a picture taken. Perhaps he will notice them. Perhaps such a sambhaavna will open up. Maybe they will get a place in his entourage. Or they could get a chance to appear on TV.

MERI ADYAKSHJI SE baat ho gayi hai (I have spoken to the president).” One gets to hear words to this effect outside every government office in Lucknow. It is new people looking for old opportunities. The adyakshji, the president, could be anyone, at any level in the leadership hierarchy. The government of UP has changed, but the sambhaavna of patronage remains the same.

At the top of the power pyramid now is the man who has remained unfazed, at least in front of TV cameras, by his party’s recent setback: Yogi Adityanath, the 45-year-old Chief Minister of India’s most populous state.

Two days before his government is to complete one year in office, Yogi prepares to leave the annexe building that houses his secretariat and which he got partially painted in saffron a few months ago. Lucknow journalists say Yogi’s predecessor, Akhilesh Yadav, only visited it for cabinet meetings. But Yogi sits here daily, meeting his ministers and officials.

In a room on the building’s ground floor, a team monitors the government’s coverage on TV. Yogi is to leave for a media conclave in Delhi, one of the many he will attend over the next few days. He is used to the drill. In the past few months, questions have been raised, time and again, over the spate of police encounters in the state. But now, analysts are more keen to understand why the BJP lost in Gorakhpur, a constituency that Yogi has lorded over for decades, one that elected him five times to the Lok Sabha.

Nobody knows what happened.

In hindsight, political commentators, as is their wont, have offered multiple reasons. There are theories and counter theories. The Centre wanted to teach Yogi a lesson, goes one, and the BJP’s Gorakhpur defeat has cut him to size. No, it is Yogi who has taught New Delhi a lesson that without him the party cannot win. Many ever-optimistic BJP supporters believe that the party deliberately lost Gorakhpur to lull the opposition into a false sense of hope so that the SP and BSP can be pummelled in 2019.

Many optimistic BJP supporters believe the party deliberately lost Gorakhpur to lull the opposition into a false sense of hope so that the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party can be pummelled in 2019

According to a small item in a Hindi newspaper, the Gorakhpur outcome has pleased everyone. ‘Modi is happy as Yogi lost. Yogi is happy that a Brahmin has lost a Thakur seat. Brahmins are happy that Yogi has lost; Dalits are happy as a Nishad (OBC) has won,’ it says. Some have even attributed this seat’s loss to Yogi’s insistence on visiting Noida in December last year to inaugurate a Noida-Delhi Metro line; in political circles, there has been a belief that any UP Chief Minister who visits Noida loses afterwards.

But Yogi has told his ministers to put up a brave face. “We are here to stay,” says Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma. “[The General Election of] 2019 belongs to BJP and its victory chariot will emerge from UP.”

At a media gathering held that evening, Yogi maintains what he has from the day the bypoll results came out: the loss of the two seats was due to ‘overconfidence’, and the party cadre had taken a win for granted. “Victory and defeat is neither a matter of joy nor sadness for us,” he says. He says he is a yogi and that he will flip the Noida jinx from inauspicious to auspicious.

The Chief Minister works very hard, says a senior member of his social media team who does not want to be identified. “Like Prime Minister Modi, he has no family and thus gives 100 per cent to his job,” he says. Another associate who has been with Yogi for long says that Maharajji, as Yogi is reverently called by his people, runs the UP government just the way he held power in Gorakhpur: holding janata darbars, routinely meeting ministers and officials and reviewing the work of each department. “He is less like a CM and more like a CEO,” he says.

Some of it has borne fruit, at least on paper. In UP’s recently concluded investment summit, 1,045 MoUs worth nearly Rs 4.3 lakh crore in investment were signed. The summit, inaugurated by Modi himself, saw the presence of 20 Union ministers. Of course, whether these promises of investment came through is quite another matter.

The state has ambitious plans to develop various cities as tourist destinations, with a special emphasis on religious tourism. There are mega plans, for example, for Allahabad, where the Ardh Kumbh will be held next year.

The Yogi government has cracked down on cheating in board exams. As a result of strict measures that have been taken, it is believed that 180,000 students did not appear for the board exams this year. “The copying mafia in UP was worth Rs 10,000 crore and we have brought an end to it,” says Dinesh Sharma.

A few months after Yogi took office as UP’s Chief Minister, his reputation for governance was marred by the death of scores of children due to an oxygen cylinder shortage in a government hospital in Gorakhpur. It drew popular attention back to what the opposition called Yogi’s poor record as the constituency’s representative in Parliament. But nothing has evoked more interest in the state than Yogi’s promise of changing the law-and-order scenario and the subsequent police action. Yogi’s first year in power saw over 1,300 alleged encounters, resulting in the death of 43 people. “What do I tell you, sometimes it feels as if a reward on a criminal is declared and then soon afterwards he dies in an encounter with the police,” says a top officer on condition of anonymity. He also wonders how every act of the forces in their normal course of duty gets turned into a social media celebration. On March 19th, the day Yogi completed one year in office, a student was kidnapped by his driver in Lucknow. The case was solved soon after. “But it seems as if the police are doing a favour to the people by solving cases,” says the officer.

