The summer heat in Bhopal has a tough competitor in the city’s political climate. The state’s premier constituency, which goes to polls on May 12, is the site of a showdown between Pragya Singh Thakur of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Digvijay Singh of the Indian National Congress.
On April 23, a makeshift tent was installed outside the Bhawani temple near Bhopal’s Peer gate. With a canopy of calculated white, red and yellow fabric, the 11 am daylight produced a saffron glow over the stage and an earnest audience of about 300 people. BJP workers with lotus flags and cruiser bikes parked by the chowk’s circumference distributed saffron head caps and scarves to anyone they could get a hold of.
For Pragya Singh Thakur, piety comes before politics. On this day, she was scheduled to visit the temple, address the audience, and then take out a rally to the District Collectorate where she would formally file her nomination papers for the Lok Sabha elections. She had informally completed the procedure the previous day on account of an “auspicious time” in the Hindu Vedic calendar. While she had then been accompanied by mantra-chanting priests, today they were replaced by sloganeering emcees of the BJP.
“Chant with me saathiyon: I’ll say ‘Sadhvi Pragya sant hai’, you say ‘bantadhar ka ant hai’,” commanded the seasoned emcee. (Bantadhar, meaning bungler, is the nickname that the state’s BJP has given to the Congress’s Digvijay Singh.) The response from the audience of mostly party workers did not impress him. “Speak up, brothers and sisters, speak up,” he implored. When this didn’t help much, he threw his brahmastra: “Bolo Bharat mata ki…” The audience returned a roaring “Jai!”. The emcee beamed.
“Our fight is against this maulana bantadhar,” he cried, “our fight is to establish Ram Rajya.” The political messaging was adroit. While one local leader praised revolutionary poet Ashfaqullah Khan as an ideal patriot, another mocked at how the chowk’s name had been changed from Peer chowk to Bhawani chowk under the BJP administration. With a big poster of PM Modi and Thakur in the backdrop, the stage was reserved not just for political leaders, but also sadhus and sadhvis.
When space started lacking, the sadhus—not sadhvis—were duly asked to step down and take the front row seats in the audience. “You shouldn’t take this to heart. We’re not bound by material problems,” a priest consoled them publicly.
The grumpy old men in different shades of saffron duly descended to the lower realm. Some young men in the front seats vacated their spots out of reverence, others were bullied into it.
After an hour of speechmaking and adjustment, Thakur was ready to make an entrance. Struggling through a crowd of media persons and party workers, she was lifted onto the stage by two men. Short, rotund and 48 years of age, Thakur cannot climb up and downstairs. The reason for her disability, she claims, is the torture meted out to her in custody after the Malegaon blasts in 2008, in which she’s an accused. “They [the ATS officers] used to beat me day and night for 24 days. It was so bad that my legs and hands turned black and blue. I couldn’t even hold a glass of water properly,” Thakur had said during an appearance on Rajat Sharma’s weekly show Aap Ki Adalat on India TV in October last year.
In 2015, the National Human Rights Commission had noted that Thakur’s allegations of torture were “not substantiated by facts or evidence collected by the inquiry commission from the prison, courts, and the hospital where Pragya was admitted”. In 2011, the Supreme Court had also remarked that no injury marks were found on Thakur after she was examined by doctors at two hospitals.
On this Bhopal afternoon, Thakur brought up her victimhood once again but tethered it to an election promise. “I’ve entered politics because whenever women face injustice, no one raises their voice for them, no one makes laws for them. And I’m here to make these stringent laws. If you support us, then we’ll take our voice to Delhi for women and their security. Women have earned respect under the Modi government. Our Shivraj Chouhanji’s government took care of females all the way from their birth to their adulthood.”
Chouhan, who had been on stage, looked pleased. The goodwill between the two is a matter of political convenience. Going by Thakur’s previous statements, Chouhan is no favourite of hers. It was his government, after all, which had her arrested in 2008 and 2011. The Madhya Pradesh Police had even raided Thakur’s ashram in Jabalpur in 2008. In 2016, days after Thakur was released on bail, she had not taken politely to Chouhan’s attempt to impede her visit to the Ujjain Kumbh Mela. In protest, she had undertaken a fast unto death. “Be it CM Shivrajji or anyone else, whoever has done this [prevented her visit to the Kumbh] is wrong and we’ll go against them,” Thakur had said.
Thakur’s political inexperience was evident at her Bhopal rally. An effective orator, she had to read out her election promises from paper. But once she put it down, the rest of the speech fell into her comfort zone: the return of Ram Rajya, Congress having terrorist sympathies, saffron terrorism, threat to Indian civilisation, Bharat mata ki jai, Gau mata ki jai and some shlokas in Sanskrit. The audience listened to her in rapt attention, especially the women. A giddy Chouhan congratulated her once she returned to her seat beside him, and took over to deliver a longer speech.
