Late in the evening on April 23, former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Babulal Gaur was sitting in the courtyard of his sprawling bungalow in Bhopal. Several chairs were placed around the veteran BJP leader for visitors.

Ever since he suffered a minor stroke earlier this month, Gaur, 88, has been having trouble in expressing himself, but he still manages to meet as many people as he possible. His staff say that he still gets visitors late in the night wanting to discuss politics or just to seek his blessings.

Asked about the situation in the Bhopal Lok Sabha constituency, where two-time former chief minister and Congress heavyweight Digvijaya Singh is facing Malegaon terror accused and BJP candidate Pragya Singh Thakur, Gaur said, “It is a very close contest and one cannot pick a clear winner.”

He added: “While Digvijaya is a senior leader and former chief minister, Pragya [Thakur] has the support of BJP voters. It is not going to be easy for both the contestants.”

Dismissing reports of a Narendra Modi wave in the state, Gaur lamented that Thakur was creating unnecessary controversy with her statements. He said that the firebrand Hindutva leader has no “control over her tongue”, which could cost her the election.

But he was equally critical of the Congress’ weak organisational strength. “They only have leaders,” he said. “Singh’s popularity alone will not be enough to win him the elections from this BJP bastion”, which, he noted, has a strong presence of members of the BJP’s ideological fountainhead – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

While Gaur was talking, he was joined by two senior state BJP leaders, Umashankar Gupta and Jaswant Singh Hada, who had come to invite him for the inauguration of the party’s new office on April 24.

Hada, who is also Thakur’s election coordinator, was unable to hide his excitement about the BJP’s campaign in Bhopal, and said that several of Thakur’s supporters had come from other states to help out.

Bhopal votes on May 12.

According to Hada, cadres of the RSS and other right-wing groups such as the Bajrang Dal, Durga Vahini, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, among others, are working hard to ensure Thakur’s victory.

Hada also said that the BJP’s central leadership in Delhi was closely monitoring Thakur’s campaign. “We send daily reports to the central leadership that is taking great interest in Bhopal,” said Hada. “Everyone wants to know what is happening in Bhopal.”

Considered a BJP bastion, winning Bhopal has become a matter of prestige for the BJP. It has not lost an election from here since 1989. Singh not only challenges the BJP’s dominance in Bhopal but also undermines the RSS, which sees him as someone who defamed Hindus by describing people like Thakur as Hindu terrorists.

A BJP citadel

The last time the Congress won the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat was in 1984 after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards. In the general election at the end of that year, the Congress rode a sympathy wave to sweep the elections. It won 404 of 514 seats with a nearly 50% vote share. (Elections were delayed in Punjab and Assam, and only held in 1985.)

In 1984, the Congress’ KN Pradhan defeated Laxmi Narayan Sharma in Bhopal by a margin of more than one lakh votes. But in 1989, BJP candidate Sushil Chandra Verma won the seat and since then no Congress leader has been able to unseat the BJP from Bhopal. In 2014, the BJP’s Alok Sanjar won with a margin of more than 3,70,000 votes against Congress’ PC Sharma.

The BJP could have easily continued its winning streak in Bhopal if it had to face anyone except Singh, who is the most popular Congress leader in the state

His candidature rattled the BJP leadership to such an extent that the party named Thakur as its candidate 26 days after the Congress announced Singh’s name.

The delay led Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath to taunt the BJP by asking it to issue advertisements to find a candidate for Bhopal. Thakur was considered for the job after the party failed to convince its former chief ministers, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Uma Bharti, to contest against Singh.

Singh himself was not too keen on Bhopal, and it was Nath who persuaded him to take on the tough seat.

For a man returning to electoral politics after a gap of 16 years, Singh would have definitely preferred the much safer Rajgarh parliamentary constituency, his home turf, which he had won in 1984 and 1991.

After losing the 2003 Assembly elections to the BJP, Singh had vowed to not contest elections for the next 10 years.

The results of December’s Assembly elections, however, should concern Singh. Of the eight Assembly seats that comprise the Bhopal parliamentary constituency, the Congress lost five.

The odds are definitely stacked against Singh. However, the Congress is banking on Singh’s popularity to end the BJP’s winning streak in Bhopal. Credited for turning around the Congress’ fortunes in Madhya Pradesh and helping the party gain a majority in the state Assembly last year after a gap of 15 years, the 72-year-old politician is now facing the toughest electoral battle of his political career.

