"I am here for a 'dharm yuddh', in the scorching heat of Bhopal." Sitting in her air-conditioned bus-turned-chariot, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur brazens it out over why she has been brought to Bhopal to take on Congress stalwart Digvijaya Singh.
Unable to move due to her ailments, Sadhvi Pragya travels in a bus which was earlier used by former chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan to campaign across Madhya Pradesh during the Assembly elections in 2018.
It's not about facts. It's about perception. And she knows it. (Photo: ANI)
Whenever greeted by supporters with showers of marigold petals, the new BJP entrant opens the window of the bus and speaks for a minute or two. Her short speeches show no worry of Election Commission notices or the memory of the 72-hour ban slapped by the poll body, following her remarks on the Babri demolition, an order which has just ended.
But people around her are exercising caution. Sadhvi Pragya has been specifically asked by the party leadership to stick to the brief. Even during media interactions, she has been reportedly asked to speak only about how she was ill-treated by the Congress and give some lines on the BJP’s slogan ‘Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’.
Sadhvi Pragya, on her part, has learned this the hard way. The BJP is aware that Sadhvi Pragya’s distasteful comments about Hemant Karkare’s death and outlandish claims about ‘gaumutra’ curing her breast cancer became the butt of jokes. The party knows that such slips could end up denting its prospects in Bhopal, despite the general belief in the city that Sadhvi Pragya is innocent.
Despite being accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case, and despite it being made clear by the trial court in Mumbai that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) clean chit to her doesn’t matter because she is still an accused for the courts, Sadhvi Pragya somewhere believes she will be able to get relief in the cases — if the BJP comes to power.
Sadhvi Pragya has made distasteful comments during her campaign. She has also projected the image of a holy Hindu woman. (Photo: PTI)
But the other difficulty in Sadhvi Pragya’s way for now is the fact that the local leadership considers her to be a candidate imposed from the top.
Alok Sanjar, the incumbent MP who was denied a ticket to accommodate Sadhvi Pragya, keeps explaining to whoever cares to listen how much he worked for the constituency and how he used the MPLAD over the last five years. He, however, accepts that Sadhvi Pragya has been brought in to give a wider message.
Bhopal has been the BJP’s stronghold for years. The seat was represented by the likes of Jagannath Rao Joshi, Kailash Chandra Joshi and Uma Bharati. Since 1989, the BJP has been winning the seat by at least a margin of one lakh votes. Even in the 2018 Assembly elections, the BJP won five Assembly segments in the Bhopal Lok Sabha constituency.
Despite all this, bringing in Sadhvi Pragya to take on Digvijaya Singh was fuelled by a strong reason. Insiders say that even the likes of Shivraj Singh Chouhan were set aside by the top leadership when it came to taking a call on Sadhvi Pragya’s candidature.
Madhya Pradesh has always been a laboratory for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It traditionally has a strong network of ‘pracharaks’ in the region. Madhya Prant, as it is known within the Sangh Parivar, was one of the first regions where the Jan Sangh, the erstwhile political outfit of the RSS, made inroads. The likes of Digvijaya Singh in the 1980s were not only political obstructions for the RSS and its political outfit, but also an ideological hurdle.
Religiously Hindu in outlook, the likes of Digvijaya Singh take on the core ideology of Hindutva. So his defeat at the hands of Sadhvi Pragya — the alleged face of a Hindu terror module bust during the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party rule in Maharashtra — will surely send a larger message to the Hindutva constituency.
In 2008, following the Malegaon blast, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur was accused of alleged involvement. (File photo: India Today)
The social atmosphere in the country is apparently conducive for such efforts — unlike that in 2009, when the NCP used the arrest of Sadhvi Pragya in the Lok Sabha election campaign to show that even Hindutva forces can take part in acts of terror.
Digvijaya Singh knows this very well. In fact, he had seen this coming; rather than getting entangled in the debate, he therefore keeps emphasising his religious side. Every rally or public meeting of his campaign starts with talking about ‘Ma Narmada’ and 'Narmada Parikrama' and ends with 'Bharat Mata ki Jai'. He gives little detail of how his house apparently has seven temples and how seamlessly holy flames stay lit in those temples. He also knows very well that the battle of religion can’t be fought with words of secularism, even though, speaking in an interaction, he says that the candidature of Sadhvi Pragya doesn’t bother him.
Digvijaya has declared his vision documents for the constituency — but he knows that this election is not about manifestos. So he is trying his best to fight the battle of perception, which the Congress has been trying to do since the Gujarat Assembly elections in 2017, though the BJP has been trying to drive home the message that 'Hindu' and 'terror' do not go hand in hand.
The Maharashtra police was apparently in the know of the alleged involvement of Hindu groups in terror cases since 2005, especially after low-intensity blasts were carried out in the towns of Purna and Jalana outside mosques. When a man died in a blast at the house of a Hindu man in Nanded, the police suspected he was in the process of making a bomb.
The anti-terrorist squad (ATS) has been able to prove the involvement of Hindu groups in court, while in the third case, trial is yet to begin.
So when the National Investigation Agency (NIA) filed an affidavit in a Mumbai court, giving Sadhvi Pragya a clean chit, the court rapped the agency, asking how the accused can be given a clean chit when she is facing trial under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
No time for goodbyes. Six people were killed in the September 29, 2008 blast in Malegaon. (Photo: Reuters)
None of these details seem to matter to the electorate in Bhopal though.
Everyone in Bhopal knows that this election is not about facts but perceptions.
When I asked Sadhvi what her thoughts are on the people who were killed in the Malegaon blast were, her answer was, “Bharat mata ki jai. Chaliye, apka interview khatm hua”.