Saurabh Vishwakarma, 34, is a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) corporator from ward number 63 in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur. His ward, with nearly three thousand voters, abuts the Gorakhnath Math headed by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
Vishwakarma was 15 when he joined the Hindu Yuva Vahini, Adityanath’s vigilante group or private army. He is a three-time BJP corporator and was re-elected in 2017, on a BJP ticket, even after he had a bitter falling out with Adityanath, who had declared a bounty of Rs 25,000 on his head.
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Still a member of the BJP, Vishwakarma, says, “the government, and the man (Adityanath), who slapped the stringent Gangster Act on me and declared a reward on my head... how can I stand with them knowing they want to kill me in an encounter?”
Saurabh’s younger brother Chandan, who is also with the Hindu Yuva Vahini, points at a bullet wound on his lower left leg. He then uncovers his arm, that was ripped open by a sword when he was part of a Hindu Yuva Vahini mob that went on a rampage during the Gorakhpur riots of 2007 – when Adityanath was arrested for 14 days for violating prohibitory orders.
“I have taken bullets for him and he booked me for murder, attempt to murder in 54 cases. Last year, I was jailed for nine months after being arrested under the stringent National Security Act (NSA),” Chandan said.
Both Saurabh and Chandan were recruited by Sunil Singh, who established the radical right wing outfit, as Adityanath’s private army. As foot-soldiers of Adityanath’s army, their job was to politically deify the god man and project him as a force in Purvanchal, independent of the BJP, by branding him as the legitimate custodian of Hindutva.
Debt of Loyalty, Cost of Revolt
They also unleashed a terrorising campaign of cow vigilantism, whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment and protecting Hindus from any persecution.
Singh, who spent 18 years of his life shadowing Adityanath, was his head henchman. He shows pictures to prove how he was once devoted to Adityanath, and was always seen by his side.
But in 2017, the ‘guru-chela’ had a bitter falling out, over denial of tickets to Hindu Yuva Vahini leaders – who were mentored by Singh – for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.
Singh revolted and paid the price. He was eventually discarded from the Vahini and had to start from scratch, at the behest of Adityanath.
Sliced off from the Mahant’s innermost circle, he swore revenge. After a massive show of strength near Adityanath’s official residence in Lucknow, in May 2018, he formed a parallel outfit called the Hindu Yuva Vahini (Bharat).
Three months later, in August, Singh and 12 workers from his new-formed faction were booked for threatening Adityanath’s supporters on social media. They were arrested and sent to jail for nine months, under the National Security Act.
When he was released, earlier this year, Singh was greeted by thousands of supporters on his return to Gorakhpur. He entered the city, flanked by a 100 SUV roadshow to demonstrate the damage he can inflict upon the BJP’s 2019 elections.
Issuing a warning shot to the BJP, Singh said that Adityanath will become the party’s Bhasmasura – a mythical demon who touches and turns things to ashes – in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections.
Singh also recalls how, in the past, Adityanath has used the Hindu Yuva Vahini to inflict harm upon senior BJP leaders. How they scuttled elections of former UP-BJP Presidents like Surya Pratap Shahi and Ramapati Ram Tripathi.
Besides Hindutva, the mandate for the Vahini was to also propagate the perception that “in Purvanchal, the BJP is Adityanath and Adityanath is BJP”.
But now that the BJP’s Gorakhpur bastion has fallen, Singh accuses Adityanath of surrendering political space to the Mahagathbandhan. A seat, he says, “Adityanath is insecure of losing to any other emerging rival within the BJP. He wanted to give a signal to the BJP that he is the only one who can win Gorakhpur for them.”
Wounded by Adityanath’s assault, Singh wants to create real political trouble for the BJP in Gorakhpur, that has become the most prestigious battle for the BJP in the 2019 elections.
“After the humiliating defeat, re-gaining Gorakhpur is of paramount importance for Adityanath and could decide his future as Chief Minister,” Singh added.
Singh, who has groomed a cadre of thirteen thousand Hindu Yuva Vahini workers, wants to unleash Adityanath’s Sena against him.
‘Will Ensure BJP Loses’
Accompanied by more than one thousand supporters, Singh filed his nomination on 27 April as an Independent candidate. He claims Adityanath manipulated the administration to reject his nomination on ‘technical grounds’, when other Independents with similar documentation have been cleared to contest.