BJP's Bhopal candidate Pragya Singh Thakur is an accused in the Malegaon terror attack case. (Photo credit: HT).

Singh’s strategy

In Bhopal, residents claim that the BJP fielded Thakur with the sole intention of polarising the electorate, not just in this parliamentary constituency but across Madhya Pradesh.

In the past, Singh has spoken out against the role of the RSS and its affiliates in terror activities in India. The BJP and the RSS have used this to portray him as anti-Hindu, accusing him of coining the term “Hindu terror” and for repeatedly defaming the majority community with his allegations.

After the party announced Thakur’s candidature, it was expecting Singh to engage in a verbal duel with her, which could have helped polarise the electorate.

But Singh has skirted direct confrontations with Thakur so far. Instead, he has been focussing on development issues concerning Bhopal. The Congress has even released a vision document that specifically speaks about the several development initiatives Singh has in store for Bhopal if its residents repose their faith in him.

In fact, when Thakur’s candidature was announced, the veteran leader welcomed her to Bhopal on Twitter and hoped that she would enjoy the city’s peaceful, educated and civilised atmosphere.

Digvijay Singh is the Congress candidate from Bhopal. (Photo credit: Akash Bisht).

To counter the BJP’s narrative that he is anti-Hindu, Singh is trying hard to project an image of himself as a devout Hindu who visits temples, keeps fasts and often seeks the guidance of Hindu holy men.

His spiritual guru, the Shankaracharya of Sharada Peeth, Swami Swarupanand Saraswati, is even staying in Bhopal to shore up support for Singh.

Singh is also attempting to win over Hindu priests in and around Bhopal. He has assured more than 1,000 priests in the area that they will be given the title deeds to the property around temples. They have also been promised a monthly income if they support the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections.

Party leaders claim that close to 3,000 Hindu holy men will support Singh’s campaign in Bhopal, including former minister Computer Baba.

Congress leaders in Bhopal have also been told to project Singh as a devout Hindu.

“He has 11 statues of different gods at his home and fasts on auspicious days,” said Yogendra Parihar, who heads the Congress’ social media team. “He visited 20 temples on Hanuman Jayanti [April 19]. Did you see Thakur visiting any of the temples? Just because he is critical of RSS’s brand of Hindutva does not mean he is less devout than any of them.”

Having realised that his actions and words had antagonised a large section of Hindus, Singh undertook a six-month-long Narmada Yatra before the Assembly elections to bolster his image of a devout Hindu.

To counter the BJP’s narrative that Singh hurt Hindu sentiments by coining the term “Hindu terror”, the wily politician has directed party spokespersons to blame former Union Home Secretary RK Singh, who is now a minister in the BJP government, for first using this term.

Bhopal-based political commentator Girija Shankar claimed that Singh’s decision to play the Hindu card forced the RSS to field Thakur. “His politics irked the RSS,” said Shankar. “To counter his narrative, they zeroed in on Thakur, which I think was a brilliant strategy.”

He believes that Singh has displayed great political maturity by not confronting Thakur directly, avoiding the trap the RSS set for him.

“Till now, he has played his cards very well, which means not reacting to whatever she says,” said Shankar, who predicted a close contest if Singh continued to tread carefully. “What further worked to his advantage was the 26-day head start he had over Thakur.”

While Singh was declared the Congress candidate from Bhopal on March 23, Thakur’s candidature was finalised only on April 17.

Meanwhile, nothing is holding Thakur back. She is making one controversial statement after another. Her statements that Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare was killed in the 2008 Mumbai terror attack because she had cursed him, and that she had climbed atop the Babri Masjid in 1992 to demolish it created a furore. But that has not deterred her.

“She has nothing to lose,” said Shankar. “Even if she loses the elections, nothing will happen to her but if she manages to defeat Singh, it will be a huge moral victory for the RSS and her.”

(Photo credit: Akash Bisht).

The Muslim factor

At 10 pm near Bhopal’s Iqbal Maidan, Shakeel Khan was busy thinking about his next move as he played chess with his friend. Each evening, Khan and his friends gather here for a game of chess before they head home.

Khan soon realised that he and his opponent had run out of legal moves and the game was headed for a draw. The two friends shook hands and called it a day.

