Contrary to media reports that Yogi Adityanath was a “surprise” choice as BJP’s chief minister for Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah had always considered the Gorakhpur sanyasi as a strong contender. And RSS had very little to do with the decision.
The reasons were the Yogi’s popularity, political heft, his appeal across castes and his demonstration of discipline in this round of polling. We spoke to several top BJP leaders for this story. They all spoke on the condition they not be identified.
SURVEYS PICKED YOGI
Several months before UP’s election campaign started, Shah, a senior leader said, had asked home minister Rajnath Singh whether the latter wants to be BJP’s CM candidate.
Shah told Singh there are only two names, the minister’s and the Yogi’s, as possible CM candidates. The leader quoted above said Singh expressed his reluctance on becoming BJP’s CM candidate and also argued the party should fight polls without formally identifying a face.
But that conversation, this leader told us, was very early proof of how seriously the Yogi was being considered as a CM choice. And BJP’s top leadership had data to back their preference.
Another leader said every survey commissioned by BJP in UP showed that, among voters at large, Yogi Adityanath was just a point behind Rajnath Singh in terms of acceptance as CM candidate.
And, among BJP supporters, the two were tied. These surveys, and Singh’s unwillingness to come back to UP administration, had made Yogi a strong CM post contender much before UP’s voters delivered a massive verdict for BJP.
That Yogi Adityanath’s stature as a star campaigner helped his case has been mentioned. But that he showed “great discipline” in combating dissent in his stronghold of eastern UP is less well known, another senior BJP leader told us, adding that the way the Yogi mastered that “political challenge” made him an even stronger candidate for the top job.
This party senior said most of BJP’s ticket distribution hassles were concentrated in the last phases of UP’s 7-phase polls when eastern UP voted. “Several rebel candidates were contesting,” this leader said, “but the Yogi worked very hard and in Gorakhpur, especially, went for door-to-door campaigning. He ensured all rebels lost. No other leader worked this hard or faced more challenges in the election than Yogi”.
Another leader said Modi’s and Shah’s faith in Adityanath was demonstrated when they did not buy into reports that the eastern UP leader was behind some dissenting sections. “No one sought an answer from him. Some of our own leaders thought Adityanath can be a stumbling block for the party in Purvanchal. But Modiji and Shah knew that wasn’t the case,” this leader said.
Plain-speaking, Plain-living A BJP leader from UP recalled how Shah, during the 2014 campaign, had praised the Yogi. “The party chief stayed in the Gorakhpur mutt for a couple of days during the 2014 campaign and was very impressed with Adityanath’s disciplined lifestyle, his attention to those in his care, his plain-speaking and his knowledge of history,” the leader said.
“But most importantly, The Yogi’s contribution to the campaign was most significant. If there was any doubt about his popularity with the cadre, the roadshow with Amit Shah settled it,” the person said.
Yogi, many BJP seniors point out, was the only other BJP campaigner apart from Rajnath Singh who was asked to give speeches everywhere in the state during Modi’s whirlwind 2014 campaign in UP. “Modi and the Yogi flew to Gorakhpur during the campaign,” one leader said, adding the PM and Adityanath have “excellent relations”.
Such was Shah’s faith in the Yogi, another BJP top functionary told us, that when the party did poorly in state assembly byelections after the massive 2014 Lok Sabha show, the party president didn’t blame the eastern UP leader, who was in charge of bypolls.
Shah, the leader quoted above said, had argued that bypolls favour the party in power in the state and therefore Adityanath could not be blamed.
And the final factor in the Yogi’s elevation was his appeal across castes. As one BJP senior explained it: “Adityanath (a Thakur) is a sanyasi and therefore above caste. And the Gorakhnath peeth has followers largely from backward castes, especially Yadavs…his appeal among backward caste groups is immense.”
Another BJP leader said the vacuum in Brahmin leadership in the Purvanchal region also helped Adityanath succeed, because Brahmins,numerically stronger than Thakurs in UP, extend support to Adityanath.
“The upper caste is with him and his followers are largely backward castes. In that sense Adityanath, unlike Rajnath Singh or Manoj Sinha or even Keshav Prasad Maurya, has appeal cutting across caste,” this leader said. “And many Muslims attend his 9 am to 11 am panchayats in Gorakhpur,” he added.
SANGH NO FACTOR
Every top BJP leader we spoke to said RSS had hardly anything to do with picking Yogi Adityanath as CM. One leader said Rajnath Singh was the Sangh’s choice. Another said RSS’ role in BJP’s UP success was limited at best and the Sangh was in no position to put pressure on the party. The same leader said RSS’ internal surveys hadn’t even predicted a thin majority for BJP, let alone a 300-plus tally.