College students in Bhopal, which is witnessing a fierce fight between BJP’s Pragya Singh and Congress’ Digvijaya Singh, participate in a voter awareness campaign ahead of the sixth phase of polling (Photo: PTI)
College students in Bhopal, which is witnessing a fierce fight between BJP’s Pragya Singh and Congress’ Digvijaya Singh, participate in a voter awareness campaign ahead of the sixth phase of polling (Photo: PTI)

Elections 2019: Why battle for Bhopal is similar to Begusarai

  • If Begusarai symbolized the clash between the Right and the Left, Bhopal is the centre of a conflict between the BJP’s aggressive Hindutva and the Congress’ defensive Hindutva
  • While Pragya is all saffron, Digvijaya shows shades of saffron

BHOPAL : Khushal Chandra Lakhera, a 34-year-old retailer of bangles in Bhopal and a part-time Uber driver, has always voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but this time, like most BJP supporters in Bhopal, he’s conflicted.

“I am unhappy with the BJP for choosing Sadhvi Pragya as its candidate but I don’t want Digvijaya to win either. Neither deserves to be the Bhopal MP. But I want Modi to win 300 seats. Kya kare (what to do)?" Lakhera says. He says he is most likely to vote for the terror-accused BJP candidate Pragya Singh (49) to keep senior Congress leader and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh (71) “out of Parliament". But, he doubts whether many BJP supporters in Bhopal would do the same on 12 May when eight Lok Sabha seats in Madhya Pradesh, including the city, go to the polls.

Ticket dene ke pehle BJP ne sochna chahiye tha. Unko pratadit kiya theek hain lekin woh MP banne ke layak nahi (BJP should have thought before giving her a ticket. I take her point that she was harassed but she is not fit to be an MP)," says Lakhera.

Khushal Chandra Lakhera, a 34-year-old retailer of bangles in Bhopal and a part-time Uber driver, has always voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but this time, like most BJP supporters in Bhopal, he’s conflicted.

“I am unhappy with the BJP for choosing Sadhvi Pragya as its candidate but I don’t want Digvijaya to win either. Neither deserves to be the Bhopal MP. But I want Modi to win 300 seats. Kya kare (what to do)?" Lakhera says. He says he is most likely to vote for the terror-accused BJP candidate Pragya Singh (49) to keep senior Congress leader and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh (71) “out of Parliament". But, he doubts whether many BJP supporters in Bhopal would do the same on 12 May when eight Lok Sabha seats in Madhya Pradesh, including the city, go to the polls.

Ticket dene ke pehle BJP ne sochna chahiye tha. Unko pratadit kiya theek hain lekin woh MP banne ke layak nahi (BJP should have thought before giving her a ticket. I take her point that she was harassed but she is not fit to be an MP)," says Lakhera.

Krishna Kumar Gupta, a veteran BJP activist from Vidisha, isn’t too worried about the election in his hometown. Instead, he is riveted by the Bhopal showdown between Digvijaya and Pragya. “Woh dharam yudh hain (it is a war of righteousness)," he says to emphasize how crucial it is for the BJP to win the Bhopal seat. To him, it’s a duel between the Hindu sadhvi who was “framed as part of a conspiracy" to malign Hinduism and the “anti-Hindu" Digvijaya.

Gupta likens it to the battle in Begusarai in Bihar, which voted on 29 April in the fourth phase. There, Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader and Communist Party of India (CPI) candidate Kanhaiya Kumar faced off with the BJP’s Giriraj Singh. “Begusarai aur Bhopal hamari saakh ki ladai hain (Begusarai and Bhopal are prestige battles for us)," Gupta explains.

If Begusarai symbolized the clash between the Right and the Left, Bhopal is the centre of a conflict between the BJP’s aggressive Hindutva and the Congress’ defensive Hindutva. While Pragya is all saffron, Digvijaya shows shades of saffron in an attempt to make this a fight between Hindutva and Hinduism.

