India's most-populous state, Uttar Pradesh (UP), kicked off its legislative assembly elections on Thursday, with state Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath fighting for a second term in office.
The "polarizing leader" is known to be close to the top brass of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The stakes for the ruling party are high as Uttar Pradesh is home to about 15% of the members of Parliament in India's lower house. The northern state, therefore, plays a major role in determining the prime minister of India, who is usually the leader of the majority party.
Nine of India's 14 prime ministers, including Modi, have had a constituency in the state.
Some political analysts estimate that Adityanath could be positioned as a future prime ministerial candidate by the BJP, prompting concerns about increasing nationalism and the rise of far-right extremists.
Who is Yogi Adityanath?
Adityanath's rule has been characterized by Hindu right-wing politics, including a tough stance against cow slaughter and prevention of interreligious marriages, especially between Hindu women and Muslim men.
The saffron-robe-wearing monk has headed the temple of Gorakhnath Math since September 2014. He changed his name from Ajay Mohan Bisht to Yogi Adityanath after becoming a monk.
Before entering mainstream politics, he started the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a Hindu religious organization that works toward protecting cows and encourages "Ghar Wapsi," which entails religious conversion to Hinduism from Islam, Christianity and other religions.
The organization also aimed to prevent what Hindu nationalists call "love jihad." The conspiracy theory holds that supposedly Muslim men deceive women to coerce them into changing their religion, with the ultimate aim of establishing "domination in the majority-Hindu country."
"Adityanath's roots are as a religious leader. He built a support base in the Purvanchal region of UP, and became a political leader," Sudha Pai, a former professor of political science at Jawaharlal University, told DW.
Pai, however, has doubts about the leader's influence beyond UP.
"Because of his poor record over the last five years, perhaps he would not be put forth as a PM candidate by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the parent organization of the BJP). He does not have appeal as a leader, especially in southern India," Pai explained.
The BJP's main opponent in UP is the Samajwadi Party, led by Akhilesh Yadav, which has managed to gain several alliances with local parties.
Vinod Bansal, a national spokesperson for right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad, rejects claims that Adityanath is a "Hindu extremist."
"He fights for India and Indian culture. To label him a 'Hindu extremist' is blatantly wrong. He is a true nationalist," Bansal told DW.
Adityanath's five years in power
In spite of unstable relations with the BJP for years, he often been praised by top BJP leaders including Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah for his development projects and handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2020, Yogi Adityanath was voted as the best performing state chief minister in the "Mood of the Nation" survey by the magazine India Today.
Opponents, however, say there is little evidence to support his accomplishments.
Adityanath has also come under fire for the Indian government's introduction of three laws in 2020 that relaxed rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce, prompting a year of mass protests. The laws have protected farmers from the free market for decades.
Political analyst Arvind Kumar, from the University of London, told DW that the agricultural laws have been a "matter of the central government, rather than Adityanath's administration."
"However, farmers are angry with Yogi due to three different reasons," Kumar said.
"Firstly, the [stray] cattle menace which has risen due to the banning of cow slaughter. Secondly, no increase in the price of sugarcane for the last four years and inadequate provision of market for purchasing food grains. ... A surge in price of electricity has also angered farmers towards the state authorities," Kumar said.
In the past few months, several ministers from Adityanath's government quit to join the rival Samajwadi party, signaling unrest under his leadership.
The departure of the senior ministers "have given the impression that Yogi only protects the interest of upper castes, particularly Rajput," Kumar said, referring to the historically landowning warrior caste near the apex of India's caste system.
"This episode has dented his image from Hindu leader to the Rajput leader, which is bound to damage his electoral fortune," he added.
Rakesh Sinha, a BJP lawmaker, told DW that Adityanath is only trying to "restore law and order."
"How can he be dubbed a 'Hindu extremist'? Leftists and pseudo-secular people cannot see a man wearing saffron (attire). That is the problem."
Is Indian secularism under threat?
Many Indians are worried about the populist leader's hard stance against Muslims, who make up almost 20% of the state's population.
"The return of Yogi as chief minister would be a big blow to the idea of secularism in India. He has always gained popularity through targeting minorities. ... So, his success would encourage other leaders to do the same," Kumar said.
During his tenure, Adityanath changed the names of places including Allahabad and Mughal Sarai to more Hindu-sounding ones, such as Prayagraj and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. He also introduced a law against "love jihad," claiming this was to protect Hindu women's rights.
Nevertheless, Adityanath remains a popular and influential leader in India, who could emerge victorious.
"What happens next depends upon the extent of the win. If the BJP just about make it and form a government, they will come down even harder with their policies. The desperation will be greater, they will try to curb critics and opposition," Pai said.
Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum