Gorakhpur in Eastern Uttar Pradesh is famous for the Gorakhnath temple from which it derives its name and Yogi Adityanath, the young, fire-spewing head priest of the Gorakhnath mutt and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s three-time Member of Parliament from the constituency. The yogi is also the driving force behind the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a volatile youth force involved in many incidents of violence against Muslims.
If the yogi is held in god-like reverence by many Hindus, with Muslims, the sentiment works in reverse. They live in fear of the next communal incident that could rock the tenuous peace. Tensions tend to reach a peak on election eve and both communities know that the mahant will contrive to produce a communally surcharged situation conducive to splitting the votes along the Hindu-Muslim lines.
Go anywhere in the constituency and the words you hear over and over are that the yogi is invincible. For Hindus, voting Adityanath is a matter of “aastha” (faith). They accept his role in inciting communal passions matter-of-factly and nod approvingly when reminded that his activities have sent him to jail. Some even add helpfully, “Yes, before the 2007 Assembly election. He was arrested for destroying a Muslim tomb.”
What helps Adityanath additionally is the strong association between the mutt and the Lok Sabha seat. For three successive terms between 1989 and 1996, the seat was held by his predecessor, Mahant Avaidyanath. Like his protégé, Avaidyanath was worshipped and feared in equal measure.
Yet this time, Adityanath is up against two tough contenders, both young and popular in their own ways. Bahujan Samaj Party’s candidate Vinay Shankar Tiwari is the son of Hari Shankar Tiwari, erstwhile “don” and Minister in Mulayam Singh’s government, whose muscle and facility with the gun are the stuff of folklore in these parts. The other candidate is Samajwadi Party’s Manoj Tiwari, a Bhojpuri film hero, whose music is a rage with the youth. The Congress, late as always, is yet to decide among a horde of ticket seekers.
Prima facie, the stars appear to be with the yogi. His principal opponents are both Brahmin Tiwaris. However, in the past 10 days, Adiyanath’s BSP opponent has swiftly, and unexpectedly, emerged as someone to watch in an election treated thus far as a mere formality. Up until now, the yogi, himself a Rajput in a constituency with a sizeable Brahmin population, has ridden to victory on Hindu unity. This unity might have cracked, judging by the snowballing Brahmin response to Mr. Vinay Shankar Tiwari. Gorakhpur’s Muslims have also lined up behind the BSP candidate.
The verdict? If Mr. Tiwari splits the Hindu vote, Adityanath could be in trouble.
If, as many people predict, the yogi achieves a Hindu-Muslim polarisation, he will sail through, demonstrating once again the power of the Gorakhnath mutt.