Digvijaya completed a physically demanding Narmada Parikrama on foot last year and posters describing him as a ‘Narmada ka laal’ (son of the Narmada river) abound in Bhopal. The veteran Congress leader had vowed to not contest an election for 10 years after the BJP routed the Congress in Madhya Pradesh in 2003. Back to electoral politics, Digvijaya is giving his all to this battle. He is up against history—Bhopal has been a BJP bastion since 1989 — and a formidable combination of a communal candidate and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity.

“By introducing a criminal character such as Pragya, the BJP is trying to mainstream her like they did Yogi Adityanath. Pragya has no stature and the only intent is to communally colour the election," says N.D. Sharma, a Bhopal-based political commentator.

BJP spokesperson Hitesh Bajpai counters this with a stock BJP response: “The sadhvi has been given a clean chit by the National Investigation Agency." He adds that the BJP decided to field her because the Congress nominated Digvijaya. “He is infamous for his role in the conspiracy to defame Hindus. What’s wrong if the BJP fields the very victim of this conspiracy? What’s wrong in Hindutva? We have Hindutva and we have Modiji," says Bajpai.

Congress spokesperson Manak Agrawal says the BJP brought in Pragya to polarize the election after it saw the “writing on the wall that even former chief ministers Uma Bharti and Shivraj Singh Chouhan won’t be able to defeat Digvijayji". He says his faith is in voters. “Communal polarization is not happening. Voters in Bhopal are sensible and won’t fall for Pragya. Digvijayaji has stature, experience, and commitment to development of Bhopal," Agrawal said.

The BJP is fighting on many fronts, including internal indifference to Pragya’s candidature. Several BJP workers and voters sympathetic to the BJP said that there was a sense of unease about her nomination. “We are a disciplined party and the cadres are now working for the sadhvi. But we were surprised initially," said a senior BJP leader requesting anonymity.

The BJP cadre is concerned that Pragya’s nomination has not created the kind of frenzy the party bosses expected. “What is working in Digvijaya’s favour is that he is not making any controversial statements that BJP could exploit. In contrast, Pragya hasn’t helped her cause by making reckless remarks at the initial stage. In the 2018 assembly polls, the Congress won three of the eight assembly seats in Bhopal Lok Sabha constituency and two of them are Muslim legislators. They have rallied behind Digvijaya but counter polarization isn’t happening for Pragya," said a BJP strategist requesting anonymity. Yet, the BJP does have a winning plan, he adds.

In 2014, the BJP’s Alok Sanjar won by a massive margin of nearly 372,000 votes. “If the voting percentage stays same at 57% or improves, it will be difficult for Digvijaya to bridge this gap. His 10 years as chief minister aren’t remembered very fondly. In fact, around 250,000 government employees in Bhopal form the single largest voting bloc against him because of his policies. The sadhvi has 25% of her own vote and the BJP’s vote. If the Modi factor helps her with another 25%-30%, she will be through. We are telling the voters to vote for Modiji," the strategist said.

No wonder the BJP has dressed up Bhopal with huge cut-outs of Pragya with Modi, making an appeal for development. Modi justified nominating Pragya in television interviews, but curiously, he hasn’t campaigned in Bhopal, leaving the job to BJP president Amit Shah instead. The only other crucial constituency where Modi did not campaign is Begusarai, which is hard to accept as a coincidence.

To be sure, even Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who once had Digvijaya as his political advisor, has not yet campaigned in Bhopal and is unlikely to.

On 8 May, BJP president Amit Shah held a roadshow for Pragya while Digvijaya roped in seers in a clear attempt at soft Hindutva. Except for the roadshow of saffron-clad seers, the former chief minister has run a low-profile campaign going door to door and relying on his personal connect in Bhopal. The man reviled by the Sangh Parivar has a point to prove not only to his RSS-BJP rivals but also to his party colleagues. For, it was chief minister Kamal Nath who first dared Digvijaya to contest from a constituency which is difficult to conquer. Diggiraja, as he is popularly known, chose Bhopal and 23 May will deliver a verdict on his daring decision.

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