Yogi renames towns to win Lucknow and has eyes on Delhi

UP polls: Yogi renames towns to win Lucknow and has eyes on Delhi

Communal polarisation, including renaming towns and cities, remains Adityanath's principal hope of returning to power in UP

UP CM Yogi Adityanath. Credit: PTI Photo

For a long time, even after the advent of the multiplex age, for traditionalist producers and directors, there was just one formula for success in Bollywood. Pick up one suitable-to-your-pocket heroic-looking young man, identify an also-suitable-to-the-budget svelte actress, add an antagonistic father, put in a bit of personal sob-background, scatter a few songs through the length of the film, think of an ingenuous climactic sequence, and you had a winner in the hand unless of course, it had a pathetic script and shoddy direction.

As the next round of the Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh approaches - due in the first quarter of 2022 - Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has identified what he presumes will turn out to be an unbeatable prescription to beat the odds stacked against him.

Adityanath faces a challenge to his leadership from two sources: within his party and outside. Let's take the latter threat first. Try as much he wishes to build a fortress of denials; even the torrential monsoon waters gushing down the eternal Ganga river shall not wash traces of his misdemeanours during the second wave of the Covid-19. Coupled with this is the emerging shakiness of his party's formidable social coalition. He did not build it and has instead eroded it by establishing Rajput hegemony in the state. Then there is his none too impressive governance and the atmosphere of oppression that has pervaded under his watch in every layer of society.

The second challenge he faces is from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s central leadership, which wishes all state governments and chief ministers, including their own, to be entirely subservient to the Centre. In contrast, Adityanath believes that the chief minister and his trusted aides must remain in complete command of state elections and local governance.

This would mean there must be absolute synchronicity between sarkar and sangathan (government and party organisation) in the states, as it exists at the Centre. He is opposed to the "high command model" that the current regime has plucked out from the Congress book.

Because this is not to the liking of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo, Adityanath is living the old Hindi saying, "tu ser, toh main sawa ser" (I am one-up on you, or if you are base, I am ace). For every bit of political obscurantism and majoritarian agenda that the central leader has pushed into the body polity, Adityanath has gone one step further.

The chief minister's decisions on divisive issues like restrictive guidelines for the meat trade, inter-faith marriages and relationships, population policy and introduction of disincentives for people with more than two children are instances of this tactic. Speculations over a ministerial expansion/reshuffle in Lucknow have gone on for so long that it has become an embarrassment for the all-powerful central twosome.

This is where Adityanath has drawn on a political equivalent of the Bollywood formula. The state government's recently disclosed plans to rechristen several districts and cities, including Sultanpur, Mirzapur, Aligarh, Firozabad and Mainpuri, is one such.

Reports also say Sultanpur will become Kush Bhavanpur, Aligarh renamed Harigarh, Mainpuri as Mayan Nagar, and Firozabad as Chandra Nagar. There are other lofty plans too in the making: Agra may get a new billboard of Agravan, Muzaffarnagar of Luxmi Nagar, and Miyanganj, a town in UP's Unnao district is likely to be renamed as Mayaganj.

There are two important issues to note here. This is not the first time Adityanath has taken recourse to the politics of renaming and claim "success" on an issue that has zero impact on the lives or situations of people. Shortly after surprisingly emerging as the chief minister in 2017, Adityanath requested the Centre to allow his government to rename Mughalsarai Railway Station in Chandauli district as Deen Dayal Upadhyay Junction. This was an old objective of the BJP because the Jana Sangh stalwart was found murdered in 1968 in a railway compartment in the station's yard.

The process took a while, but by the time the clearances were given, despite opposition in Parliament, Adityanath was almost ready to roll out his next step - changing the name of Allahabad to Prayagraj. The raison d'être? Because almost 450 years ago, Akbar had named it Ilahabad - the abode of God. It was not considered that a railway station named Prayag existed separately, the name drawn from the surrounding locality.

In 2018, Adityanath's decisions appeared laudable to the BJP central leadership for names of certain key roads in the Indian capital, named after Mughal Emperors, were changed post-2014. Adityanath, too had a past of changing names. In the years he was an MP from Gorakhpur, Adityanath developed the habit of declaring new street/locality names. Urdu Bazar started being called Hindi Bazar, Humayanpur to Hanuman Nagar, Islampur to Ishwarpur, Mian Bazar to Maya Bazar and Ali Nagar to Ayanagar.

The politics of renaming has been enacted in India for a long time. Bombay became Mumbai, Madras into Chennai, Bangalore renamed Bengaluru and so on. On gaining independence, the then government straightaway changed names of several streets in Delhi. Kingsway Road became Rajpath, Queensway became Janpath, Irwin Road became Baba Kharak Singh Marg, and King Edward Road was renamed Maulana Azad Road.

The renamings were also followed by the removal of statues of iconic British personalities and historical characters. These decisions were often followed up by state governments too. But, those decisions were driven by the idea of ridding the nation of the country's colonial legacy.

Much later, between 2007 and 2012, when Mayawati was UP chief minister, she changed names of several districts from their traditional ones and gave new ones after iconic figures in Dalit politics. Amethi was hived off, and parts were renamed as Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj Nagar and so on. The successor Samajwadi Party government, with Akhilesh Yadav at its helm, rescinded this order.

Yet, previous decisions were not an instance of a state-sponsored majoritarian cultural assertion like the BJP's decisions have been since 2014. Earlier instances of renaming had merely a politico-electoral purpose. In contrast, the BJP's decisions are not just against the grain of ideal state policy in a pluralistic society but also motivated by its desire to impose its version of history, which theorises that the medieval period was one of "slavery to foreign rule" and making minorities feel insecure.

Having already taken the politics of demonising Muslims a notch higher, Adityanath's latest move underlines that communal polarisation remains his principal hope for coming back to power in UP and thereby become a challenger to the throne at the Centre.

(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times)

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