“Politics is like chess and Singh is making his moves strategically,” said Khan. “If he maintains his silence, he will win the game. Just like chess, his one wrong move could lead to a defeat.”

Is that the reason why Singh is shying away from talking about Muslims and is not visiting Muslim-dominated colonies in Bhopal?

“That is certainly the case,” reasoned Khan. “His one visit to a Muslim neighbourhood will polarise the elections and give Thakur the chance to portray him as pro-Muslim, which will lead to a loss. So, why take that risk?”

Many others in the neighbourhood agreed that Singh is avoiding visits to Muslim localities and was also not accompanying Muslim leaders to public meetings for this reason.

Of the three Assembly seats that Congress won in Bhopal in December, two were bagged by the party’s Muslims candidates.

“We are voting for the Congress since no sane person should vote for a terror accused,” said Sajad Khan of Iqbal Maidan. He had come with his friends to the famous Pappu Tea Corner in Old Bhopal for a late night cup of tea. “Muslims helped the Congress win two seats from Bhopal, we will ensure Singh wins too,” he said.

Muslims constitute nearly 27% of Bhopal’s population and can help Singh win if he manages to get votes of other communities, including Dalits.

The dominant Jatav community amongst Dalits seem to be rooting for Singh.

Dr B Bharti, the state general secretary of Vishwa Vidyalaya Adhikari Sangh who is associated with several Dalit organisations, is convinced that Dalits will vote for the Congress. He has predicted that Singh will win, but it will be a close fight.

According to him, Dalits will no longer be fooled by the politics of hate based on religion. “What we want is development,” said Bharti. “We want jobs and social equality, which is unlikely to happen in this government.”

Bharti said members of the Dalit community were questioning the logic behind fielding a divisive figure such as Thakur from Bhopal.

B Bharti. (Photo credit: Akash Bisht).

“If they want development, why give a ticket to a bomb blast accused?” asked Rangrav Savdekar, a government employee. “Do we want such people as role models for our children. I want my children to think beyond religion and work for their better future. What BJP is offering is not in this nation’s interest.”

Savdekar believed that Thakur is no match to Singh and if nothing dramatic happens before May 12, the former chief minister is assured of a victory.

Shakeel Khan and his friends play chess near Bhopal’s Iqbal Maidan. (Photo credit: Akash Bisht).

A weak candidate?

There is almost a consensus among residents of Bhopal that Thakur is a weaker candidate than Singh.

“Her popularity is nothing compared to that of Digvijay Singh,” said Kamlesh Dhosele, a Bhopal resident. “I am a BJP supporter and will vote for her even though she might lose. Digvijaya [Singh] is one of the tallest Congress leaders in the state and could get the support of fringe voters.”

Dr Anupam Pathak, a Bhopal resident and Narendra Modi supporter, is not concerned about the terror charges against Thakur, saying he is voting for Modi and not the candidate.

“What she did or didn’t do does not matter,” he said. “I want Modi to be prime minister again and that is what matters. Yes, as far as popularity is concerned, Thakur is no match to Singh.”

At the same time, Pathak added that Singh’s popularity was not enough to turn BJP supporters into Congress supporters.

There are reports of disagreement within the local BJP unit over Thakur’s candidature. Many local newspapers reported that several BJP leaders skipped a meeting called by BJP leader Vinay Sahsrabuddhe, who is in charge of the state, to discuss the party’s election strategy. Though Sahsrabuddhe denied any internal rift on the matter, some leaders said they were not happy with the party’s decision to field Thakur.

“There is no democracy within the party,” said a BJP leader on the condition of anonymity. “Amit Shah decides everything. We work hard for five years only to know an outsider has been given a ticket. Is she a better candidate than Alok Sanjar who won by a huge margin in 2014?”

Other leaders were fearful that Thakur and her team would dictate terms to the local leadership if she won the Bhopal seat.

Uma Bharti also seemed to be miffed by Thakur’s candidature, which led Thakur to pay her a visit to set things right.

Other BJP leaders have also attempted to play down talk of any rift. “We are working as a unit and all these reports of a rift within the party are just a media creation,” said Prabhat Jha, a Rajya Sabha MP from Madhya Pradesh.

Ashok Khoge, a government officer, said Thakur’s candidature was a clever plan but for one problem. “It is a very well-thought-out trap,” he said. “But the BJP seems to have underestimated the intellect of this modern-day Chanakya [Singh].”