The government of Uttar Pradesh — India’s most populous state (215 million) — is headed by a violent and bigoted godman. He was the subject, and probably the source of inspired propaganda that suggested he is a contender to replace Narendra Modi as prime minister. But like Modi, Ajay Singh Bisht (aka Yogi Adityanath) has also floundered on the shoals of governance.
Within six months of being named chief minister of this poverty-stricken Hindi heartland state, Adityanath was saddled with the responsibility of the deaths of over 1,300 children in a state-run hospital in Gorakhpur, his own constituency. The children died because of the lack of piped oxygen in the encephalitis ward. This, it turned out, was because the hospital had defaulted on payments to private suppliers.
The devious new chief minister quickly found a scapegoat in Kafeel Khan, the Muslim head of the encephalitis ward. This led to a fresh controversy because Adityanath is known to be a vicious religious bigot, who has led mobs to attack and kill Muslims. However, adroit media manipulation by the Modi regime ensured the brouhaha subsided and this tragedy disappeared from media headlines.
Nevertheless, the Gorakhpur deaths came back to haunt the chief minister in key by-elections to the Lok Sabha that were called in March to fill the seats vacated by him and his deputy, both of whom were elected to the state legislative assembly. The BJP lost both seats. This gave a fresh lease of life to public suspicion that the massive saffron victory in the UP legislative assembly election of 2017 was due to tampered electronic voting machines (EVMs). These defeats came in the wake of similar routs suffered by the saffron party in Rajasthan where it won every Lok Sabha seat in General Election 2014.
These suspicious victories led to fresh demands made to the Election Commission to revert to the paper ballots voting system. However, the commission has rejected all such requests which has fueled growing conviction that the Modi regime has a clandestine agenda to subvert every constitutional body that provides institutional safeguards. These bodies include the offices of state governors, the courts, financial institutions, intelligence agencies, the police, the military and diplomatic corps. It will require major initiatives by the Congress Party, the media and the Supreme Court to persuade the Election Commission to switch to paper balloting to which several Western democracies have already reverted.
With the possibility of EVM manipulation set to be a subject of public debate, the BJP is certain to resort to populism to divert public attention from this issue. Hence the ploy by the UP chief minister to change the name of the ancient city of Allahabad to Prayagraj, to win Hindu votes.
Early name changing initiatives were honorific gestures. Things began to change after the States Reorganisation Act, 1956, was passed by Parliament. Considered the biggest-ever exercise in redrawing state boundaries, the Act stoked latent identity politics based on language, ethnicity and ultimately religion. Thus, India’s secular nationalist tradition came under stress: linguistic subnationalism, caste-based reservations in government and higher education institutions and finally, the Ram temple issues have combined to pose a serious challenge to the basic tenets of the Constitution of India.
In some ways, the emergence of hindutva politics poses the ultimate challenge to the constitutional order because its advocates have publicly disavowed the Constitution, dismissing it as a foreign-influenced document. However over the past half century, the liberal values of the Constitution have struck deep roots and India’s secular nationalism has managed to overcome the political challenges posed by language and caste divisions. Therefore the country stood firm against the first hindutva assault of the BJP led by Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. The Modi regime is the second coming of hindutva politics, and the most concerted effort to derail the Constitution. But clearly, there’s been some miscalculation about the power of majoritarian-driven hindutva because even though the Modi juggernaut won an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha in 2014, it won only a third of the popular vote. The two-thirds of the electorate which didn’t support the BJP has now put the Modi government on notice.
Every ploy and twist and turn the Modi regime has tried — and there have been many — has reiterated the reality that it is not a popular regime. Its efforts to subvert democracy by manipulating the media, MLAs and voting machines have come a cropper and without a popular majority, the Modi regime is sunk. Thus the name-changing gambit. It is a desperate attempt to arouse Hindu majoritarian passions in the hope it will gather votes that translate into seats in Parliament.
What Modi and various BJP politicians have failed to grasp is that name-changing chauvinism is vanilla primordialism compared to its polarising appeals to ethnicity, caste and religion. The BJP cupboard is bare with the leadership having run out of its legendary low cunning.
(Rajiv Desai is president of Comma Consulting and a well-known Delhi-based columnist)