Digvijaya, Sadhvi paint Bhopal with same brush

Amid BJP’s brand of Hindutva versus ‘soft Hindutva’ brand of Congress, many critics subscribe to the popular view that the Bhopal contest has been turned into a ‘Dharam-Yudh’ as each tries to garner support of voters invoking Hindu identity

The electoral contest in Bhopal — between BJP’s Sadhvi Pragya Thakur and senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh — has hogged media limelight nationally and is seen as the defining highlight of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in the Hindi Heartland. The Bhopal contest is grabbing eyeballs countywide because of its role in changing the electoral discourse to be focused on the BJP’s brand of Hindutva versus ‘soft Hindutva’ brand of Congress.

Many critics subscribe to the popular view that the Bhopal contest has been turned into a ‘Dharam-Yudh’. However, other states of the Hindi Heartland also going to polls in these remaining phases of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, have witnessed the thrust of the BJP on national security, Hindutva and muscular nationalism

Many experts have opined that the BJP has seemingly exhausted its armoury by having fired all the salvos — from Pulwama terror attack, Balakot, national security, muscular nationalism to Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi — as its electoral ploys to garner votes in the remaining phases of Lok Sabha polls and fielding of Sadhvi Pragya Thakur is seen as one of those last salvos. These experts also opine that such a quick shift of emphasis in the BJP’s electoral discourse demonstrates some kind of desperation within the party to wrest power by all means.

BJP gambit

The BJP’s decision to field Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a key accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case, against Congress leader Digvijaya Singh in Bhopal took almost everyone by surprise, including within the BJP as well. According to media reports, in the wake of Digvijaya Singh having thrown his hat in the ring from Bhopal, it was expected that senior state BJP leaders like Shivraj Singh Chouhan, former chief minister of MP or Uma Bharti or Babu Lal Gaur, could take him on from the BJP.

Some experts aver that the BJP’s decision to field Sadhvi Pragya was designed to serve twin purposes — discourage state leaders who could even remotely challenge the BJP top brass and polarize the situation on communal lines in Bhopal by raising the bogey of ‘Hindu terror’, a comment allegedly made by Digvijaya Singh at one stage, which however, has been denied by the latter. 

Fielding of Sadhvi Pragya from Bhopal was reportedly a well-calculated move with the expectations that any ripple effect generated in the wake of Sadhvi’s utterances could entail the potential of extending beyond Bhopal in the age of social media and connectivity. Perhaps the tragic happenings in the Western UP town of Muzaffarnagar in 2013 that had proved instrumental in deepening the communal divide in the entire UP were behind this decision.

Bhopal has been a BJP bastion for over three decades and by fielding Sadhvi Pragya the party has made Bhopal the epicenter of its Hindutva ideology. While acknowledging Sadhvi’s propensity in engendering communal divide, some experts have raised a few questions:  Will she be used as a double-edged sword to distract as many people as she draws to her side?

How will the Hindu populace respond to her shrill rhetoric? Another worrisome question is as to how the people will respond to the BJP fielding Sadhvi alleged to be involved in a terror act in the light of PM Modi’s ‘tough stance on terrorism.’  Nevertheless, some critics opine that PM Modi’s description of Sadhvi’s candidacy as a symbolic answer to those who allegedly branded Hindus as ‘terrorists should put all queries about Sadhvi’s candidature to rest at this juncture.

During her electoral campaigns, Pragya Thakur never tires of invoking public sympathy by projecting herself as a ‘victim’ of the conspiracy to malign Hindutva, often breaking down while narrating stories of her torture. Media reports make it discernible about Thakur boasting of having climbed atop the Babri Mosque and demolished it.

Distrustful of the local BJP leaders, Sadhvi has reportedly entrusted the charge of her election campaign to her sister Upma Didi. During the course of her election campaigns, Sadhvi frequently makes a stop at temples on the way and holds conversation with the people who gather there either to have a glimpse of her or are party loyalists. Her electoral discourse during these campaigns has veered around “Dharma and Adharma” and there has seldom been any talk about other issues.

The BJP is reported to have discovered in Sadhvi a mascot and on the other hand Sadhvi is riding high on her saffron poster mascot image, making efforts to capitalise on the sympathy she is sanguine about garnering over custodial torture. She is reported to shun media persons; nevertheless, this author chanced to have a very brief interaction with Sadhvi wherein she told that she will win by more than five lakh votes.

Congress stratagem

Conceding that Bhopal fight is a tough contest between the BJP and Congress, some critics opine that the Congress has the advantage of being in power in the state since December last year and BJP’s efforts in sullying the image of Digvijay Singh on the charges of ‘minority appeasement’ and ‘Hindu terror’ are negated to some extent by the support he is eliciting from some Hindu seers and saints. His recent six-month long Narmada Yatra is said to have helped him recover some of his lost political ground. Some observers opine that tone and tenor of Digvijay Singh meeting the challenge of Sadhvi Pragya is going to be a lesson for Congress as to how to counter the BJP’s hard Hindutva.

Confronted with Sadhvi Pragya’s hard Hindutva onslaughts, Digvijay Singh is reported to weave his campaign around the development plank along with soft Hindutva.  According to media reports, he embarked on his campaign by visiting temples. Singh’s 3,300-km arduous on foot pilgrimage for 102 days in 2018 along the Narmada is said to be helpful in shedding his anti-Hindu image that his detractors have tried to thrust upon him.

In the wake of support for Singh pouring in from seers hailing from different sects of Hinduism and akharas, the state Congress circles are optimistic of Singh emerging victorious in this battle. The controversial Computer Baba, who had been granted ministerial status by the erstwhile BJP government headed by Shivraj Singh, is now eliciting support for Singh from saints and seers belonging to different Hindu sects. 

Media reports indicate that Computer Baba has said: It is a fight between Dharma and Adharma. Digvijay Singh represents the truth and follows Dharma. That is why I am campaigning for him.” Computer Baba has predicted that the saffron party is not going to get more than 100 seats in 2019 Lok Sabha. In a brief interview with this author, Computer Baba said: “Ram abki baar, badal ke rakh de chaukidaar” (Adieu this time, change the watchman).

The Congress leadership has also invoked epic characters from Hindu Epics to rebut PM Modi’s virulent attacks on Congress leaders — past and present. Priyanka Gandhi, general secretary of the Congress party, recently compared PM Modi’s arrogance to Duryodhana of Mahabharat in an election rally.

Way ahead

Along with many experts, sources close to the BJP and Congress concede that the contest for Bhopal is a tough battle. According to media reports, a senior BJP leader, while conceding that theBhopal election has become a litmus test for RSS’s Hindutva, has said: “We have taken a big risk. If we lose, it will mean voters have rejected Hindutva”. Undoubtedly, Congress wrested power from the BJP in Madhya Pradesh in 2018 assembly elections in a neck-to-neck contests; nevertheless, similar tough contest is on the cards as well for Lok Sabha seats.

In 2014 in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP had won 27 out of 29 seats while the Congress managed just two. But if the survey by Poll Eyes conducted in the last week of March this year is any indication, the BJP could incur heavy losses in Madhya Pradesh compared to 2014.

The survey predicts that the BJP’s tally could fall to 16, a drop of 11 seats while the Congress’ tally could increase by the same number and go up to 13 in the state. In terms of vote share, the BJP and the Congress are evenly matched at close to 47 percent. Let’s wait for the final outcome!