Editor's note: This is a multi-part political diary that features interviews with and observations about young voters in Madhya Pradesh
It’s a few minutes before sunset at Iqbal Maidan in old Bhopal, where a crowd of Muslim men has gathered. It's the time to end the day’s fasting, and a big iftar dinner is about to begin at the square, with the setting sun casting a fading orange glow on the medieval-era havelis surrounding the maidan.
Glasses of yellow pineapple sharbat are making their way to the tables, and young boys are keenly eyeing the khajoor (dates) set in front of each chair with an intense gaze.
This reporter spoke to several people at the ground about the Lok Sabha election in the constituency, where the BJP has fielded self-styled Hindu saint and Malegaon bomb blast-accused Pragya Thakur against the Congress' candidate, former chief minister Digvijaya Singh.
This election is a clash of two polar opposites. Singh led the state for ten years from 1993 to 2003, when his government was defeated by another godwoman, the BJP’s Uma Bharti. The state’s middle class remembers tenure by its frequent power cuts, low economic growth, and crumbling infrastructure. After leaving office, Singh developed a reputation for being the "Muslim face" of the Congress party when he began championing the term "saffron terror" and called the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai an RSS conspiracy, even writing a book on the subject.
Thakur first emerged on the national spotlight for her alleged involvement in the 2008 Malegaon bomb blasts. Although she has not been convicted, she is currently out on bail for health reasons. Since her candidature was announced, she has made a series of controversial statements, the most prominent being that she prayed for the death of the investigating officer in the case, Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad Chief Hemant Karkare, who was killed in the 26/11 attacks.
Thakur has replaced the low-profile sitting Member of Parliament, Alok Sanjar, who won the seat for the BJP with a 63 percent of the vote in 2014. The last time the Congress won the seat was in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. As the BJP has won the seat on all occasions since that election, the constituency is considered a saffron bastion.
But it is important to remember that more than a quarter of the population of Bhopal – 26 percent – is Muslim.
The men at the iftar dinner were puzzled at Pragya Thakur’s nomination. They viewed it as being totally contrary to Prime Minister Modi’s pitch of sabka saath, sabka vikas, believing that her statements imply that she only cares about one segment of the population, Hindus. “Her position is all about promoting Hindus. She does not care about anybody else,” a 27-year-old Muslim carpenter told me.
"Nobody with an education or a sense of humanity would vote for her," he added.
I countered him, telling him that many don’t view the contest as a fight between Pragya Thakur and Digvijaya Singh, but as between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, in which they would select Modi.
But he did not buy my explanation, asking why Thakur was given a ticket, if it were really a Modi versus Rahul contest. The BJP could have renominated Sanjar or found another moderate politician to take his place, he said.
Another young man, an unemployed engineer, told me that he was focusing on the qualifications of the two candidates, and that Singh came out on top. “He has a plan to provide jobs for young people. He has the education required to take the country forward. We do not know about Pragya’s education. Is she even a graduate?”
And around town, Digvijaya Singh’s campaign billboards either focus on providing employment for the state’s youth, or on promoting the Congress party’s NYAY promise of providing Rs. 72,000 a year to 20 percent of the poorest families. BJP billboards largely focus on Prime Minister Modi, taking credit for fighting terrorism, with Pragya Thakur not always featured on them.
The BJP and its allies are trying to present Thakur as a victim of Hindu-bashing. In their eyes, she is the most pro-Hindu candidate, and the only person capable of taking on the most anti-Hindu politician.
Digvijaya Singh, aware of the carefully laid trap set by the RSS, has not taken the bait. After undertaking a six-month-long Narmada Yatra last year and having spent considerable time temple-hopping after his nomination was announced, Singh joined prominent Hindu guru Computer Baba and countless other sadhus at a maha yagna organised for his victory in Bhopal on Tuesday. After a brief stint as a Minister-of-State rank member of the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government, Computer Baba has become a sharp critic of the BJP, chastising the party for failing to build a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. He has since turned into a star campaigner for the Congress party, both in the 2018 state Assembly elections and the ongoing Lok Sabha elections.
When I mentioned Computer Baba’s bonhomie with Singh with Muslims in old Bhopal, they dismissed any of his perceived pro-Hindu leanings as being mere campaign rhetoric which he would need to win election.
“If we look at his track record, Digvijaya Singh will win, and he will take all of Bhopal forward.”
For many of these young Muslims, the prospect of Pragya Thakur’s victory is almost unthinkable. They simply cannot understand how people can vote for her, even if they intend to reelect the prime minister.
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Updated Date: May 16, 2019 16:24:28 IST