The BJP lost the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat but did the Gorakhnath mutt lose too?
Results of the by-election for the prestigious Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat were declared Wednesday. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost to the Samajwadi Party (SP) candidate by 21,000 votes. This has evidently come as a big shocker for the party that has won the seat seven times consecutively from 1991 to 2014. The last election in 2014 was won by an astounding margin of 3 lakh votes.
But here's the catch: On all seven occasions, the BJP candidate was the chief priest of the revered Gorakhnath Mutt. Gorakhpur is believed to be a stronghold of not the BJP but the mutt. Of all the 18 polls on this Lok Sabha seat, the mutt has won 10 times.
The mutt's association with active politics dates back to 1967 when its then head priest Digvijaynath (guru of Yogi Adityanath's guru) won the Lok Sabha seat as an independent candidate. After his unexpected death, Digvijaynath's disciple, Avaidyanath, fought the by-polls in 1970 and again, won. However, after Avaidyanath lost the next Lok Sabha elections in 1971 to a Congress candidate by over 37,000 votes, he stayed away from electoral politics for 18 years. But the Ram Janmabhoomi movement heralded his comeback in 1989 when he fought as a Hindu Mahasabha candidate and emerged victorious. Since then, it has been the mutt and the mutt alone that held the coveted seat till 2014 when Yogi Adityanath registered a historic victory. After 1989, the mutt priests fought all the elections - in 1991, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014 - on a BJP ticket.
So except for the period between 1971 and 1989, the mutt has had a near monopoly over the Lok Sabha seat for five decades. And till 2014, it had been consecutively winning nine times in a row!
This winning spree came to an abrupt end when the BJP fielded a non-mutt candidate this time. The seat was left vacant after Yogi Adityanath became Chief Minister.
This has led to a lot of post-poll speculation that the BJP played with fire by not considering Adityanath proposal of fielding a mutt representative in the first place. Many reports have hinted that Adityanath had wanted a mutt insider to be nominated as he believed that an outsider would dilute the political influence of Gorakhnath Mutt. And that he eventually gave in to BJP president Amit Shah who calls the shots in these matters.
There are several theories that explain Shah's decision to field Upendra Dutt Shukla, an influential Brahmin leader, instead of a mutt leader. One speculation is that the party wants to check Adityanath’s stature, a theory supported by the manner in which Adityanath’s own sangathan - Hindu Yuva Vahini - is being trimmed and weakened by the day.
Another theory is that Shah wanted to placate the Brahmins of the state who have been miffed ever since a Thakur was made chief minister. Yogi Adityanath is an upper-caste Thakur by birth, his name was Ajay Singh Bisht before he entered into the order of Gorakhnath.
The move, however, has evidently backfired. The very seat that Adityanath won in 2014 by a huge margin of 3 lakh votes was lost to SP's Praveen Kumar Nidhad by 21,000.
On his part, Adityanath held well over a dozen meetings in support of Shukla before the polls as per the party's wish. But, it seems, that he enjoyed little support from the mutt itself. It's interesting to note that the Gorakhnath Mutt booth saw only 43 votes in favour of the BJP as opposed to 1,775 for Samajwadi Party. Even the Congress, that has otherwise met with a humiliating defeat in the by-election, garnered more votes than the BJP at this booth.
The mutt is not seen in favour of the Brahmins. The Nath Panth is a non-Brahmanical sect whose last three Mahants have been Thakurs. In fact, it is in a constant power tussle with the Brahmins who have as many votes as Thakurs from the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat.
The tussle dates back to the time of Mahant Digvijaynath when one Pandit Suratinath Narayan used to be hugely popular among the Brahmins of Gorakhpur. But Digvijaynath, it is said, humiliated Pandit Suratinath on one occasion, sowing the seed of a bitter rivalry that lasts till date.
But the equation tilted in the favour of the mutt after Yogi Adityanath took over the reins in the late 1990s. One, he actively worked to expand the mutt's power and reach. His sangathan, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, proved to be a huge success in this regard. Two, what further helped him rise was that in December 1997, a dreaded Brahmin don, Shriprakash Shukla, was killed in an encounter by the police. The influence of Brahmins in Gorakhpur went on to decline while that of Thakurs and the mutt only grew. Adityanath, at the helm of affairs, almost became invincible. Such has been his hold on the constituency that despite being in the opposition in state politics, Adityanath has been the de facto leader of this region.
Amidst this, the choice of Shukla as the candidate must have come as a jolt to the mutt and Yogi's supporters, as is evident from many reports quoting mutt officials expressing their surprise, and even disappointment, at the move.
If they say that Gorakhpur votes for the mutt and not the BJP, the claim is supported by the low voter turnout for the polls. Analysts say the 11 per cent drop in turnout compared to 2014 went in favour of the opposing candidates.
In a way, the verdict on Thursday affirms the upper hand of Yogi Adityanath and the mutt in the power play of Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Shah's risky move to ignore all suggestions that only a mutt leader can win the seat has proved to be a wrong calculation.
Does it mean that while the BJP lost, the mutt has won?