The monk-cum-chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Ajay Singh Bisht, has no match when it comes to public speaking. But critics say the bluster is merely a way of covering up the many failures of his government.

Since he assumed the highest office of India’s most populous state in March last year, the saffron-clad leader, who is also known as Yogi Adityanath, has issued hundreds of controversial statements and shows no signs of ending the practice.

He once advised people to “recite Hanuman Chalisa (the Hindu devotional hymn for Lord Hanuman)” for protection against monkeys, and ridiculed aspiring teachers who tonsured (shaved the top of) their heads in a protest, saying this was “a curse of their last birth”.

On another occasion Bisht asked sugarcane growers to switch to other crops, as “over-production of sugar causes diabetes”. Then he publicly declared that “I don’t celebrate Eid (the Islamic festival) as I am a proud Hindu.”

Now the poster boy of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) for the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), Bisht was even more forthright when he first joined parliament, making statements like: “Given a chance, I would place Ganesh (Hindu god) idols in every mosque”; “Those opposing the Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) leave India or drown themselves in the ocean”; and “Shah Rukh Khan sounds like Hafiz Saeed when he complains of growing intolerance in Indian society.”

Sharat Pradhan, a senior journalist from Lucknow, said Bisht was “the ‘Pappu’ (fool) of the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party, whose statements neither have any sense nor rationality”. He added: “Had the Congress chief Rahul Gandhi made such remarks, the entire BJP including the Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have ridiculed him endlessly.” The BJP often mocks Gandhi by using the adjective “Pappu”.

A science graduate, Bisht has kept his post as chief priest of Gorakhnath Peeth, a prominent Hindu Matt (Hindu Monastery), which gives him immense power and popularity among the Hindu devotees of India and Nepal. Many people, including government officials and police officers, touch his feet and seek his blessings.

‘Yogi is a Mathadheesh, not a  people’s leader. He believes his word is the last word, just like any mutt chiefs or religious leaders do’

“Yogi (Bisht) is a Mathadheesh (chief of the Mutt), not the people’s leader,” Pradhan retorted. “His arrogance and overconfidence comes from there. He believes his word is the last word, just like any mutt chiefs or religious leaders do. Defying all logic, he talks irrational or communal lines, which is his natural instinct.”

Bisht has always fostered an image as a fundamentalist Hindu leader and is keen to keep it that way. He became a dark horse with the backing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological fountainhead and was instrumental in increasing BJP’s clout in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

But while Bisht says that “all is well under my able guidance”, rivals  say his claims of political successes are not so easy to substantiate, and his abrasive manner doesn’t please everyone. Some bureaucrats say he is not even open to suggestions.

Congress leader Virendra Madan said Bisht makes wild comments to hide failures in his government. “BJP has made tall election promises ranging from crores (millions) of jobs, addressing farm woes and curbing crimes. He has failed to deliver any of them. To divert people and media attention from this, he gives controversial speeches.”

Certainly Bisht has been caught out on occasions. In March he claimed there had been no riots in the state during his tenure, yet statistics tabled days later in parliament by the federal government showed that Uttar Pradesh had had the highest number of riots in the entire country. Similarly, he recently claimed that no mob-lynching had occurred in the state, after several cases were reported to police.

Pradhan also noted that Bisht has denied reports of sexual abuse at Deoria’s shelter that had been revealed by a 10-year-old inmate, even while the case was pending in the High Court. He also blamed “internal politics” and not the “disruption of oxygen supply” for the deaths of 60 children last year at Gorakhpur Medical College. Nine suspects in that case had already been prosecuted.

As the general election grows nearer, political opponents — who sarcastically call him “Babaji” (saint) — have become the prime target of Bisht’s venom. A week ago he described the opposition parties as “snakes and geese” and compared ex-chief minister and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav with Mughal emperor “Aurangzeb”, as he had abruptly removed his father to become party boss two years ago.

‘Seems Adityanath is the chief minister of only so-called Hindus. He must try to become chief minister to all

Samajwadi Party member Ram Govind Chaudhary, who leads the opposition in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, accused Bisht of tarnishing the image of his post. “Seems Adityanath (Ajay Singh Bisht) is the chief minister of only ‘so-called Hindus’,” Chaudhary said. “He must try to become a chief minister to all.”

Bisht has been in the news more for his speeches against minority  populations than for his administrative qualities. “He is 1% yogi (ascetic) and 10% chief minister,” retorted Sunil Singh Sajan, a  Samajwadi Party legislator, accusing him of failing to perform.

Critics and supporters both agree that Bisht’s firebrand version of Hindutva has been successful at putting him on the big stage. It is a unique selling point that he made him a star campaigner of his party, overshadowed only by Prime Minister Modi and BJP party president Amit Shah.

Yet so far the political gains have been meagre. In the parliamentary polls held earlier this year the BJP lost the Gorakhpur seat, which Bisht had himself held five times in the past, as well as a seat vacated by deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya in Allahabad and another seat at Kairana.

Some senior leaders in his party seem to have accepted that he will need to tone down the rhetoric. “People holding constitutional posts must maintain dignity and gauge their statements, especially where the cases are pending with the court,” said a senior Uttar Pradesh minister, requesting anonymity. “But the chief minister is like that. In fact, he has toned down since he became the chief minister.”

Publicly, party spokesperson Harish Srivastava continued to defend Bisht: “He is working very hard to address the issues of farmers, youngsters, poor, Dalits and minorities. A slip of the tongue does happen when such a committed person is posed with tricky questions (by media) or being targeted unnecessarily (by opposition and activists). People should focus on positive things, rather than making a mountain out of a mole hill,” he argued.

With the general election only months away, the big question is how much benefit the BJP will get in Uttar Pradesh from his militant brand of Hindutva politics. The state has the highest number of Lok Sabha (lower house) seats in the nation, and will decide the BJP’s fate.