Ever since 2014, when Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister, political pundits have been debating his priorities. He leads the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has its roots in the Hindu right-wing movement. But during his campaign to become the country’s leader, he focused on economic growth and development. So is he really a reformer focused on generating the jobs the country needs for the roughly 12 million Indians who enter the work force each year? Or is the language of development, propagated via an unremitting stream of slogans, speeches and tweets by the Prime Minister and his top officials, actually a cover for Hindutva, an ideology that sees India as a Hindu nation? Promoted by right-wing Hindus, it puts a troubling question mark over the status of the country’s minorities, including the more than 172 million Muslims who call India home.
This debate resurfaced in India this weekend, after the BJP named Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu hard-liner, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the country’s most populous and politically significant state, where Modi’s party scored an overwhelming victory in a ballot to pick the next state government.
Results on March 11 showed that it captured 312 out of 403 seats in the state assembly. It was a triumph, above all, for Modi, who was the face of the BJP campaign there. The outcome tightened Modi’s grip on his party, with his boosters casting the vote as another thumping endorsement for his development agenda. But Adityanath, UP’s new leader, is a Hindu cleric better known for something else: a long record of divisive rhetoric targeting India’s minorities. Over the years, he has faced a number of criminal charges, from attempted murder to rioting, according to 2014 data compiled by the Association for Democratic Reforms, an independent nonprofit. And in 2007, he was arrested on allegations of inciting riots, the Press Trust of India said.
It was a surprising choice, given the way Modi has sought to rebrand himself. Before he arrived in New Delhi, Modi was the leader of the western Gujarat state, where, on his watch in 2002, rioting along religious lines led to the deaths of at least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. Although he has always denied any wrongdoing and has never been charged with a crime, Modi’s critics questioned whether he did enough to stop the violence. By 2014, however, the spotlight had shifted to Gujarat’s fast-growing economy, with Modi’s campaign holding up what became known as the “Gujarat model” as a way to spur growth nationwide.