The election campaign for the legislative assemblies in five Indian states has begun. All eyes are on Uttar Pradesh, which with its 200 million inhabitants is crucial for the national balance. Hindu nationalist monk Yogi Adityanath, head of the outgoing local government and Modi's would-be successor for BJP leadership, is fanning the flames of resentment against Muslims. But he has to reckon with party defections.
Milan (AsiaNews) - In spite of the new wave of Covid-19 sweeping India with daily record levels of infections, the Electoral Commission has confirmed that elections for the renewal of the legislative assemblies of five states of the federation will go ahead: Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa.
Between February 10 and March 7, 183 million voters will be called to vote in several rounds in what is the most important political event of the year in India and probably a key step towards the general elections scheduled for 2024.
In a democracy with India's numbers, it is always reductive to consider these rounds as ‘local' events. When the results are announced on 10 March, all eyes will be on Uttar Pradesh, which, with over 200 million inhabitants, is by far the most populous of the Indian states.
It is also why it is the most important in terms of national political balance: in the general election it allocates as many as 80 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament and is why Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself - despite having built his political rise in Gujarat - has his seat in sacred Hindu city of Varanasi.
Just a few weeks ago, he inaugurated a "sacred corridor" there linking the Kashi Vishwanath temple to the Ganges. The religious symbol was restored to its former glory by razing entire buildings, with compensation to 400 families.
The vote in Uttar Pradesh is a particularly significant test for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - Modi's Hindu nationalist party. It comes a year after the failed conquest of West Bengal, which it had openly targeted in 2021.
But, above all, it was with the return after 15 years of a Hindu nationalist to Lucknow government leadership in 2017 that Modi paved the way for the broad reappointment obtained in the general elections held in spring 2019.
Uttar Pradesh is also an important race for the BJP's internal relations: this vote is a litmus test for Yogi Adityanath, the 49-year-old Hindu monk who has been governing this Indian state since 2017.
An outgoing chief minister has not won an election in Lucknow for 37 years. And if he succeeds, this religious extremist, who in the past had accused the BJP of being too lukewarm in affirming Hindutva and who, as soon as he was elected, declared war on slaughterhouses, would become the number one candidate to one day take up the political legacy of the now 70-year-old Modi.
In Lucknow, Yogi Adityanath built his popularity on the theme of law and order and security and promising development to the underprivileged classes. But in a state where 20% of the population is made up of Muslims, he also got the local Assembly to pass a law against the so-called "love jihad”, where Hindu nationalists accuse young Muslims of "deceiving" Hindu girls and forcing them to convert to Islam in order to get married.
The law, which has been in force since last year, provides for penalties of up to 10 years in prison for those who "use marriage to force someone to change religion". The bishop of Lucknow, Msgr Gerald Mathias, has repeatedly condemned this easily instrumentalised definition, because it "makes inter-religious marriages almost impossible".
What are Yogi Adityanath chances of winning again? In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP does not seem to have the same strength as in 2017. The pandemic, which last spring led to the horrendous spectacle of improvised pyres being set up in parks to burn corpses even in Lucknow, has left its mark.
This is coupled with the aftermath of the long battle over the reform of agricultural markets, which saw the Modi government finally yield to pressure and withdraw its measures in the wake of the farmers’ protests in the western part of Uttar Pradesh and those of Punjab (another State called to vote) who descended on New Delhi with their tractors.
Polls still show Yogi Adityanath as the favourite to win, but his lead has narrowed. In the last few hours, in an act that is certainly not new in Indian politics, ten MPs, including three government ministers, have left the Hindu nationalist party to side with the most accredited challenger, who in Uttar Pradesh is not a Congress party member but the leader of a local political force.
His name is Akhilesh Yadav, he is the president of the Samajwadi Party and has already led the Lucknow government from 2012 to 2017. He is the expression of a party that has a bicycle as its symbol, calls itself social democratic and has its base mainly in the Yadav agricultural caste and the Muslim minority.
The latest rumours suggest that Yogi Adityanath intends to stand in the Ayodhya constituency, the symbol par excellence of Hindu nationalism. In 1992, the Babri Majidh, the mosque built by the Moghul dynasty in the 16th century on the site where, according to Hindu tradition, the god Rama was born, was destroyed.
This caused clashes between Muslims and Hindus throughout India, resulting in over 2,000 deaths and a long legal battle that was only closed in 2019 by the Indian Supreme Court, which recognised that the site belonged to Hindus, but also condemned the destruction of the mosque and granted Muslims the right to build another place of worship on nearby land.
"This is a battle between the 80 (the percentage of Hindus in Uttar Pradesh) and the 20 (Muslims)", is one of the slogans the outgoing Chief Minister is using in this election campaign in Lucknow. An icon of a BJP that, in order not to lose Uttar Pradesh, has no qualms about vigorously fanning the flames of dangerous religious conflict. As even Indian Christians know all too well by now.
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