“Nathuram Godse was a deshbhakt (patriot), is a deshbhakt and will remain a deshbhakt. People calling him a terrorist should instead look within. Such people will be given a befitting reply in these polls.” That’s avowed seer Pragya Singh Thakur, BJP’s Lok Sabha nominee from Bhopal who is also an out-on-bail accused in a case of terrorism. The firebrand Hindutva leader launched this rhetorical fusillade on Thursday, hours after reports of her party restraining the rookie candidate from speaking to the media over worries that any controversial statement by her could harm its prospects in the final phase of the polls on May 19. In an election that has been reduced to low-grade demagogy, with leaders from both the ruling coalition and the Opposition resorting to personal attacks, Thakur’s role is seen as that of a wilful provocateur with an instinct for communally charged rhetoric that could appeal to the BJP’s hard-line vote base. By fielding her from Bhopal, the party made its intentions clear about inciting polarisation across the country and turning the constituency itself into a Hindutva laboratory. This was the test confronting veteran Congress leader and Thakur’s challenger, Digvijaya Singh. And the two-time Madhya Pradesh chief minister had his own saffron card up his sleeve.
“Anyone who isn’t a Hindu is not in reckoning in the state. You have to prove that you’re a good Hindu,” said Sriram Karri, author, novelist and columnist.
Bhopal, which was both literally and metaphorically draped in saffron before the polls and on voting day, May 12, continues to bear contrasting hues of Hindutva, deeply embedded in the minds of its denizens, days after the hurly-burly has been done. From tea shops to drawing rooms to senior citizens chit-chatting after morning walk near the city’s signature lake, Bhojtal, the familiar question that is on everyone’s mind is, has Digvijaya Singh managed to secure victory by playing his own brand of saffron politics?
About a year back, when the Congress leader decided to go on a six-month-long circumambulation of the Narmada river, the prospect of fighting elections was a distant one and Pragya Thakur was not even a member of the BJP. But her entry into the fray and the direct challenge she threw at Digvijaya’s comeback into electoral politics changed everything. The Congress, its workers, campaign managers and others realised that the Raghogarh royal would be hard-pressed to refute the BJP’s charge that he was a “Hindu-baiter. Consequently, his campaign was washed and then dyed in saffron symbols and rituals; his meetings were graced by sadhus; television cameras followed him as he hopped from one temple to another; he allowed himself to be filmed while performing havan; and he also offered fodder to cows. Even self-styled godman Computer Baba, who was granted the status of a minister in the state’s previous BJP government, switched sides just before the polls and was seen with Digvijaya. Though the Congress candidate said the presence of the saffron-esque religious essence throughout his campaign was incidental, those knowing the wily politician say that, on being cornered, the former CM had to reaffirm his credentials as a believer. Such was the fierce nature of the contest that it prompted Digvijaya to offer, on the occasion of Ram Navami, land belonging to the Congress party in Bhopal for construction of a Ram temple.
But the former CM’s saffron palette is of a very different hue compared to Pragya Singh Thakur’s: his is personal, an inner mystical experience, he claims, as opposed to the rabid, shrill, all-pervading monolith that the fringe in the Sangh wants to disseminate. For him, it’s the spirituality that takes precedence over every other form – from rituals to contesting claims of intra-faith superiority to the ensuing violence that at times accompanies it. However, the havans and pujas in front of cameras clearly show that Digvijaya had to make some adjustments and compromises when it came to politicising his faith.
The refurbishing of his image has also to do with the natural inclination of the people in Madhya Pradesh, and Bhopal in particular, where religion is viewed through the prism of rituals and where it is imperative for public representatives to be seen upholding that tradition. Supporters and detractors alike say Digvijaya’s constant tirade targeting the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates has also sent a negative message which stemmed from his miscalculation that he would be spared from fighting any more elections. His politically incorrect statements and championing the cause of minorities outside the state had also not gone down well. Author and journalist Rasheed Kidwai, who covered Congress extensively, agreed and said, “By playing the minority card with his ill-timed statement of questioning the Batla House encounter, Digvijaya had gone too far. He needed a course correction.” Indeed, to shed the tag of the one who coined the term ‘Hindu terror’, Digvijaya blamed it on the-then home secretary and now minister in the Narendra Modi government, RK Singh. His image makeover has been so palpable that even the RSS was forced to take a benign stance when asked about the strategy it was employing to checkmate Digvijaya. Ashok Pandey, RSS representative, said, “Digvijaya Singh is a Hindu. We want all Hindus to be united.”
Contrary to the popular perception of Digvijaya’s new-found love for the Sanatana Dharma, he was brought up by his mother in a devout atmosphere at the Raghogarh Palace, waking up to the chimes and bells of worship. His son Jaivardhan Singh added, “My family have been fervent worshippers for three hundred years. My father is very pious. They have been spreading false rumours as he stands for the real Hindutva while his opponents stand for a distorted version.”
Digvijaya was a regular pilgrim to Pandharpur, one of the holiest places in Maharashtra and once took his entire cabinet to Govardhan Darshan in Vrindavan. In Raghogarh, he was at times fondly referred to as a “Hindu Raja”. In fact, during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s tenure, when Digvijaya was chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, he was the lone Congress bigwig to support the introduction of astrology as a subject in higher education in the name of preserving Hindu culture.
“The fight for Bhopal is all about the battle for the soul of Hindutva,” said a Congress worker at Indira Bhavan, the party’s headquarters in the state. “If the Sadhvi (Thakur) wins, she would become the new mascot of the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva, which would gain currency. Diggy Raja (Digvijaya) has to win for the Congress, for upholding universal solidarity and plurality that forms the bedrock of Hinduism, not the strident, shrill and even at times violent form that the religion has historically abhorred.”
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