Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath

If the lockdown management is the measure of any chief minister’s performance, then the chief minister of India’s most populated State Uttar Pradesh appears far ahead than other chief ministers in India.

Since 24 March, when the Narendra Modi-led federal government announced 21-day pan India lockdown, now extended till 3 May, in order to contain the spread of deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath defied his boss and Prime Minister Modi several times and sent a public message that he is his own man.

Within days, on 28-29 April he surprised the country by arranging buses to ferry scores of migrant workers who after sudden suspension of transport services were forced to walk down hundreds of kilometres from the national capital and neighbouring States to their home town in UP. Yogi’s move to offer respite to the poor in the haphazardly announced lockdown irked the Centre, which issued fresh set of directives at once on 29 April, banning all such activities and urging the States to implement the restrictions effectively.

Three days later, Yogi who is also the Mahant of Gorakhnath Peeth flew to Ayodhya to participate in a religious ceremony. This event was significant for Yogi who is regarded as Hindutva’s poster boy and has been associated with Ram Temple movement for three decades. BJP's politics also revolves around Ram Temple.

With top bureaucrats and cops in tow, CM carried the idol of "Ram Lalla" from the makeshift temple to a temporary one erected at the proposed temple site and performed Puja on camera. Unfazed by criticism, BJP’s core voters were ecstatic.

On 12 April, he broke the lockdown again to send back over 900 pilgrims from south Indian States who were stuck in Varanasi since March. Going a step further, he sent a fleet of buses to Kota in Rajasthan to bring back over 7,000 students stranded there last week. And now he has won millions of hearts by saying that he would bring back migrant labourers stuck in other states since the PM announced the lockdown. How and when it will be done, is unclear yet.

His opponents, Congress’ Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav have avoided criticism and rather hailed the CM for some of his moves such as help of Rs 1,000 to all daily wagers, a move which was later followed by Maharashtra, Punjab and other States. His counterparts in other States, including the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) ruled ones, are taking a cue from him.

The firebrand Hindu saint, who is often cornered for UP's complex set of problems ranging from crimes to development backlog to poor governance and criticised for his controversial moves such as invoking NSAs and confiscating properties of anti-CAA activists, has emerged as strong leader in a month's time.

Soft side or well-crafted image?

Yogi was a surprise pick of BJP and RSS three years ago to hold the office of India's most populous State. By far, people outside Uttar Pradesh remember him for his Hindutva politics, highhandedness to deal with his opponents and his past. He faces charges of inciting riots and hate speech. Are we witnessing his soft-side for the first time or is it a strategy of the RSS to show his larger-than-life image to suppress his checkered past? Observers are divided on this.

His decision to skip the funeral of his father of “previous life” due to official responsibilities last week is being glorified by officials and party members alike. “His passport and election affidavit mention Mahant Avaidyanth (Yogi’s guru) as his father. Besides, people who renounce the world don’t have any attachment with family. A leader needs glorification when his regime fails to serve people. In the lockdown most poor are hungry, officers are making money and murders haven’t stopped,” alleges, IP Singh, Samajwadi Party spokesperson and former party colleague of Yogi.

His supporters laud him for "single-handedly" dealing with the pandemic, as his ministers are missing from action, for reasons best known to them. His bachelorhood and sainthood are being projected as his virtues needed to serve the people selflessly. So far, he has been quite cautious and inclusive in his approach. Even the Tablighi Jamaat issue was touched upon by his officials and ministers mostly.

State’s top bureaucrats brand their CM’s work as “YogiCare” and some media houses have been running programs on “Yogi Model” since days. "Even Modi can't stop his rise", say BJP leaders.

Is he poised to become BJP's PM candidate as insiders suggest? Possibly, yes. He is ambitious just like other politicians. And he is just 47. More importantly, he blends religion and politics well.

“Yogi is a potential contender to succeed Modi. The way RSS supports him despite his underperformance indicates that," says Ramesh Dixit, political analyst.

The writer is an independent journalist.

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