The Bharatiya Janata Party has not lost the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat since 1989. As a consequence, many were taken by surprise at the saffron party’s decision to field neophyte Pragya Singh Thakur, who is being tried in a terror case, against Congress heavyweight Digvijaya Singh. Many political observers see this as an obvious attempt by the BJP to polarise the electorate on religious lines.
Bhopal voted on May 12. The constituency has about 20.53 lakh voters, of whom4.5 lakh are Muslim, according to The Economic Times.
Thakur is currently being tried for terrorism charges in connection with the Malegaon blasts in 2008 that killed six people. She is out on bail on health grounds. When the BJP was heavily criticised for fielding a person accused of terrorism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that Thakur’s candidature is a symbol against “those who branded a 5,000-year-old peaceful civilisation a terrorist”.
Modi’s remarks were an attempt to attack Congress candidate Digvijaya Singh for his frequent remarks about the terrorism activities of some Hindutva organisations. In 2013, for instance, Singh alleged that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideologial parent, was training volunteers to make bombs, according to PTI.
In June 2018, Singh had accused the RSS of promoting terrorism in India. “All Hindu terrorists who have ever been caught have association with RSS in some way or the other,” Singh had claimed, according to The Economic Times. “Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, was also part of RSS.”
In an interview with Scroll.in, the BJP’s Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, who is overseeing the party’s affairs in Madhya Pradesh, had expressed confidence that Thakur would win the support of voters. “Remember, those advocating further vivisection of India, saying ‘Bharat tere tukde honge’ [India, you will be broken into pieces], are fighting the election and openly propagating their agenda,” Sahasrabuddhe claimed. “I am convinced that the people will prefer those who have been working for national integration and social unity.”
Meanwhile, the Congress is banking on Digvijaya Singh’s popularity to counter the BJP’s winning streak in Bhopal. Singh was reportedly not too keen on contesting from Bhopal, but Chief Minister Kamal Nath had asked him to contest from a seat where the Congress is weak. Thakur was reportedly enrolled to run against him after senior BJP leaders Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Uma Bharti refused to contest against Singh.
Focus on Hindutva
During Thakur’s election campaign in Bhopal, Hindutva took centrestage, and developmental issues were put on the backburner. Thakur claimed that Hindutva and development are synonymous. She has accused the Congress of conducting “votebank politics” by appealing to members of minority communities and has said that she is fighting to uphold Hindutva.
She also claimed that she had been tortured in jail and that she is contesting to ensure that no woman faces such atrocities in prison.
“I am waging a Dharmyuddh against those who maligned Sanatan Dharma by coming out with the term ‘Bhagwa Aatankawad’ [saffron terror], sent me to jail and tortured me under the garb of law,” she had told PTI on May 5.
No evidence was found to support of her allegations by the National Human Rights Commission, the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court.
Days after her candidature was announced, Thakur claimed that Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare had died in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack because she had put a curse on him. She was also reprimanded by the Election Commission for her statement expressing “extreme pride ” in having participated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992.
Undeterred, last week, she stoked another controversy by claiming that MK Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse was a patriot. Though she apologised for the remarks, the controversy forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attempt some damage control: he claimed that he would never forgive Thakur for what she said. “This [Thakur’s comment] is terrible, and worthy of condemnation and anger,” Modi said in an interview. “She may have apologised but I will not be able to forgive her with my heart for this.”
Striking a balance
Digvijaya Singh, on his part, attempted to maintain a balance between appealing to both Hindu and Muslim voters. In an attempt to dispel Thakur’s claim that he was “anti-Hindu ”, he participated in havans (Hindu religious ceremonies) and visited several temples.
Having served as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh for ten years from 1993 and with considerable political experience under his belt, he will ensure that Thakur won’t have it easy.