Prime Minister Narendra Modi's controversial decision to install a rabble-rouser as leader of India's most populous state may signal a new direction in his policy platform and potentially sow seeds of religious tension.
Following an impressive victory in recent state elections, Modi's ruling faction — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — named Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh chief minister on Sunday. A 44-year old priest, Adityanath is a well-known figure of Hindutva, a right-wing ideology that champions Hindu nationalism.
In the past, he's made numerous remarks perceived as hateful towards minority religions in the Hindu-majority nation. He's asked Indian Muslims to leave the country, recently praised President Donald Trump's travel ban on certain Muslim-majority countries, and suggested that minorities were to blame for communal riots. Last year, he claimed Mother Teresa was part of a conspiracy to Christianize India. A youth group that he founded, Hindu Yuva Vahini, has also been linked to violent incidents.
Adityanath's promotion in Uttar Pradesh, dubbed the political heart of India, signals a dramatic change in Modi's political outlook, strategists said.
"There is no denying the signal this pick (of chief minister) sends: with a huge mandate, the BJP has decided to lead with the face of religious nationalism — not the forward-looking, twenty-first century face of the New India — in their most important state," said Alyssa Ayres, senior South Asia fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, in a recent note.
While the BJP itself is a Hindu nationalist party, populism and economic development has dominated Modi's first three years in office. Up until now, the prime minister has largely concentrated on manufacturing, sanitation and infrastructure initiatives, such as 'Make in India' and the nation-wide construction of toilets.
But Adityanath's rise to power could mean Modi has chosen to focus his governance on religion instead as he looks to cement his leadership before the 2019 general election.
"Adityanath's selection may seem surprising because his support for Hindutva appears to contradict Modi's campaign rhetoric of prioritizing economic development above Hindu-first policies," said Eurasia analysts in a note.
But for the BJP, Adityanath represents a subservient leader who will continue Modi's anti-corruption drive, shore up support within the Hindu base, and strong-arm the civil service to execute Modi's agenda, the note continued.