Activist takes on Hindu heavyweights in India's biggest state poll

AZAMGARH — Rajeev Yadav was a teenage documentary maker in the late 2000s when he filmed a prominent Hindu monk in northern India making fiery speeches to roaring applause by crowds of followers.

The saffron-clad monk, Yogi Adityanath, has gone on to become chief minister of India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 200 million people who vote in a key election this month that opinion polls suggest will return him to power.

Despite odds stacked against him, Yadav, 35, is running as an independent candidate in the state ballot, campaigning against what he calls the “politics of hate” by Hindu hardliners which minority communities.

The issue has been central to Indian politics since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stormed to power in 2014 and increased its majority five years later.

Modi and other BJP leaders including Adityanath have defended their record, saying that they do not discriminate and are pursuing policies that will benefit all Indians.

The main opposition Congress party and activists like Yadav argue that by putting the Hindu majority first, they are pursuing a divisive agenda.

Communal tensions have spilled into violence in recent years, including in Uttar Pradesh which has a large Muslim population.

“Activism alone is no longer enough,” said Yadav, sitting on the roof of a mud and brick home overlooking paddy fields in his hometown of Azamgarh. His rivals in the local election are from the BJP, Congress and the regional Samajwadi Party.