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Bhopal Lok Sabha seat: Stage set for 'saffron versus saffron' battle as Digvijaya Singh takes strong Hindutva stand

The electoral tussle in Bhopal was expected to be much beyond a simple political fight. With the controversial Digvijaya Singh in the fray as the Congress candidate, it was always going to be a referendum on his credentials as a Hindu. It was no surprise that BJP promptly fielded Hindutva firebrand Sadhvi Pragya Thakur to take him on.

Given Digvijaya's past record of aggressive pro-Muslim rhetoric, the party's game plan was to polarise votes along the Hindu-Muslim divide. However, it appears that the shrewd politician anticipated this beforehand.

His recent moves suggest he had his own plan in place to counter the BJP's and eventually neutralise any possible Hindu polarisation against him.

 Bhopal Lok Sabha seat: Stage set for saffron versus saffron battle as Digvijaya Singh takes strong Hindutva stand

Digvijaya Singh performs a ritual in Bhopal in the presence of Namdeo das Tyagi, also known as Computer Baba. Image courtesy: Debobrat Ghose/Firstpost

Consider these facts:

— On Wednesday, a large number of sadhus and sants in saffron robes participated in a rally lead by ‘Computer Baba’ (Namdeo Das Tyagi) in the city with Digvijaya’s support.

— Extending his support and claiming that Digvijaya would win, Mahamandaleswar Swami Vairagyananda has begun a havan (a ritual burning of offerings) with five quintal of red chillies. He announced that he would visit homes to solicit support for the leader.

— Last year, Digvijaya completed the long-winding Narmada Yatra, a ritual of great religious significance to Hindus, building rapport among villagers along the holy river.

— He is an ardent devotee of Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopananda Saraswati, a revered figure among Hindus and has his blessings for the elections.

Going by the evidence on hand, Digvijaya is playing the Hindu card deftly to challenge Sadhvi Pragya. It may still not be enough to assuage the Hindus whom he might have hurt through his statements, but as an electoral strategy, it makes sense.

To begin with, according to people familiar to him, he was always been a devout Hindu, contrary to his public image. The two-term chief minister of Madhya Pradesh had earlier said in public that in Raghogarh (town in Madhya Pradesh from where Digvijaya hails), there were many temples and he used to visit those regularly. During his tenure as chief minister (1993-2003), he used to visit Pandharpur in Maharashtra every year during a particular period (Ashadhi Ekadashi) and built dharmashalas for the devotees, and won hearts of a large number of Maharashtrians living in Madhya Pradesh.

But Digvijaya’s preparation to re-launch himself afresh without making any hue and cry about it began in 2017, when he went on the Narmada Yatra and covered 3,300 kilometers by foot in six months.

Being the longest west-flowing river and one among the five holy rivers of India, a parikrama of Narmada is considered a formidable spiritual exercise in Hinduism. As per the tradition, one circumambulates from the source (Amarkantak in Madhya Pradesh) to the Arabian Sea in Gujarat and back to the source – an exercise undertaken for spiritual purification and for the fulfillment of wishes. Narmada is the only river whose parikrama is done.

By undertaking Narmada Parikrama, Digvijaya made his soft Hindutva stand stronger. And now, he has garnered support and blessings of seers in large numbers.

“Had Pragya Thakur not contested against him, perhaps he wouldn’t have rallied sadhus in his favour. This is Digvijaya Singh’s desperate move to stall polarisation of Hindu votes. Now instead of soft Hindutva, he’s aggressively displaying that he’s no less a devout Hindu,” senior journalist and political commentator Abhilash Khandekar told Firstpost.

A big challenge

When the Congress fielded party veteran Digvijaya from Bhopal, the political pundits questioned whether it was a bold or suicidal move by the party. After all, the saffron party has been invincible in this constituency since 1989.

This contest is the biggest challenge in Digvijaya's career. If he wins, his stature is sure to grow by several notches. If he loses, it might be the beginning of the end for him.

There are a couple of factors in Diggy raja’s (as he’s often addressed) favour.

First, the results in three of the eight Assembly segments of the Bhopal Lok Sabha constituency in election last year were encouraging for the Congress. The party won the Bhopal Madhya (Arif Masood), Bhopal Uttar (Arif Aqueel) and Bhopal Dakshin-Paschim (PC Sharma) constituencies with 53.20 percent, 58.77 percent and 49.14 percent vote shares respectively. In the remaining five seats, the BJP witnessed a dip in its margin.

Second, there is a significant Muslim vote bank in this constituency. Out of 20 lakh voters, nearly five lakh are Muslims.

Third, Singh, who has been the chief minister for two terms, is a tall leader in the party, and is the only one who can take up this challenge, due to his large network and following. He is considered more rooted in the state compared to chief minister Kamal Nath and another senior leader, Jyotiraditya Scindia, who had to face the ‘outsider’ tag.

According to analysts, Digvijaya is expected to get 70 percent of votes from three Congress-dominated seats and 25-30 percent from remaining five.

On the other hand, it took pretty long for the BJP to announce its candidate for Bhopal, and finally, Sadhvi Pragya Thakur was fielded.

“There’s no doubt about Digvijayaji’s victory from Bhopal seat. No polarisation will help the BJP, as Bhopal is known for its ‘Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (Ganga-Yamuna culture)', where Hindus and Muslims can’t be divided like BJP thinks. Digvijayaji has received a lot of support on social media,” said Amit Soni, vice president, IT and social media cell, Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee.

Saffron vs saffron

Now, the Bhopal seat has turned into a fierce ‘saffron versus saffron’ battle of sorts. The saffron hue is visible in both BJP and Congress camps. The polling for this seat is on 12 May.

According to the BJP sources, the party is confident of its victory and Digvijaya’s aggressive Hindutva stand won’t deter the core vote bank of the saffron party.

Many of the sadhus who had participated in Digvijaya’s ritual have now claimed that they were tricked to be a part of the ‘support team’. Several videos supporting the claim have recently surfaced.

“BJP has always been a saffron party and people have accepted it in its actual form, unlike the Congress party which has donned a fake saffron robe. Now Muslims in Bhopal have started questioning Digvijaya Singh’s Hindutva stand. They are saying if they at all have to support this Hindutva stand, then why not BJP, the original one in the game and why Congress?” Anil Saumitra, Bhopal-based Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh functionary, told Firstpost.

“With Sadhvi Pragya Thakur as its candidate, the BJP is confident of its victory and would retain its legacy in Bhopal,” he added.

Khandekar, who’s also the author of Shivraj Singh and Rise of Madhya Pradesh, concludes, “But it also needs to be seen how the Muslims react to this step of Digvijaya Singh.”

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Updated Date: May 10, 2019 23:01:21 IST