Twenty-six days – that was how long the BJP took to announce its candidate from Bhopal, a seat considered to be the party’s stronghold since 1989.
It seems the BJP’s delay and ultimate choice of Pragya Singh Thakur as Lok Sabha candidate paid off, with Thakur winning from the Bhopal seat by a huge margin of 3,64,822 votes.
Ahead of elections, Thakur’s personal stories about attaining sainthood and being victimised in the name of ‘Hindu terror’ were widely circulated through pamphlets.
One such pamphlet, titled ‘Congress Ka Dushprachar, Sadhvi Ka Sach (Congress’ Misinformation, Sadhvi’s Truth)’states how ‘Sadhvi has never been convicted by any court till date and how till 2014 various investigating agencies have been working on the directions of the central government yet, were not able to prove anything.’
Playing Up the Personal to Win Hearts
On 18 April, while addressing a press conference, Thakur broke down in front of reporters as she recounted tales of alleged torture while in police custody.
Thakur began narrating an incident, wiping away tears as she did so:
“They used to beat me for the entire night and stopped only when they feared that blood would begin to come out from my hands. They used to bring hot water, mix salt in it and then used to dip my hand in that so that they become soft and they can beat me again.”Pragya Thakur
This was a crucial plank for Thakur’s election campaign – presenting herself as a ‘saintly’ figure, who was ‘tortured’ by the police – in a bid to build an emotional connect with locals.
Under a caption ‘Pragya Ka Pehla Sangharsh (Pragya’s First Struggle)’, the pamphlet distributed during campaign states how Thakur had participated in a protest while she was in the sixth standard, demanding that a high school be built in her village.
Another such pamphlet describes Pragya’s stay in jail, elaborating on various forms of ‘torture’ inflicted on her while in custody.
“There was not a single woman constable around. They would attack me like a ‘rakshas (monster)‘. When one used to get tired, another one would start beating me up. There were many involved in beating but the one who was being beaten was your lonely and helpless Sadhvi Pragya,” states the pamphlet.
It was with the help of such pamphlets that Thakur positioned herself as a ‘Sadhvi’ who was more Hindu than her opponent, Digvijaya Singh.
Contrary to Thakur’s allegations, former public prosecutor in the 2008 Malegaon blasts case, Rohini Salian, has vehemently rejected allegations of torture.
However, Pragya’s attempt to reach out to the electorate as a saint who was ‘tortured’ seems to have clicked.
But there’s another factor that helped her win these elections – the Modi wave. Satyam Pandey, a Bhopal-based activist, thinks so too.
“Her comments were largely ignored locally. While local issues were relevant in Assembly elections, it was all about personality [Modi] during the Lok Sabha elections.”
Presidential-style Elections to the Rescue
Apart from a clearly pitched campaign centred around ‘Hindu terror’, Pragya Singh Thakur also benefitted from presidential-style elections in which people mostly voted for Modi.
Speaking to The Quint, former Lok Sabha MP from Bhopal seat and BJP leader Alok Sanjar said:
“This victory is definitely due to the Modi wave. 75 percent of the credit goes to the Modi factor, 25 percent goes to the individual candidate.”Alok Sanjar, Former MP, Lok Sabha
Pragya Thakur’s comment calling Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, a ‘patriot’ got national attention on 16 May, four days after Bhopal had voted, allowing her to escape potential backlash. Her comment had come three days before the last phase of elections, which were due on 19 May.
A local journalist said,
“It was not a BJP ticket but an RSS ticket on which Pragya had contested elections. For the Sangh, former CM Digvijaya [Pragya’s opponent in the seat] is someone whom they had sent to vanvaas (exile) long ago and he’s the same person who had commented on ‘saffron terror’.”
‘Othering’ of Muslims
Demographically speaking, there are 17,55,861 Hindus in Bhopal, while the number of Muslims is around 5,25,434 according to the 2011 Census.
With respect to the ‘consolidation of Hindu votes’ theory, another incident which is worth recalling is the 2016 police encounter in the city.
In October 2016, eight SIMI (Students’ Islamic Movement of India) terror suspects were allegedly shot dead by the state police in the infamous ‘Bhopal encounter’. The encounter was soon followed by a political slugfest with Congress leader Kamal Nath demanding a judicial probe and BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao asking about Congress’ concerns regarding SIMI activists.
BJP didn’t forget to rake up the 2008 revoking of the ban on SIMI in these elections as well, with former chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan telling news agency IANS in an interview on 7 May 2019:
“Those who gave shelter to SIMI and those who speak in the language of terrorists have a problem with the issue of nationalism.”
“It’s in this backdrop that the strategy of presenting Pragya Singh Thakur as the Hindu messiah worked for the party,” concedes Vijay Pandya, reporter with IBC24 news channel.
On 18 April 2019, as BJP announced Thakur’s candidature, party president Amit Shah, while addressing a rally in Odisha, said that Pragya has been picked to “punish the Hindu terror bogey”.
Three weeks later, on 8 May 2019, Shah participated in a roadshow in support of Pragya, which began from Peer Gate and ended at Nadra bus stand in Old Bhopal, where a sizeable population is Muslim. There was not a shred of doubt about the messaging.
