As the angry arguments rage over Sadhvi Pragya’s candidature from Bhopal, we sometimes let emotion triumph and forget that there are two distinct issues here. And there is one problem.
Meet the candidate: Sadhvi Pragya will fight for the BJP in Bhopal. (Photo: ANI)
The first issue is the obvious one: why is the BJP doing this? The answer is self-evident. The BJP has made every effort not to fight this election on its record. It has tried to fight it on nationalist and majority sentiment.
For the first round of polling, an anti-Pakistan, patriotic appeal was the keynote of the BJP's campaign. In the aftermath of the Balakot air strikes, it was simple enough to project Pakistan as a threat - and to portray Narendra Modi as the man who gave the Pakistanis a befitting response on behalf of India.
The Balakot reply to Pakistan post-Pulwama boosted the BJP's appeal. (Photo: Reuters)
However, that Balakot bump is now disappearing from Mr Modi’s popularity, according to pollsters. So, the campaign has shifted gear - from Pakistan to Indian Muslims. Recent remarks by BJP functionaries, ranging from the Prime Minister to the party president to regional heads, have either been dog-whistles to Hindu communal sentiment or outright attacks on the Muslim community.
The choice of Pragya as a candidate against Digvijay Singh is part of that endeavour.
As the campaign progresses, she will continue to be portrayed as a pious Hindu lady who was framed and tortured by officials in the UPA regime. The UPA, the BJP will say, wanted to portray Hindus as terrorists, so as to let Muslims (whom they will call the real terrorists) off the hook.
Pragya’s opponent, Digvijaya Singh is a fervent Hindu, fond of pujas and Narmada yatras. But the BJP has successfully caricatured him as a supporter of Muslim terrorists (the sort of chap who refers to Osama bin Laden as Osamaji), who has connived at framing innocent Hindus on terror charges to help his Muslim constituency.
Logic suggests that not only will Pragya win but that any BJP candidate would do as well in Bhopal. It is one of the BJP’s safest seats and the party won something like 60% of the vote at the last General Election.
So, the choice of Pragya is not only to win Bhopal — but to remind Hindus all over India of the ‘injustice’ done to a sadhvi.
The optics will suggest a pious Hindu woman tortured by the previous regime. (Photo: PTI)
Should it matter that she is charged with terrorism? Well, yes. Even the BJP thinks it matters. Otherwise, it would not be spreading so many untruths about the case and insisting that she has been acquitted. (She has not).
Which leads us to the second issue. Many of the BJP’s opponents have suggested that people accused of terrorism should be banned by law from contesting elections. Or, at the very least, the Election Commission should intervene to reject their nomination papers.
To see this in perspective, forget about Pragya for a moment and think of Kashmir. As Mehbooba Mufti tweeted, how would any of us (let alone the BJP) have reacted if the PDP had given a ticket to a man the police said was a terrorist, to a person who faced terror charges?
Imagine the anger if I’d field a terror accused. Channels would’ve gone berserk by now trending a mehboobaterrorist hashtag! According to these guys terror has no religion when it comes to saffron fanatics but otherwise all Muslims are terrorists. Guilty until proven innocent https://t.co/ymTumxgty7— Mehbooba Mufti (@MehboobaMufti) April 17, 2019
Obviously, the reaction would have been one of horror. Whoever gave that man a ticket would have been called 'anti-national' and treasonous.
But equally, it is hard to deny that the law is clear: if you are not convicted of a crime, you can stand for election.
And Pragya has not been convicted.
The BJP’s critics say that an exception should be made for terrorists even before they are convicted. After all, once terrorists start fighting elections, where will this end?
Unfortunately, it is not so simple. Once you remove the presumption of innocence, you open the doors for any number of fake charges. Pragya may be a particularly abhorrent example but what happens if the BJP government decides to charge, say, Kanhaiya Kumar, under terrorism laws? What happens if Left-Wing intellectuals who are not unsympathetic to Maoists are all charged with terrorism? (This sort of thing is already happening, which is why I choose these examples).
What if he were charged with terrorism? Should he be debarred? (Photo: Twitter)
Wouldn’t the same liberals who demand that Pragya be barred from standing be outraged if people they believed were innocent were denied the right to fight elections?
And wouldn’t it be an invitation to a ruthless government to frame opponents on terror charges — to eliminate them from electoral politics?
Let’s take an example from our own history.
In 1976, the Emergency regime claimed that George Fernandes was involved in a violent campaign to overthrow the government. He was accused of what we would certainly now call terrorism: planning dynamite blasts, blowing up train tracks, etc.
George Fernandes fought the 1977 elections from jail. And won. (Photo: India Today)
When the General Election was called in 1977, Fernandes contested from his jail cell — and won! The Indira Gandhi regime was defeated, the case was declared a frame-up (which it may or may not have been) and Fernandes went on to become a Union Minister.
If we had put in place laws that stopped people charged with terrorism from contesting elections even before they were convicted, Fernandes would never have been able to stand.
So, as terrible a crime as terrorism is, it is always a mistake for a liberal society to abandon the presumption of innocence.
Which leaves us with the problem.
Simply put, the problem is this: in no society should a man or a woman against whom there are credible terror charges (and the charges against Pragya are documented) ever be accepted by the electorate. There must be so much public revulsion that such a candidate is shunned by the electorate.
Sadly, this is not true of India. Despite the gravity of the offences, the chances are that Pragya will win. The Prime Minister will probably campaign for her. The government and private TV channels will treat her as a perfectly respectable candidate and give her the oxygen of publicity.
That is the real problem.
So sharp is the polarisation in Indian society today that communities will vote for alleged terrorists— as long as they believe that terrorism is being committed on behalf of their own community.
Until that changes, no amendment of the laws and no amount of liberal outrage will make any difference.
It’s not the nominations or the laws that are the problem.
It is the electorate.