Newslaundry spoke to young party workers at the rally about Thakur’s comments on former Mumbai Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) chief Hemant Karkare (“I told him you’ll be destroyed”) and the Babri Masjid demolition (“I had gone to demolish the structure and had climbed atop it to break it”). One of them said, “There is nothing controversial in what she said. She only expressed what she has gone through and the pain that was inflicted on her. We don’t see what’s the problem with that.”
But what about her claim to bring down the Babri? “That’s her personal matter. That shouldn’t be politicised and connected to the party. The party has done good work in Madhya Pradesh, she’ll simply carry it forward.”
What do they, as party workers, want out of her if she were to win? “Employment is a burning issue here. Young men study in the city but they have to often venture out to find jobs. We would like her to fix that so that people don’t leave the city as they’re doing now,” a young BJP worker said.
In her public pronouncements, Thakur has amply revealed two personal tendencies: a powerful conspiratorial streak in her thought process; and a belief that her actions are divinely directed and sanctioned.
It’s hard to miss a Thakur interview where she doesn’t use the word shadyantra (षड़यंत्र), or conspiracy. She has consistently claimed that her arrest after the Malegaon blasts was a Congress conspiracy to lend credence to the “myth” of “Hindu or saffron terror”. On India TV’s Aap Ki Adalat, she played the conspiracy card again on Swami Aseemanand’s trial in the Ajmer dargah, Mecca Masjid, and the Samjhauta Express terrorist bombings in 2007. Swami Agnivesh, who met her when she was in jail too “was part of a conspiracy” to trap her by obtaining a confession on the Malegaon blasts. Eight-year-old girl Asifa Bano’s rape in Jammu & Kashmir’s Kathua town in January 2018 was also a conspiracy with a Congress hand. After declaring her candidature last month, Thakur had alleged that there could be a “conspiracy to send her back to jail”.
When Thakur was asked to explain her statement on Karkare’s death, she said, “I don’t give my answers, God gives them himself.” In another interview, she even came close to implying that she is an incarnate of God. Asked why she described the Bhopal contest as dharma vs adharma, she replied, “Whenever adharma takes over, God himself takes birth in human form to protect dharma and wage a war against adharma.” According to a news portal, when former CM Shivraj Chouhan gave Thakur mild instructions about where to toe the line in an interview, Thakur allegedly went into a trance. Once back, “she curtly told Chauhan that she was in communication with ‘Thakurji (god)’, and had his blessings to go ahead and say exactly what she pleased.”
Both the BJP and the RSS have been unhappy with the controversy that Thakur’s remarks have courted. Local journalists in Bhopal believe there was a gag on Thakur’s interaction with the press, which she veneered under a maun vrat (silent fasting) on April 22, a day after the EC issued a notice to her regarding the Babri Masjid remark.
Calls to the BJP’s media department went unanswered for hours, and requests for an interview with Thakur were left hanging with “dekhtein hain”.
What Bhopal thinks
Despite her scandals, Thakur does not figure much in the public imagination in Bhopal. For the city folk, party workers, opponents, and even local BJP leaders, she’s an eccentric upstart. Almost all common people this correspondent spoke to were indifferent to her candidature. The majority sentiment in Bhopal, however, leans towards the BJP. There are two reasons for this: loyalty to the party, and preference for PM Modi.
“No one likes Digvijay Singh here. He did nothing for the public and everything for himself,” says Dhani Ram Singh, who drives an auto in the city. “I’ve been in this city for 40 years. He killed our jobs—a poor man never forgets those who kill their livelihood. Shivrajji should’ve been re-elected but people made an error. He did good things for the poor and for women. He gave us a roof over our heads. He might’ve made some mistakes in the rural areas, but people should blame his chamchas for it. Same goes for Modiji. A human being is allowed to make some mistakes.”
Hiralal, whose shikanji stall is one of many dotted across an oppressively hot Bhopal, has similar reasons for siding with the BJP. “Chouhanji gave us pukka houses to live in. Why should we vote for anyone else but BJP? Why should we vote for anyone else but Modiji?”.
At the Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism and Communication, young students are split between the two political parties and NOTA. Prannay, a 22-year-old, gave me a long lecture on secularism and pluralism when I asked him about politics in Bhopal. But who is he going to vote for? “I’ll vote for Sadhvi if she states that she respects all religions.” After another nudge, he admits to voting for the BJP.
