Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne
NEW DELHI (IDN) – From across Asia to Europe and the United States voters have shown their dismay at corrupt political systems by voting in unconventional politicians who promise to “clean the swamp”.
So the election mid-March of a Yogi Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous state – may well herald in a new era for Asian politics, where religion could step in to clean up the corruption in politics.
Asia’s ancient religious philosophies – Hinduism and Buddhism – have a strong secular streak where their values could be practised by anyone without converting to a religion. The global spread of Yoga and Mindfulness as lifestyle choices bear witness to this.
Could these philosophies also influence democratic institutions that have become corrupt to the bone …the Uttar Pradesh experience may provide the answer to this in coming years.
With a population of 223.8 million, Uttar Pradesh (UP) is India’s largest state spanning a large chunk of northern India, with 80 percent of its population Hindu while another18 percent are Muslim.
The resounding victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in March’s state election and the appointment of Yogi Adityanath – a 44-year-old Hindu priest – as its Chief Minister (CM) has given an interesting new dimension to Indian democracy.
Ever since its rise as a national political party, BJP has been tagged, especially in foreign media, as a “Hindu Nationalist” party because it has not hidden its agenda to protect the rights and the heritage of India’s Hindu majority.
The appointment of a Yogi (Hindu holy man) as the state’s CM might have been expected to attract howls of protest by democracy fundamentalists who believe that religion and politics should be kept apart. But, within India, most of the country’s mainstream media have welcomed his appointment.
As the Economic Times argued, UP’s voters have given a resounding mandate for the BJP to introduce clean and smart policymaking. “The new chief minister is an aggressive and astute politician,” it noted. “The Yogi’s well-known record of rectitude in financial matters will no doubt be a plus in a state where corruption scandals have been frequent.”
The Times of India pointed out that Yogi Adityanath appeals to Hindus across caste barriers, and his new Cabinet includes both upper and lower caste Hindus, though Muslims are hugely under-represented.
If democracy is about giving everyone a chance in governance, Yogi Adityanath’s life story should be an inspiration to many. The Yogi himself is not a Brahamin and comes from humble village roots.
Before becoming the state’s second youngest CM, he had been elected five times as the MP for Gorakhpur (a large urban community) to the Lok Sabha (national assembly).
He has also been chief priest of the centuries-old Gorakhnath temple since 2014. The temple runs 28 schools, five secondary colleges, a polytechnic, hospitals and a nursing college, yoga centres and a number of charities that even employ and helps poor Muslims.
While the temple’s political connections have been strong for more than five decades, its financial affairs are known to be clean, a record which many hope the Yogi will draw on to govern the state and clean up its corruption.
On taking the oath of office on March 19, Yogi Adityanath repeated BJP’s election slogan “sabka saath, sabka vikas” (collective efforts, inclusive growth). “My government is committed to lok kalyan (welfare of the people) without any discrimination against anybody,” he told the media, dispelling accusations by detractors that as an icon of ‘Hindutva‘ (Hinduness) he will be vindictive in governance.
He named his top priority as being a special focus on the welfare of farmers with the aim of doubling their income during his term.
Yogi Adityanath has a reputation of being a firebrand politician who has opposed special privileges for Muslims and asked Muslims who would not take part in World Yoga Day – an international initiative of Narendra Modi – to go to neighbouring Pakistan. He also recently praised President [Donald] Trump’s decision to ban Muslims from certain countries entering the United States.
The Yogi has strong views on the role of women in society, arguing that Western notion of feminism could threaten India’s social order. While he supports women’s participation in all walks of life, he has argued that they really do not need freedom but should be protected and channelled to “give birth to and raise great men and when required to step out of the home to the battlefield to destroy evil powers”.
Within three days of coming to power, the Yogi’s supporters took to the social media with a vengeance, arguing that his movement is not a drawback to the past but a push towards the future. Mobile applications dedicated to the Yogi are grabbing the attention of the young, with one application downloaded over 1000 times in one day. The applications give information about the Yogi, his humble background, his projects, his education and his philosophy. The fact that he has a degree in mathematics – not philosophy or religion – is thought likely to impress young minds.
Allahabad mayor and BJP leader Abhilasha Gupta Nandi believes that youngsters are curious to know about the new chief minister. “These apps will definitely inspire them to lead a disciplined life like Yogiji and will make them realise how dedicated he is for the welfare of the people. I appreciate this initiative,” she told the Hindustan Times.
His supporters believe Yogi’s life should inspire young Indians to lead disciplined, rather than restless lives.
Writing in the Times of India, journalist and author Saba Naqvi noted that Yogi Adityanath could not have been elevated to the CM position if not for the “complete hollowing out of secular values.” She argued that Muslim leaders should not be complaining about a Hindu religious leader occupying the CM chair when many of their organisations are “repositories of corruption”.
“The secular model currently offers no counter narrative to challenge Hindutva that claims to unite people above caste and region in a national symphony. All of this has been some time in the making,” she wrote.
Gopalakrishna Gandhi, a former diplomat and governor, while India’s Constitution separates politics from religion, today they are becoming co-extensive. “Of the many forms of government – old, new, and still in the making – electoral democracy, the system which enables people to choose their lawmakers, their leaders and lodestars in freedom and without fear, is only the least imperfect” he wrote in a commentary published in The Hindu, noting that democracy can “recoil to shapes and forms that are in their nature and impact, un-democratic anti-democracy. This process can be called counter-democracy.”
“India holds a doctorate in democracy; it is doing a post-doc in counter-democracy. Ours is, of course, a global classroom,” he concluded.
If Yogi Adityanath succeeds in cleaning up corruption in UP, there will be both Hindu and Buddhist priests watching this with interest. In 2014, the late Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera almost nominated himself to challenge President Mahinda Rajapakse in the presidential elections in Sri Lanka. There could be Buddhist priests in Myanmar coming forward to lead the nation.
Asia could well rewrite democracy in textbooks that no longer separate religion from politics. [IDN-InDepthNews – 25 March 2017]