One of the most ubiquitous figures in the Indian media, both print and television, these last few days was unquestionably Ajai Singh Bisht. No matter which channel your switched, he was there with a grin on his face spouting the most divisive and venomous expletives against those who were not in tandem with him. His tone was a pernicious blend of incendiary with minatory.
In case the name does not ring a bell, he is registered in the Lok Sabha as Yogi Adityanath. He has been elected no fewer than five times from the town of Gorakhpur - my hometown and my current city. I, therefore, have to carry some personal responsibility for his presence on the political horizon which in the past enabled him to have at least a dozen discussions on a subject called 'love-jihad'. This time, his object of ire is Shah Rukh Khan, a self-made matinee idol and a son of a passionate freedom fighter happily married to a Hindu girl for over 20 years. Adityanath has compared him to an internationally recognised terrorist from Pakistan.
By now, we have all become accustomed to this 43-year-old's rants and the mindset he represents. It is just that they have become far more frequent ever since the present government came to power. And there is justifiable trepidation over his antics. All he seems to have got is a gentle rap on his knuckles.
I confess that I personally had never heard of him when I left India for my long sojourn abroad more than 35 years ago - unsurprisingly, as he would only have been a toddler at the time. It was only after my relocation that I familiarised myself with his brand of politics.
No prizes for guessing that I have never voted for him. But it is somewhat surprising to note that the Fourth Estate has always been reluctant to elucidate his background, which is still shrouded in mystery. While I do not have evidence at my disposal, it is commonly believed that he grew up in Uttarakhand which was then a region in Uttar Pradesh and decided to move to Gorakhpur after his graduation to be with his maternal uncle, the past Mahant of the Gorakshapeetha Avaidhyanath. He looked after the business side of the temple until such time as he was declared the nominated successor after having supposedly embraced 'samyasa' and renamed Adityanath. As a matter of principle I have never addressed him as a Yogi as I have not yet seen evidence of his yogic prowess to merit that appellation. But that is how he is commonly known and the prestige that he borrows from the temple ensures that some very learned and educated individuals almost twice his age unashamedly prostate publicly before him.
Unsurprisingly, this has cultivated a megalomaniac sense of self-importance that he very arrogantly reflects. And the objects of his ire are treated to the vilest imaginable abuse - of the street corner variety - which he spouts without inhibition even when the cameras are on. He has cultivated a coterie of disgruntled youth who call themselves Hindu Yuwa Vahini and who are known primarily for their strong arm tactics and the chant which goes -Gorakhpur me rahna hai to yogi yogi kahna hai!
The legitimate question we have to ask ourselves is why does a person like him carry currency in the political arena? There are several reasons which can be speculated. The first and the foremost is our collective inability to reason what is being fed to us as a religious doctrine and even make attempts to ascertain whether the person does represent the fundamental tenets of religion. We are programmed to extend unquestioned obedience to any edict that is cloaked in religious terms. As Anne Lamott has very aptly remarked:
You can safely assume that you have safely created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates the same people that you do.
The second is the general degradation of the entire political ambience in the country where winning elections has become the be-all and end-all without any consideration being given to the means. It is a safe bet that as long as Adityanath keeps on winning the elections, he would carry weight in not only his party but the entire political spectrum.
The third is the unacceptable and unsavoury amalgamation of religion and politics where religion is used as a tool to exploit the populace. Every political party in India is guilty of this tendency. For decades the Congress (I) did not find anything objectionable in cosying upto the MIM, the party of fanatically violent Razakars in Hyderabad which has spawned equally odious characters like Owaisi. Time and again political formations have prostrated before the likes of Bukhari's and Bhindranwale's, fully cognizant of the long term dangers it represented for the country.
But the final and perhaps the most important reason why these people continue to vitiate the atmosphere is our tendency to look for easy solutions that cater just to our self interest without any consideration for the society at large. In effect, I hold all of us responsible for the continued presence of these people. We seem to lack the will to counter their venomous potential.
Does the Adityanath story bring a sense of de ja vu? Indeed it does for people of my generation who remember the 1960's when a cartoonist employed exactly the same modus operandi of whipping up xenophobia, discovering hate figures and channelling the most odious primitive sentiments. The man was named Bal Thackeray and we are witness to the consequences of the destructive potential of his megalomania which survives the man now dead. The most shameful defining image of India in my view is Amitabh Bachchan metaphorically prostrating before this man -to me it represented the ultimate failure of the state and triumph of 'gunda raj'. And that state of affairs percolated to the other states, which is what accounts for his prototype holding forte in far off Uttar Pradesh.
On a personal dimension, I am all for 'love-jihad' whatever that means. To me, it symbolises the triumph of human spirit over the artificial boundaries imposed by the state. My younger first cousin's son married a girl in February whose parents were Muslims. In order to make things more convenient, the girl offered to convert to Hinduism. I have never ever been prouder of my cousin and her husband when they turned the proposal down in an instant, encouraging her to continue with her own religion as no religion would ever come in between two individuals who really love each other.
In a democracy, it is not the business of the state to lay down guidelines on the desirability of a potential partner. Unfortunately, the survival of these hucksters of holiness depends exactly on these obscurantist doctrines.