So what issues are these young people voting for? Prannay, who is pursuing his Bachelors in Commerce, says reservations and unemployment are an important issue for him. “Those who deserve reservation aren’t actually getting it, and those getting it often don’t deserve it. I think a new government should look into this,” he says. His friend, Rishabh, who is studying journalism, says he’s voting for the end of radicalism. “I’ll vote Congress. I’m aware that when it comes to development and corruption the BJP has a better record. But the damage they’re doing to the social fabric can only be contained by voting for the other party. Our republic is in danger,” he says.
Deepti Singh Tomar, a student and also the state spokesperson of the Karni Sena, actively rebutted Prannay and Rishabh’s arguments for voting for the two parties during our conversation. She’ll press NOTA. “All of them are thieves. Politics is too dirty here,” she says. “In 2014, they [the BJP] had made a huge hue and cry about the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament to get votes. They didn’t live up to it. When the issue should be women’s lack of access to healthcare, everyone was made to argue over their entry into a temple. That’s not nearly an important issue. The current politics is a politics to garner votes.”
In Bhopal’s old city
The old city in Bhopal is home to a considerable portion of the city’s Muslim community. Exactly 24 hours after Sadhvi’s rally, the mood at Peer Gate towards the event is tepid. “If you looked closely you would have noticed that the rally was all party workers and hardly any common people. They don’t get any traction here,” says Muhammad Raza, who sells tea near the Bhawani temple.
“I’ve voted for Congress since the day I’ve gained consciousness. It’s been 18 years now,” says Liyakat Hussain, who drives a cab in the city. Why does he vote for the grand old party? “No particular reason, I just do,” he adds blankly. “But if you ask me, this Sadhvi will win the election. It looks difficult for Digvijay Singh.” Do Muslims in Bhopal vote for BJP, I ask. “Yes, of course. I have a neighbour who does. If you go around in the old city, you’ll find people who do vote for them.”
Asad Bhai is one such voter. He runs the Afghani Hotel near Peer Gate, an establishment known for its delectable kebabs. “There is anger in the community over Sadhvi’s remarks, but we know where the wind is blowing in these elections,” he says. According to Asad, it’s blowing the BJP way. “A good number of Muslims have voted for BJP under Shivrajji in Madhya Pradesh. He is fairly liberal, and would come to our homes. He even invited us to his residence for Iftar.”
What about the Congress? “My father and grandfather voted for Congress all their lives. Yet what did they get out of it? I’ve been associated with the BJP for almost eight years now. Sadhviji has caused some resentment but we’ll still stick to the party that has improved our lot.”
At the party headquarters
The BJP headquarters in Bhopal lies deserted at 11 am. Staff members explain that most leaders are busy campaigning around the state. In the main hall, adorned with a black and white collage of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, bored peons and journalists browse through newspapers or TikTok on their phones. There’s also saffron-clad old man who claims to be 106 years old and is hard of hearing. His speech is slurred but it was clear that he was mumbling obscenities that had something to do with Mamta Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav and Ranjan Gogoi.
On the first floor, I spot the open offices of the “BJP SC/ST Morcha”. The room has tall portraits of Ambedkar and behind the desk sits a man who runs the morcha, Ram Prakash Bansar. “No one is voting for Pragya in Bhopal. They’re voting for the kamal [lotus] and for Narendra Modi: 50 per cent kamal, 50 per cent Modi,” he tells me. “People hardly know her in Bhopal. She has little political face value. No one sees the candidate here. People vote for the PM and the party.”
Is Hindutva the BJP’s plank in MP’s SC/ST dominated districts? “No. Hindutva is rolled out only where there is a sizeable Muslim population, like Bhopal. We don’t do that with SCs and STs—they are Hindus too, after all,” Bansar says. But Muslims in Bhopal also vote for the BJP, I tell him. “They lie. They never vote for us.”
Satyendra Bhushan Singh, the president of the BJP’s Madhya Pradesh headquarters, sits on the ground floor of the office. To my “Iss baar kaisa lag raha hai?”, he shoots back a smug “achha lag raha hai”. I swallow and proceed: is there a tough contest in Bhopal between Singh and Thakur this year? “There is no tough contest. He’ll go back after losing by a margin of a lakh votes. The people call him Mr Bantadhar.” Not just bantadhar, I point out, but BJP workers call him maulana bantadhar. Why the maulana? Bhushan looks at me quizzically and asks: “Has a Hindu ever been a terrorist? Never. And Shriman Digvijay Singh calls Hindus terrorists.”
I ask him about the blasts at Ajmer Sharif in 2006. Was Godse not a terrorist? “Whatever is done for our preservation is justified. But we never create chaos where there is peace. All terrorists are Muslims, and yet the BJP never calls the religion and the community terrorists. But Digvijay Singhji called all of Hindu dharma a terrorist,” Bhushan claims.