Bhopal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh, has been considered the stronghold of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) with leaders like Uma Bharti making it to the cabinet in the Centre.
Keeping in mind the stature of Digvijaya Singh, a senior Congress leader and two-time chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, fielding Pragya was a well-thought-out decision.
The Sangh’s rationale behind choosing Pragya can be understood through the prism of ‘Hindu Terror’, a term that came into existence 11 years ago, soon after the 26/11 Mumbai blasts.
In December 2008, The Guardian newspaper had published a slew of US embassy cables via Wikileaks specifically quoting Digvijaya Singh as well as other Congress leaders on the issue of “Hindu terrorists”. Then-minority affairs minister AR Antulay had insinuated that the killing of Hemant Karkare was ‘linked to his investigation of “Hindu terrorists”’. Digvijaya Singh had supported Antulay then, asking, ‘What is objectionable in his statement?’
It was this affirmation of “Hindu terror” that has led the BJP to repeatedly attack Digvijaya Singh for labelling Hindus ‘terrorists’.
Despite the term ‘Hindu terror’ being a contentious one, the fact of the matter is that the chargesheet filed by the Maharashtra ATS in the 2008 Malegaon blasts case had suggested the involvement of ‘Abhinav Bharat’, a Hindu extremist outfit.
Fourteen accused were chargesheeted, with Pragya Singh Thakur being named as one of the key conspirators in the case.
Standing Up to ‘Dharmayudh’ With Soft Hindutva
Addressing a press conference in Bhopal on 24 May 2019, Digvijaya Singh told reporters, “Not sure what is the ‘jadui chadi (magical wand)’ that BJP has”, while talking about the party’s massive mandate.
When a reporter asked him to elaborate, Digvijaya refused to comment further on it. Was the reference of ‘magical wand’ a subtle hint towards BJP’s concerted effort at ‘polarising’ people ahead of elections?
From making a claim that it was her ‘curse’ that led to the death of former Mumbai ATS Chief Hemant Karkare to claiming that Godse was a ‘deshbhakt (patriot)’, BJP candidate Pragya Thakur even called Digvijaya Singh a ‘terrorist’ and made the electoral battle a ‘dharamyudha’ where ‘development’ was nowhere on the agenda.
“I am waging a Dharmayudh 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.”Pragya Singh Thakur
In a month-long campaign before Bhopal went to polls on 12 May, Digvijaya Singh wasn’t vociferous enough about allegations regarding ‘saffron terror’.
In an interview to the Economic Times on 22 April 2019, he sounded defensive by stating that he hadn’t coined the term ‘Hindu terrorism’.
He did take on former Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan on Twitter later on the issue of his proximity to former ATS chief Hemant Karkare :
From announcing that the Bhopal district unit of Congress will give up their claim on land adjoining an ancient Ram temple in the city, to performing hawan with the famed Computer Baba, peddling soft Hindutva was one of the highlights of Digvijaya Singh’s campaign.
However, some local as well as national news channels were critical of these efforts, hosting talk shows questioning Digvijaya’s intent.
A segment was aired on Zee News on 7 May 2019, where the anchor asked if the one ‘demonising’ saffron was relying on the same plank of religion during elections.
‘Galti Sudhar Lena Chahiye’
Firing a salvo, on 19 April, Pragya Singh Thakur claimed that it was her ‘curse’ that led to the death of former Mumbai ATS chief Hemant Karkare.
When The Quint had tried approaching Thakur for an interview on 23 April, one of her supporters categorically told us that we wouldn’t be allowed to ask tough questions.
But the change in the mood of people who had elected Congress government in the state was evident as on old lady had said then, ‘Galti sudhar lena chahiye (should try and work on mistakes)’.
According to Vijay Pandya, Assistant Editor and anchor at IBC24 news channel in Bhopal,
“There have been shortcomings on part of the newly elected Congress government in the state. The promise of loan waiver for farmers is yet to be fulfilled, even as MGNREGA funds were diverted towards loan waiver, genuine defaulters have been ignored. Salaries of government officials has started getting delayed and just 10 days before elections, Bhopal faced power cuts.”
“People are actually feeling, galti ho gayi kya (has there been a mistake)?”, says Pandya, talking about the state government’s stint.
Road Ahead for Thakur
And so actor Farhan Akhtar’s #SayNoToPragya appeal on Twitter came albeit late with voters in India’s most-watched constituency in 2019 making up their minds already.
Some civil society members like Shivraj Kushwaha, another Bhopal-based activist, say that they will continue to build pressure on their new MP to now deliver on their promises post elections.
Kushwaha was among a group of activists who were invited for an interaction with Pragya Thakur after BJP had announced her name. “When the media asked about her agenda, she could not spell that out clearly. Issues like women’s security, child rapes and upliftment of poor sections are the issues ailing Madhya Pradesh today,” says Kushwaha talking about challenges before Thakur as their new Member of Parliament.
Will Thakur rise to the occasion or continue to make ‘offensive’ comments? That would truly be a test, not just of her ability, but also of the wisdom of Bhopal’s voters.