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Modi Picks Hindu Nationalist to Lead India's Most Populous State

19 Mar 2017 2:41 pm
By Niharika Mandhana 

NEW DELHI -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi picked a controversial Hindu nationalist politician to head India's most-populous state over the weekend in critics worry could mark a swing toward contentious religious politics by a leader who so far has stuck to a development-focused agenda.

Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu priest and parliamentarian for nearly 20 years, is known for his divisive and incendiary speeches targeting Muslims.

Mr. Adityanath will serve a five-year term as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, a state where nearly 20% of the residents, or 40 million people, are Muslims and where religious tensions easily and frequently flare. Mr. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party won a decisive election victory earlier this month in the state.

The appointment will embolden Mr. Modi's core supporters. To them, Mr. Adityanath's promotion, like Mr. Modi's election in 2014, represents the rise of Hindu power and an opportunity to correct what they see as decades of government policy going too far to accommodate India's Muslim minority.

"When you pick a person who stands for nothing other than a certain brand of religious politics, you're saying a majoritarian India has arrived," said Siddharth Varadarajan, a New Delhi-based political analyst. "It signifies a new reading on the BJP's part that public opinion will now accept what was considered politically imprudent not so long ago."

The BJP said Sunday that Mr. Adityanath will pursue equal progress for all communities. Nalin Kohli, a party spokesperson, said the new chief minister should be judged by his work in that position, not by past comments.

Mr. Adityanath supports the building of a temple in the place where, in the 1990s, an angry Hindu mob destroyed a 16th-century mosque, unleashing deadly religious riots. He campaigns against so-called love jihad, which he describes as an international conspiracy by Muslims to kidnap or lure Hindu women so they may marry and mistreat them.

He has exhorted Hindus to respond to attacks on members of their community with tenfold violence. Religious riots, he says, occur in places where the Muslim population is high.

His appointment follows a mandate in Uttar Pradesh that was so large, it cemented the BJP as India's pre-eminent political force. Following a campaign focused on economic development for a state home to one in five Indians, Mr. Modi declared the rise of a "new India."

But his choice for chief minister harks back to the Hindu nationalist roots of his party, which arose out of a decades-old movement to establish India as a Hindu nation.

Mr. Adityanath built a support base in Uttar Pradesh by projecting India's 80% Hindu majority as victimized and shortchanged by his political rivals, who he accuses of a pro-Muslim bias in everything from law-enforcement to policy-making.

In recent years, Mr. Modi has cast himself as a development-oriented leader, overshadowing his controversial past. He was accused of not doing enough to quell religious riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002 when he was chief minister there. More than 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims. Mr. Modi denied all accusations, and Indian courts said there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute him.

Since taking office in 2014, he has largely stayed away from overtly Hindu issues that could galvanize his political rivals. Mr. Adityanath's appointment is Mr. Modi's clearest nod to his right-wing supporters, who are crucial footsoldiers in his election campaign.

The Hindu right has been central to Mr. Modi's drive to amass political power, sensing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to crush the left-leaning political establishment that has governed India for most of its independent history. Since the country won freedom from British colonial rule in 1947, they have accused their ideological rivals of promoting a skewed definition of secularism that gives religious minorities a special place.

Rakesh Sinha, a spokesman for the movement, said those mistakes were now being corrected. "Hinduism welcomes all faiths," he said. "India is secular because it is a Hindu country."

Write to Niharika Mandhana at niharika.mandhana@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 19, 2017 10:41 ET (14:41 GMT)

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