LUCKNOW, India - Hindu hardliner Yogi Adityanath, who is seeking re-election as chief minister of India's most populous state, touted his record on fighting crime and putting law and order above religion and caste in a rare interview with Western media.
The 49-year-old monk from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been criticised in the past by opposition figures and the Muslim minority for a Hindu-first agenda that has inflamed communal tensions.
His state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) is home to 200 million people including a sizeable Muslim population, and elections starting on Feb. 10 are expected to return him to office for another five years.
Adityanath, wearing the trademark saffron colours of his party, spoke to a small group of reporters on Monday at his heavily guarded government residence in the city of Lucknow, surrounded by images of Hindu gods and a small figurine of Modi.
Asked if he aspired to the top job in Indian politics one day, as some political analysts have suggested, he replied: "I am just a monk who has been entrusted with the task of serving the millions of people living in UP."
He said his record on breaking up criminal gangs was one of the reasons voters should support him and his party in the state ballot.
At least 155 alleged criminals and gangsters were killed by UP police during the first term under Adityanath, which started in 2017, and over 600 members of mafia groups had been arrested, according to state police records. "I have delivered on all promises that I had made in 2017 and have the ability to show that my government has been focused on welfare and progress," he said.
"My government dealt with the issues of corruption ... Law and order has improved markedly and police action during my rule was taken against gangsters and mafia groups without discriminating on the basis of their caste or religion."
REVOLVER AND RIFLE
Uttar Pradesh is considered a bellwether of Indian politics. The outcome of the state vote will be closely watched for clues ahead of parliamentary elections in 2024.
Polls suggest Modi will lead the BJP to victory for a third consecutive term, despite a stuttering economy, joblessness and questions over his party's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rising dissatisfaction among unemployed young people and economic stress in rural communities are the main threats to Adityanath's popularity in the short term.
"As a leader I am aware that the pandemic battered the economy and left millions of the state's migrant workers in cities jobless and forced them to return home to small farms," he said.
"But the unemployment rate in the state in 2017/18 was 18% and today it is just 3%. We have given employment, and we will continue to improve the situation."
A fiery orator, Adityanath has been elected to parliament five times, and some people in his constituency believe he is a reincarnation of a Hindu god.
In his latest declaration of assets to the Election Commission, which candidates must submit and which is publicly available, he said he owned a revolver and a rifle.
Critics portray him as India's most divisive politician who has allowed police to pursue extra-judicial killings, some of which targeted Muslims.
Adityanath denied being anti-Muslim and said police had the authority to go after criminals, but added that they must act within the law.
Some 150 million people are eligible to vote in Uttar Pradesh in a staggered seven-phase ballot.
(Editing by Mike Collett-White) ((Rupam.Jain@thomsonreuters.com; +91 7042133028;))