But the pro-business event marked another step on the road to promote the Hindutva (Hindu supremacy) model championed by Modi, who went on to become prime minister. Even as prominent Gujarat officials — including his Minister of Home Affairs and right-hand man, Amit Shah — faced charges for their roles in the extrajudicial murders of Muslim citizens, Modi’s political star shone bright and vast segments of the population decided to back him.
These days another major political figure is following Modi’s footsteps, perhaps with the eyes of becoming prime minister in 2024: Ajay Bisht, or Yogi Adityanath, a radical Hindu nationalist monk who is the chief minister of India’s most populated state, Uttar Pradesh.
Adityanath’s talent for stoking communal polarization while hiding behind a market-friendly facade is right out of the Modi playbook, and many see him as the leader who could carry the torch to establish Hindu supremacy in India. But in many ways, Adityanath is even more dangerous than Modi. He doesn’t even bother to camouflage his disdain for Muslims.
Uttar Pradesh has approved “love jihad” laws criminalizing religious conversions by marriage with jail terms of up to 10 years. Adityanath, 48, openly hates the Taj Mahal because, in his view, it does not represent Indian culture (since it was built by Mughals, and Muslims in the country are seen as their lineage). In 2020, he announced that Muslims who chose India as their home during the partition in 1947 did no favor to the country. He further stated that his party did not belong to the “biryani” eating tribe, another anti-Muslim slur.
He has had journalists arrested under sedition laws for publishing reports critical of his administration, including the botched investigation into the gang rape of a lower-caste girl by upper-caste men. The saffron-clad leader is the founder of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a nationalist organization for Hindu youth who started cow vigilantism (also known as cow protection using violence) that has led to the lynching of Muslims in the state. The Yuva Vahini also led an “anti-Romeo” squad that opposes any public presence of young unmarried couples and celebration of things like Valentine’s Day.
Adityanath faced dozens of investigations for provoking anti-Muslim riots, giving hateful speeches, and even planning murders and kidnappings. But many of these investigations went cold or were withdrawn after he assumed power.
Under Adityanath’s rule, Muslims live under the constant threat of violence and discrimination. Just ask Uvaish Ahmed, 21, who was imprisoned in November for marrying a Muslim woman, quashing his dream to join the Indian army. In December, 14 members of a family were arrested under the fascist anti-religious conversion law in the state. Also, last year the police in Uttar Pradesh opened fire on Muslims protesting the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. More than 30 people were killed and the properties of hundreds of Muslims were confiscated for protesting.
As Modi continues to tighten his authoritarian grip on India, Yogi Adityanath becomes more divisive, radical, dangerous, and volatile. But this has only made him the favorite of many, who see what he has done in Uttar Pradesh as a model for the country.
However, there is some friction. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of the BJP, has grown resentful of the power that Modi and his close adviser Shah have amassed. Some in the organization believe Modi and Shah have left no room for the growth of any other leader. “Everybody in the Modi government is a rubber stamp who takes orders from Modi and Shah. There is an internal dictatorship and the RSS is looking to stymie that power structure by introducing a leader who would do their bidding rather than building his own brand,” a BJP spokesman told me.
Like Modi, Adityanath is courting big business to invest in Uttar Pradesh; he wants the state to become a hub for the Indian film industry. Many business leaders have answered the call — apparently unbothered by Adityanath’s repulsive views and actions. Leading television channels — who rarely question the Modi regime — often offer Adityanath a platform, which he uses to burnish his national profile.
In the past few days, three Dalit girls in Uttar Pradesh, aged 16, 15, and 14, were found unconscious in a field — two died from poisoning and one is dying. The national government acts as a mute spectator as these horrific attacks proliferate, unable to question what these crimes, under this type of state leadership, really mean for India.
The country’s democracy is going through one of its most fragile phases. Just last week, the 21-year-old climate change activist Disha Ravi was arrested for supporting the farmers’ protest. Indian democracy under Modi is already being mutilated almost beyond repair. He has targeted students, journalists, critics, Muslims, people of lower castes, and lately, the mostly Sikh farmers who are fighting for their dignity.
And now India faces the prospect of Adityanath succeeding Modi — and we have ample reason to fear what he will do to prove that he can accelerate the process of turning India into a Hindu nationalist nation.
That should be of grave concern not just for Indians but also for the international community.