Politics | Digvijaya Singh vs Pragya Thakur: Two narratives for the fight in Bhopal

The battle for Madhya Pradesh’s capital Bhopal in the Lok Sabha polls acquired high stakes when senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh found himself in the fray after Chief Minister Kamal Nath convinced Congress President Rahul Gandhi that Singh was the best bet to wrest the seat from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has held it since 1989. Left to himself, Singh, CM of Madhya Pradesh for a decade till 2003, would have preferred the safe environs of the Rajgarh Lok Sabha constituency, which he won in the 1991 elections and gave up when he became CM two years later.

The Congress’ decision to field Singh provoked the BJP to name Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, an accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case, as its candidate. Expectedly, Pragya Thakur’s nomination provoked a very strong outrage among those opposed to the BJP’s ways of electoral politics. The thought of backing someone who is yet to be cleared by the court of terrorism charges has made sections that are not-so-against Prime Minister Narendra Modi very uneasy.

Of course, for those who have followed the transition of the BJP, it was not a shock.

The BJP has often targeted Singh for ‘tarnishing the Hindu community’ by using the term Hindu or saffron terror. Singh himself did not expect the BJP to pit Pragya Thakur against him. However, he has quickly adopted a strategy that has showed his long-standing acumen as a politician who will rather skirt around an obstacle rather than crash headlong.

Instead of directly taking on the issue of Pragya Thakur’s candidature, which he felt was best to be left to others, Singh has decided to focus on the problems confronting people of Bhopal.

Singh has come out with a vision document that’s dedicated to the all-round growth of the City of Nawabs — this includes a tourism hub, a food processing centre, a big logistics hub, an IT city, a job portal, a super speciality hospital, a sports hub, in addition to promises of water-for-all, better amenities for the specially-abled and the conservation of the Bhopal Lake.

Singh is confident that he will be able to address the problems of development in Bhopal. The BJP is, of course, not amused. It is of the view that no matter what Singh does, the focus will remain on his role in foisting the phantom of ‘Hindu extremism and terrorism’, and the voters are not likely to forget that easily.

The big question is can Singh successfully persuade the voters, young and old alike, to focus on Bhopal’s civic issues and ignore the “sadhvi”?

When her candidature was announced, Singh welcomed her with a tweet: “I welcome Sadhvi Pragyaji in Bhopal and hope that the picturesque city’s peaceful, educated and dignified environment would attract you.” In a second tweet, Singh added, “I pray to Maa (goddess) Narmada for Sadhviji and seek blessing from Narmadaji so that we all walk the path of truth, non-violence and religion. Narmada Har (glory be to the Narmada).”

Singh has also dismissed suggestions that he was now in a ‘silent mode’ on the issue of ‘Hindu terrorism’ whose coinage is attributed to him. All he has said on this topic is that those who coined the term “are in the BJP and fighting elections.” He was alluding to RK Singh, who was a home secretary during the UPA regime, and later went on to become a junior minister in Modi’s government. RK Singh is BJP’s candidate from Ara in Bihar and is seeking a second term.

Digvijaya Singh is firm that he won’t get trapped by the media narratives even if Modi has not minced words in extolling reasons for fielding Pragya Thakur. Singh has sought to emphasise on his image as a devotional Hindu rather than a political ‘Hindutva’ person.

Besides his visit to temples, he has been performing pujas and having photo-ops with his long-time guru Dwarka-Sharda Peeth Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati, who is virtually camping in Bhopal for him. Singh’s image makeover began when he undertook a six-month Narmada Yatra in 2018. He admits that he was “too loud earlier and after the Narmada parikrama, I have moderated myself. I speak when I have to.”

The BJP and the RSS are clear why Pragya Thakur matters. They do not mind the risk of offending the sensibilities of the moderate sections and facing the charge of foisting a nasty, divisive campaign, and will further the communal agenda across north India.

If she succeeds in vanquishing Digvijaya Singh in Bhopal, the BJP will see a consolidation of a vote that is not embarrassed to be identified with the Hindus. Towards this, at the moment, the party leaders do not seem to be concerned about other implications and are focusing on Pragya Thakur’s success with leaders like former chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan counselling her to avoid controversial statements such as her remark about slain police officer Hemant Karkare and the demolition of the Babri masjid, which has invited notices from the Election Commission of India (ECI).

Pragya Thakur’s version of her sufferings and torture at the hands of police under the UPA regime in the course of investigation into the Malegaon blast case is the BJP’s plank for Bhopal. Her case before the electorate sees strength in the tardy and botched-up investigation into the incidents of 2008 that claimed six lives.

Asked in an interview about the move to field Pragya Thakur from Bhopal, Modi referred to the Samjhauta Express blast verdict in which all the accused, including Swami Aseemanand, have been acquitted for want of evidence. “To give a reply to all those people (who made a big thing of saffron terrorism), this (the fielding of Pragya) is a symbol, and this symbol is going to prove costly for the Congress,” Modi said.

For Digvijaya Singh, Pragya Thakur may seem like any other candidate (who has fought him before) because he is “fighting on the issue of poverty, unemployment and the improper implementation of GST.”

However, for the rest who see the larger implications of the Bhopal battle, it is anything but just a contest between a sadhvi and a Singh.