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Hindu Priest With A History Of Bigotry Selected To Run India's Uttar Pradesh


For generations, India has tried to embrace religious freedom despite a history of religious violence. A recent election in the country's largest state is putting that tension front and center again. Here's NPR's Julie McCarthy.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The new leader of the state of Uttar Pradesh has been called the mascot of militant Hindu sectarianism. And throughout his political career, Yogi Adityanath has worked to transform officially secular India into a Hindu rastra, or state. Shankarshan Thakur is a senior editor of The Telegraph, an Indian daily, and says few can match the 44-year-old Yogi's sectarian virulence.

SHANKARSHAN THAKUR: He has consistently campaigned against the main minority, which is Muslims in India. He has called for their prosecution in unambiguous terms. He thinks India belongs to Hindus. He has won several elections speaking that language.

MCCARTHY: While Adityanath is considered on the extreme end of Prime Minister Modi's BJP party, he's been elected to Parliament five times.

MILAN VAISHNAV: This sort of strong form of nationalism is not incidental to Adityanath's appeal, it is absolutely intrinsic to it.

MCCARTHY: That's Milan Vaishnav, who specializes in Indian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He notes that Adityanath has introduced a national bill to ban the slaughter of cows, cows being sacred in the Hindu religion. He champions a name change for India to Hindustan.

Vaishnav says Prime Minister Modi has handpicked the chief ministers in states where the BJP has won. Modi helped the party sweep Uttar Pradesh talking of the need for jobs and electricity. But by giving the nod to the saffron-robed Hindu priest, Vaishnav says Modi has signaled a twofold agenda and settled a lingering question.

VAISHNAV: Is his project about development or is it about Hindu nationalism? And what this pick re-affirms is that it's not either/or, it's both. Modi has two faces.

MCCARTHY: He says on the one hand, Modi wants to be seen as India's great economic modernizer. On the other, he's invested in a muscular form of Hindu nationalism. For his part, the Hindu cleric has promised that his state government would not discriminate and that he would follow Modi's mantra of development for all. Journalist Shankarshan Thakur says time will judge the Yogi's commitment to developing India's most populous state, but says the Hindu cleric's elevation to what he calls India's second most important office ignores a basic qualification.

THAKUR: If you're going to ask me what are his administrative credentials at the moment, I would say he has none.

MCCARTHY: But the chief minister's first directive would no doubt find broad public appeal in a country with widespread corruption. He ordered all top government officials to disclose their sources of income. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOONCAKE'S "CAST THE ROUTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.
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