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On March 19, a short man in saffron robes and a monk’s shaven head was sworn in as chief minister of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. UP is India’s largest state, with a population larger than that of Russia. It had just held elections for its legislative assembly, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had taken 312 of 403 seats, securing the biggest majority any party had won in the state in four decades. Yogi Adityanath, as the saffron-robed monk is known, was Modi’s hand-picked nominee to lead Uttar Pradesh’s new government. He is the head priest of a monastic order in northeastern India and an aggressive advocate for Hindu nationalism.
The appointment of a religious leader as the chief of a state government is unprecedented in Indian politics. The BJP has often included members of the Hindu clergy in its mobilization campaigns, but