But senior police officers also reveal that interference from the Chief Minister’s office has reduced drastically. “Earlier, when I received a request, we had to bend all the rules within minutes to accommodate that request. But now we can say ‘no’ and it is accepted,” says another senior police officer.

Questions are also now being raised over the government’s effort to withdraw 131 cases against Hindus accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013. Earlier, acting on the Chief Minister’s orders, the state government had taken steps to spike cases against Yogi himself—including a two-decade old case.

Yogi loyalists say no matter what happens in 2019, the Chief Minister still has four more years of his term left. He will be judged for that, they say, and he will have to deliver on his promises of good governance

ON THE FIRST anniversary of his government, Yogi has released a booklet highlighting his government’s achievements. Party insiders say that a proof copy was shown to him just a day before. He was so angry at its shoddiness, says one staffer, that he threw it away. A senior bureaucrat then scrambled to get it redone and printed just in time for its release on March 20th. “The problem is,” says a senior staff member in Yogi’s team, “he is surrounded by a circle of bureaucrats who do not give him a clear picture. They make him function like the state’s principal secretary.” He quotes the example of Holi, when Yogi, on the advice of some officials, hopped from one event to another. “In Mathura, when he was asked to climb a few hundred stairs to visit a temple, Maharajji lost it,” he says.

Some Yogi loyalists also feel that his officials feed him a sweet concoction of media coverage that makes him feel that all is well. They also point at instances of officials having promised help in response to various Twitter requests that later had to be denied for a lack of funds. “You raise the hope of some ill man needing financial help to cover medical expenses, and then you do not fulfill it,” says one such loyalist, “This is worse than ignoring him.”

But how does a five-time parliamentarian not get a clear picture himself? “It is one thing to run a math-sized constituency and quite another to run a country-sized state,” says a government insider.

Dalit observers have also expressed doubt over the Yogi government’s ability to rein in fringe elements in the state, especially from his own community of Thakurs. “Because of him as CM, the Thakur community has got emboldened. They think they own this place and thus atrocities against Dalits have increased,” says a senior official. Even the BJP’s recent Rajya Sabha victory is now being seen by many as a sign of the party’s anti- Dalit stance; the machinations worked out by senior party leaders ensured the defeat on one seat of a BSP leader, ironically named Bhimrao Ambedkar. After the BJP’s bypoll debacle, one of Yogi’s ministers and allies, Prakash Rajbhar of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, remarked that the party lost because it forgot the poor voters, just as Ram had forgotten his vaanar sena (simian army) after the victory over Lanka.

The opposition claims that such events only consolidate the alliance between the SP and BSP that turned the bypolls against the BJP. Dalits in those two constituencies seem to have voted for the SP on BSP chief Mayawati’s advice. But now Mayawati has said that her party will focus on 2019, and will not work for other bypolls for anyone else. In 2019 as well, whether an alliance between the SP, BSP and the Congress could work is a far more complex question. “See, the BSP was formed for a core constituency. Most atrocities against Dalits are committed by OBCs. So how will relations between SP and BSP stay harmonious?” asks a senior official.

This apart, Yogi loyalists say that no matter what happens in 2019, the Chief Minister still has four more years of his term left in the state. He will be judged for that, they say, and he will have to deliver on his promises of good governance. There are some signs of disgruntlement. Recently, one of Yogi’s ministers, Shrikant Sharma, had to face popular ire on Twitter. In response to his tweet saying Rahul Gandhi suffered from ‘attention-seeking disorder’, people said the state’s own power ministry was a failure. Someone called Girish Anand replied to Sharma saying his department had corrupt clerks and if workers like him were ignored even after tweeting 20 times, then no excuse was going to work. Another man, Rajiv Kumar Sharma, shared a document alleging that even the minister had lied and that he had not acted on a small complaint for three months.

There is a perception among some Hindus, says a BJP loyalist in Lucknow, that “Yogiji ne Mohammedan logon ko level kar diya” (Yogi has got Muslims under control).” But this isn’t going to stay for long, in his view. “Ant mein kaam toh karna padega” (In the end he will have to work),” he says.

Two days before the Yogi government’s anniversary, a group of protestors made a feeble attempt to enter the state Assembly to meet Yogi, where he was presiding over a meeting on law and order. They were protesting against the rape of a girl child in a nearby area. The police response was swift and brutal. The parents of the girl and a few others were pushed to the ground with brute force. They were then led to a nearby park.

The parents wanted an audience with Yogi. “No one visited us. I am a poor man. What will happen to my daughter and how will I take care of her?” asked the girl’s father, Raj Karan.

When they tried again to leave the park and march towards the Vidhan Bhawan, a police bus was called to take them to the police station.

From within the bus, the girl’s mother called out to her son to get on board. Assuming that it was going to take them all home, she called out to a woman relative as well. “Jail jaa rahi hai gaadi (the bus is going to jail),” a sub-inspector told the relative. She froze. The policemen and journalists laughed.

The bus began to move.