News report

Uttar Pradesh election: An election in India’s most populous state pits Covid-19 anger against Hindu nationalism

The social worker said he was not wearing a mask or gloves as he offered funeral rites to more than 200 Covid victims on the banks of the holy Sarayu River in northern Uttar Pradesh state – that wouldn’t have been what God wanted, he mentioned.

“Those months have been really devastating,” he added.

But he doesn’t blame the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the Covid outbreak which many believe has been made worse by a slow government response – and it’s not. cost the party its vote in the national elections, the results of which will be announced on March 10.

Despite the Covid crisis, experts say Adityanath has religion on his side – he is pushing a Hindu-first agenda in a state with an 80% Hindu population. And that appeals to people like Mishra.

The social worker does not hold the government responsible for the Covid deaths – he blames lower-level officials who he says failed to follow government policy. He says he is voting for Adiyanath in this election for a very simple reason.

“They build the Temple of Ram in Ayodhyahe said, referring to a planned temple on land long disputed between Hindus and Muslims, in a town believed to be the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of Hinduism’s most revered deities. .

“That was their main goal.”

Saffron flags – a color associated with Hinduism – line the streets of Ayodhya ahead of national elections.
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A ruthless wave of infections

On April 17, 2021, as India’s Covid cases surged, a maskless Modi boasted to a sea of ​​cheering supporters ahead of elections in the state of West Bengal: “I have never seen crowds so huge at a gathering.”

On the same day, hundreds of miles away, in the city of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, Harshit Srivastava, 32, had “the worst day of my life”.

In truth, it started days before when her father Vinay, 65, started showing symptoms of Covid. Fighting back tears, Harshit recalls going to dozens of hospitals, begging for a spare bed, oxygen and medical attention for his father.

As his oxygen level fell dangerously low, Vinay tweeted for help, tagging Chief Minister Adityanath and other state officials. Citizens and journalists amplified his tweet, pleading with authorities to provide assistance. But none came.

Vinay died April 17 at his family home, one of the most 23,000 deaths in the state during the pandemic – although that number is believed to be a gross underestimate, according to witness accounts and images showing overwhelmed hospitals and overcrowded crematoriums.

“As a son, I had hoped that we would find a way to get help. But my father had no faith (in the government). He was sure nothing would happen,” Harshit said. , a stock trader.

In the last elections of 2017, the BJP won a landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh, securing the largest majority for any party in the state since 1980. The BJP installed Adityanath as a leader, a move according to experts signaled its intent to advance a stronger Hindu agenda.

Five years later, the BJP faces a tough challenge from the opposing Samajwadi party led by 48-year-old former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.

Yadav’s promise of free electricity for all households and interest-free loans to farmers has won some support, especially among farmers angered by Modi’s controversial farm laws. And some experts say that, coupled with the devastation of the pandemic, that could be enough for Yadav to win over some loyal BJP voters.

“This election is very close,” said Rahul Verma of the Indian Center for Policy Research. “The BJP, due to its massive victory in 2017, has some advantages. But the Samajwadi party managed to mount a very effective campaign against the BJP (with its) mismanagement during Covid.”

Once a staunch BJP supporter, Srivastava says he is no longer interested in voting.

“I will not vote for anyone in this election,” he told CNN last month. “They tell lies. They make shrines for promotion and sometimes give money to the poor. They took everything I had from me.”

A bastion of the Hindu right

the The appointment of Adityanath, a Hindu priest, told some pundits that the BJP’s Hindutva ideology – which strives to make secular India the land of Hindus – far outweighs the party’s commitment for the economic development of the state.

Zoya Hasan, a political scientist and member of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, said Adityanath’s appointment “was a very deliberate choice to signal the Hindutva agenda of the BJP”.

Since Adityanath took office, the state has already passed legislation that critics say is rooted in Hindutva ideology. He protected cows, an animal considered sacred to Hindus, from slaughter, and made it increasingly difficult to transport livestock. He also introduced a controversial anti-conversion bill, which makes it harder for interfaith couples to marry or convert to Islam or Christianity. Some towns named after historical Muslim figures have also been renamed to reflect India’s Hindu history.

“Uttar Pradesh is very important for the BJP, not only because of its size, but because it is a main laboratory for Hindutva,” Hasan said. “Let us not forget that the three most important Hindu shrines are located here. Yogi (Adityanath) tries his best to promote Hindu and Muslim polarization.”

A street vendor sells saffron flags ahead of Uttar Pradesh state elections.

Adityanath is known for his provocative rhetoric against Muslims.

He once praised former US President Donald Trump’s travel ban banning citizens from several Muslim-majority countries and called on India to take similar action, according to to the local channel NDTV. And in February, he used a pejorative word when referring to Muslim men in an interview with a local TV station.

Members of Adityanath’s cabinet have denied allegations that they promote Hindu nationalism and mishandled the pandemic, saying they have lifted millions out of poverty through economic reform.

While the state’s unemployment rate is unclear due to millions working in the informal sector, government statistics show it has been rising since 2017.

“The BJP’s polling program was, is and always will be the development,” Dinesh Sharma, the state’s deputy chief minister, told CNN. “We will ensure law and order throughout the state. We will ensure that the poor have water, food and electricity. And we promise the welfare of farmers.”

A promise for Hindu temples

In August 2020, eight months before Uttar Pradesh was devastated by India’s second Covid wave, Modi laid the foundation stone for the construction of a Hindu temple in the holy city of Ayodhya.

For decades, Hindu groups have campaigned for a temple dedicated to Lord Ram to be built on the site, where a 16th-century mosque, the Babri Masjid, once stood.

After Hindu extremists destroyed the Babri Masjid in 1992, more than 2,000 people – mostly Muslims – were killed in nationwide riots, some of India’s worst violence since independence.

Thirty years later, Ayodhya residents are pushing for more temples to be built, and local priest Seer Pawan Kumar Sad Shastri says he knows the meaning of the city’s population of nearly 2.5 million. inhabitants will vote.

“The people of Ayodhya will only vote for (devout Hindus),” he said.

Seer Pawan Kumar Sad Shastri says he will vote for BJP because they are in favor of Lord Ram.

Whether it is enough to give the BJP and Adityanath another mandate remains to be seen.

According to Verma of the Indian Center for Policy Research, the BJP is relying on a “mixed strategy” of economic reform – attracting investment, supporting small businesses and creating new jobs – and religious polarization.

“They lean more towards their ideological beliefs,” Verma said, adding that this rhetoric energizes Adityanath’s “core core” of right-wing Hindu voters.

In recent years, there have been numerous reports of extrajudicial killings and violent reprisals by state law enforcement. But Shastri says Adityanath has done a good job maintaining law and order.

In December 2019, the state imposed a colonial-era law banning public gatherings following clashes during a protest against India’s citizenship law that would give immigrants from three neighboring countries a pathway to citizenship, with the exception of Muslims.

“Our next mission is to build great temples for our gods in other holy cities,” Shastri said.

But Srivastava, who lost his father in the second wave, says no amount of temples could ever bring his father back – he wants the government to acknowledge his failure to reduce Covid deaths.

“I want to ask Yogi to put his hand on his heart and wonder if he has done the right thing,” he said.

“Lord Ram doesn’t need a temple as much as the country needs a real government.”