I question him about Sadhvi’s controversial statements against Karkare. “Those who suffer know how it’s like. There is no question of her holding back. She is simply expressing what she has been through.” I direct him to a local paper quoting the NHRC’s claim that Thakur’s torture allegations cannot be proved. “So you believe the newspaper but not what you see in front of your eyes? Have you seen her walk? If there was no torture then how did this happen?” asks Bhushan.
Thakur’s remarks against Karkare might have flustered a significant community in Bhopal: the Marathis. “We Marathis, we walk with our heads in our knees. We don’t have too much patience for such nonsense. What she said was very unfortunate,” says Pankaj Mahajan, a cab-driver. “Whatever Karkare did was for the country, you can’t just curse him thoughtlessly. The mood among our people is not too good.” But like most people in Bhopal who are miffed with Thakur, Mahajan is going to vote for the BJP. “I’m looking at Modi. That’s all I care about.”
At the Congress party headquarters in the city, three animated men are seated around a table drinking tea and consuming politics. “We are office bearers. We are the engines of the party. Elections or no elections, our work revolves around all 12 months of the year,” says a lively sexagenarian who introduces himself as Chauhanji. He claims he has been working for the party for almost 35 years. Things don’t seem to be going too well for the party, I tell him cheekily. “It’s going 100 per cent well. We’ll win at least 20 of the 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh,” he replies.
Talking about Thakur, Chauhan brings up the eternal question: “What’s so special about Pragya? What will she do for Bhopal? People do not cast votes for singing Vande Mataram.”
Digvijay Singh has been MP’s chief minister for 10 years between 1993 and 2003. But the Congress party last won the Bhopal seat in 1985. Singh’s local recognition quotient is a significant factor which his party is trying to harness. The party is also playing the development and secularism card—raising urban issues and promising development—while also expecting electoral dividends out of Bhopal’s anxious Muslim community, which forms almost a fourth of the constituency’s 20 lakh voters.
At the launch of Digvijay Singh’s vision document for Bhopal on April 20, a local journalist told me that “inke opponent ki zyada demand hai yahaan (his opponent has greater demand here)”. This was obvious. The x-factor at Singh’s event was missing. “Kuch maza nahi aya (the fun is lacking),” I heard a party worker complain as soon as the event wrapped up.
Thakur, by contrast, is very much a political rookie. Her rather unrestrained barbs prove this. Running on the supposed plank of Hindu victimhood, she has described the Bhopal elections as a dharm-yudh (religious war) against those who erected the “bogey” of “Hindu terror”. Backing Thakur is the Sangh and its sister organisations who have extensive grassroot connections in Madhya Pradesh.
Given Bhopal’s electoral history and the strong imprint that the BJP enjoys on it, a Congress victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections appears improbable for two important reasons: First, Singh does not evoke much confidence among the local people thanks to the deeds of his regime between 1993 and 2003; Modi, on the other hand, does evoke confidence. Second, the BJP’s long innings in Bhopal coupled with the Sangh Parivar’s organisational prowess has ensured that political Hindutva is well entrenched in the mind of the constituency, co-existing somehow with its composite social character.
Madhya Pradesh, after all, has been the oldest site of the shakha, a basic organisational unit of the RSS, especially in Dewas and Indore. The earliest concentration of the Sangh’s voter base is also in Madhya Pradesh, in the districts of Mandsaur and Shajapur, where the BJP’s political predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, won its initial seats.
Shyam Singh Tomar, a journalist based out of Bhopal, agrees that Hindutva is an effective driving force in the region: “The strong bind of Hindutva works wonders in Madhya Pradesh and finds ready acceptance among people here. There are no local issues in this election. Bhopal has a number of local issues that need to be looked into, but they pass off with a lip service. The people here are voting for the PM face and not the local face.”
Sachin Jain, an activist associated with the NGO Vikas Samvad, expresses similar fears: “We’ve launched campaigns to make people judge political parties with the yardstick of local issues surrounding development and sustainability. But it has been difficult ride so far because people are more likely to vote along religious lines. Hindutva finds strong appeal at the grassroots in Bhopal.”
Appeal or no appeal, charisma or no charisma, Pragya Singh Thakur’s political career holds significant promise thanks to the Bhopal launchpad. She’s the electoral channel through which many in the constituency want to redeem Narendra Modi for another term in the Prime Minister’s Office. With her loathing for the Congress and its supposed diabolical designs on her innocence, the militant sadhvi seems to be on a successful course of political revenge.