Modi's former best friend is now his staunch critic, and his hardline Hindutva politics may trouble the BJP.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, from where he is seeking re-election, is likely to have many surprising contestants this time. The most interesting one could be the Hindutva hardliner and Modi’s bête noire Dr Pravin Togadia.
Dr Togadia, who launched his own political outfit—the Hindusthan Nirman Dal—this February, dropped all hints in this regard on Tuesday in Lucknow. The 15 years of animosity between the two Gujarati leaders has now reached its threshold point.
“People want me to contest from Kashi. My party will take a call in a day or two,” Togadia, a former cancer surgeon, told Newslaundry with a deep smile. Togadia, Modi’s friend turned foe, was in Lucknow to finalise 36 candidates in Uttar Pradesh which include Ayodhya, Mathura, Kairana, Aligarh and Saharanpur. He promises to field 100 candidates across India, including Gandhinagar, from where Bharatiya Janata Party chief Amit Shah is pitted.
His plan to challenge PM Modi in Varanasi rather than contesting on his home turf of Gujarat is being viewed as an attempt to remain politically relevant.
Former best friend now a staunch critic of Modi
Outspoken Togadia has relentlessly criticised the Modi government over the Ram Temple issue, uniform civil code, and economic and foreign policies, causing much embarrassment to the Sangh Parivar. To make matters worse, he suddenly disappeared in Ahmedabad last January and appeared the next day to make a sensational claim that he feared being killed in a police encounter. The man who enjoyed Z-plus security cover promised to provide evidence of the conspiracy at the “right time”—which never came.
Three months later, the veteran leader, who served as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad international working president, quit the organisation and launched the Antarashtriya Hindu Parishad.
Interestingly, Modi (68) and Togadia (62) had been best friends for decades. “During the Eighties, they used to attend a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh shakha together in Ahmedabad. Their names were synonymous with the rise of Hindutva in Gujarat,” a BJP leader said on condition of anonymity. People close to them recall how Togadia used to ride a scooter and motorcycle with Modi as pillion to spread the Sangh’s ideology.
Togadia was inducted into the VHP in 1983 while Modi was inducted into the BJP in 1984. They worked together and helped the BJP gain power in Gujarat in 1995. They fell out when Modi became chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 and didn’t include Togadia’s confidante Gordhan Zhadapia in his cabinet. “Modi gradually distanced himself from Togadia. If he hadn’t done so, it would have undermined Modi’s agenda of development,” BJP leaders say. Togadia’s aides claim the relationship soured further when the Modi government in Gujarat cracked down on VHP members in a riots case as per a Supreme Court direction.
Togadia left his medical practice 21 years ago to dedicate himself to the Hindutva cause. Sangh leaders admit that Togadia’s leadership helped greatly in building the Ram Temple campaign. “Being a cancer surgeon and good orator, Togadia had big appeal among the middle class and educated people. He was at the helm of the Ayodhya campaign. Nobody wants to be seen with him now,” an RSS member said.
‘Little impact on election, only nuisance value’
Varanasi’s fight, if Togadia decides to be in the fray, will be the biggest test of his brand of Hindutva. Varanasi will vote on May 19 in the last round of the seven-phase polls. While a young Dalit leader from Saharanpur, Chandrashekhar Azar of the Bhim Army, announced his candidature from Varanasi a fortnight ago, the Congress and Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance haven’t disclosed their cards. Analysts have so far predicted that Narendra Modi will be able to retain his seat.
Observers say Togadia’s outfit will hardly make a difference anywhere in India. Sudhir Mishra, editor of a leading Hindi daily, said: “The Sangh Parivar has a unique history. From Balraj Madhok to Sanjay Joshi to Kalyan Singh, whoever left this cadre-based Rightist organisation could never make a mark outside.”
Mishra points out, “Togadia’s rallies used to attract a huge number of people in Ayodhya before—which has now reduced to less than 100. He can have only a nuisance value in Varanasi.” Experts state he may dent BJP votes to some extent, though.
A veteran Congress leader said, on condition of anonymity, “It seems unlikely that Togadia would take on the PM and commit political suicide in his debut contest. Giving a hate speech and winning an election are two different things. However, he would dent the vote bank of the BJP in some places like Ayodhya and Gandhinagar.”
Even the Samajwadi Party rates Togadia poorly. “Togadia’s electoral venture is nothing but the internal fight of the Right-wing outfits who were together in 2014. Togadia will damage only the BJP—that too with 200 to 6,000 votes.”
Nevertheless, Togadia promises to make the BJP and Modi uncomfortable during the elections. He says profoundly: “Chaiwala, chowkidar, patriotism, love for Army and Swaminathan for farmers—all are chunavi for BJP. They come out like a barsati medhak and disappear as the elections are over.”
Modi has always been vocal about his humble beginnings as a tea-seller. However, Togadia has repeatedly claimed that he has never seen Modi selling tea though he knows him for the last 43 years. He says “chaiwala” was projected by the BJP to gain public sympathy to win the 2014 elections. In an RTI response in 2015, the government stated that no records were available to prove that Modi was a tea-seller.
Togadia continues: “The PM had failed the youth on the job front. To farmers, he promised 1.5 times the Minimum Support Price. Not a single farmer in the country has received that benefit. In fact, over 1,000 farmers committed suicide in the last five years.”
Hindutva versus Hindutva
Togadia presents his party as a “Hindu alternative” to the BJP and to challenge Modi’s image of Hindutva leader as well. “The BJP has fooled crores of Hindus—including me—who stood solidly behind it during the 2014 elections. Modi has failed to build the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. He hasn’t even visited Ayodhya once in [the last] five years. Everyone knows which kind of people are afraid of Lord Ram,” says the firebrand Hindutva leader who espouses a two-child policy.
Togadia clarifies that patriotism is bigger than the nationalism. “Nationalism is being discussed a lot these days. For us, patriotism is bigger than nationalism. Every single citizen in this country is a patriot.”
Rejecting Togadia’s charges, BJP spokesperson Naveen Srivastava says, “It is because of the BJP and Modi that politicians who never visited Ayodhya, Hindu temples or Kumbh are doing that now. The PM didn’t visit Ayodhya as the case is pending at the Supreme Court.”
Srivastava adds, “Whatever Togadia is today is because of the RSS and the VHP. In a cadre-based organisation like ours, people don’t matter. He will come to know about this when the results are out.”