To those within the BJP who call him a political non-entity, he says, “I was with Adityanath for 22 years. I know him like nobody else. Why did he get my nomination canceled if I was someone who could only get 5,000 votes? They should have let me fight. At least that way I would have known where I stand. I would have been finished forever had I lost by getting just 5,000 votes.”
Singh, meanwhile, has challenged the rejection in the Allahabad High Court. He warns, “I have fought Adityanath’s election four times in Gorakhpur. I know how he wins. If we can’t win then we can ensure that BJP doesn’t win either (hum jeet nahi sakte toh jeetne bhi nahi denge) he warns”.
Based on the strength of his thirteen thousand Vahini workers in Gorakhpur, Singh hopes to swing fifty thousand votes away from the BJP – a seat that is seeing every party stitch up an intricate patchwork of caste and vote-bank combinations.
Even if he manages half of his, it could inflict further damage to the BJP, on a seat which the party had lost by twenty thousand votes in the 2017 bypoll.
If not the BJP, then who will Singh support in the election? Now that he is no longer a candidate, he says, “I will transfer my vote to the Mahagathbandhan.”
Despite being the chief minister, Adityanath’s stature, Singh claims, has diminished in Gorakhpur – since he forced the split in the Hindu Yuva Vahini. He gives the example of the 2017 civic polls, in which an Independent Muslim candidate had won in Nadira, the polling center where Adityanath casts his vote in Gorakhpur.
Meanwhile, the Vahini workers that Adityanath did manage to retain now have a new, less aggressive identity and purpose. PK Mal, a close aide of the UP CM who heads the ‘reformed’ Hindu Yuva Vahini faction, says, its mandate has been redefined to become a “social and political body that works positively for the people of Gorakhpur.”
Their cadre is more controlled and no longer clicks selfies with the CM. They work behind the scenes and pursue social work, like organising blood donation camps and distributing food in local hospitals.
‘Accidental Chief Minister’
Singh explains this taming of the remaining workers: “Adityanath was told by (BJP president) Amit Shah that ‘if you have a private army or organisation, if Keshav Prasad Maurya (now deputy CM of UP) has one, and if Varun Gandhi has another, then how will the BJP function? (phir toh chal chuki BJP)’.”
“When you get your CM post in alms (bheek),” Singh adds, “then people impose such conditions on you. They have given Adityanath this position and they can take it away. There is no future for him because he is an accidental chief minister.”
Singh is now traveling the length and breadth of Purvanchal. On his way to Varanasi, where the Vahini has nearly 300 active workers, he makes a rather unusual pit stop, in Azamgarh, to encourage Congress workers to vote for SP supremo Akhilesh Yadav.
As he lands at a wedding in Varanasi, he is surrounded by former Vahini workers who have migrated to the BJP. One workers says, on the condition of anonymity, that, “Babaji (Adityanath) has lost his way.”
Other workers, like Chandan, who are keeping the Vahini and its agenda alive in Varanasi, say: “We can’t find Mahant Adityanath anywhere. We have lost him to the BJP, as chief minister.”
But is Singh really capable of causing another upset for the BJP in Gorakhpur?
Manoj Singh an independent journalist from Gorakhpur who has followed the rise of the Hindu Yuva Vahini over nearly two decades, says: “Singh’s defiance (bagawat) is a big thing. It’s very difficult for any current or former member of the Vahini to openly rebel against Adityanath in Gorakhpur, be jailed, get released and then return to rebel again. This is the only incident where his dearest student has openly challenged Adityanath.”
“On his (Singh’s) one call, a thousand people turn up for a meeting. He is the founder of the Vahini, and even he has fallen out with Adityanath... those he recruited still have some loyalty towards him. Singh was a threat in this election. Had he contested, and got a few thousand votes, his stature and that of his faction would have increased. But now that his nomination has been rejected, no matter what the technicalities, the people’s perception is that that Adityanath saw him as a threat and stopped him from contesting the election. After all, he was once the chief minister’s right-hand man and is now openly challenging him,” Manoj Singh added.
(Anant Zanane is an Uttar Pradesh-based journalist who was with NDTV for over a decade. He tweets at @anantzanane. )