For the BJP, fielding Pragya Singh Thakur as the Lok Sabha candidate from Bhopal was always going to be risky. The mercurial Thakur has quickly proved herself to be a double-edged sword. By the time she committed her third gaffe since nomination, six phases of the polls are over, including in Bhopal. It is possible that Thakur’s comments glorifying Nathuram Godse may not have a big electoral impact in the remaining 59 seats that go to the polls on 19 May. And we shall soon know whether the BJP’s bold gamble to field the 2008 Malegaon blast accused has paid off.
However, by referring to Mahatma Gandhi’s killer as a “patriot”, Thakur has exposed the fault lines within the BJP that the saffron behemoth may find difficult to tackle. As long as the BJP was a secondary force, these fault lines were easily subdued. As it replaces the Congress to become the fulcrum of Indian politics with a pan-national footprint, these cracks will become more apparent.
Further, the BJP’s transformation from a "north Indian" party to its current form — displacing the Congress in the North East, consolidating its position in the Hindi heartland, developing as a strong challenger to incumbents in eastern states and trying to gain a foothold in the south beyond Karnataka — has also necessitated an ideological shift from the right to centre. This shift is inevitable, but more complex than is immediately apparent.
Under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who remained the prime minister from 1999 to 2004, the BJP’s position was somewhat in the middle on cultural issues and right-leaning on economic policies. Modi’s five years have seen a rightward shift in culture and a quasi-socialistic approach on the economy. Broadly, however, the BJP has completed a centrist maneuver to fill in the vacuum left by the Congress. On core issues such as the building of a Ram Mandir on the disputed site at Ayodhya, the party has repeatedly cited judicial procedure while asking its supporters to be patient. In its 2019 manifesto, its positions on the Ayodhya dispute, Citizenship Bill, scrapping of Article 35A and the Uniform Civil Code appear firmly on right, but if the last five years are any indication, the party is likely to take a consultative approach rather than bulldozing changes even if it retains power.
And that’s why the issue of Godse is symbolic of the ideological confusion that the BJP is increasingly likely to suffer from. Consider Thakur’s statement on Thursday given as a reaction to Kamal Hasaan’s comments on Godse being India’s first ‘Hindu terrorist’. Thakur, who was arrested in connection with the Malegaon blast in 2008 and received bail nine years later, told reporters, “Nathuram Godse was a patriot, is a patriot and will remain a patriot. People calling him a terrorist should instead look within. Such people will be given a fitting reply in the election.”
At one level, Thakur's statement is not surprising. Her candidature from Bhopal was the BJP’s attempt to showcase Congress as an “anti-Hindu” party that had falsely implicated Hindus by coining the term "saffron terror". Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, who is credited with the coinage, had been instrumental in propagating the "Hindu terror" theory. What better than to pit him against a candidate who had been jailed for being an accused in a case that, according to the BJP, was a conspiracy to create the "Hindu terror" myth?
BJP president Amit Shah had described Pragya Thakur’s candidature as a “satyagraha” against the myth of saffron terror. The prime minister had called it “a symbolic answer to all those who falsely labelled the rich Hindu civilisation as terrorist.”
While Pragya Thakur’s candidature made political sense because it aims at a consolidation of the Hindu votes, the flip side of it is that ideological impulses of the extreme right may now become mainstream and debated more openly. The problem is, this is in direct conflict with BJP’s stated centrist position. This poses a particularly difficult challenge for Modi, who has claimed the legacy of some Congress icons in his quest to both moor his ideas and make the BJP a party concomitant with India’s political history.
Modi’s effort at mass sanitisation — Swachh Bharat scheme — was launched as an imprimatur of Mahatma Gandhi. Imagine his consternation when Pragya Thakur puts all that effort to waste with one ill-judged comment. Modi’s reaction is not surprising. Short of expelling her, the prime minister said, “the comments on Gandhi and Godse are deplorable, disgusting and are not language fit for civilised society. Those who say such things should think a hundred times. It is a different issue that they have apologised, but I will not be able to forgive them from my heart.”
Expelling the Bhopal candidate is not really an option for the BJP, but it has chosen the next best option by issuing show cause notices to Thakur and two other BJP leaders who made similar controversial statements on this issue.
Pragya Thakur has swiftly apologised, BJP minister from Karnataka Anantkumar Hegde has claimed that his Twitter account was “hacked”, while Shah has clarified that “comments made by Hegde, Sadhvi Pragya Thakur and Nalin Kateel (another Karnataka leader) in the past two days are personal. The BJP has no connection with their comments… These people have taken back their comments and apologised for them as well. However, the party has taken their comments seriously and decided to send them to the disciplinary committee, keeping in mind the dignity and ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party.”
Even as the BJP was engaged in a firefight over this issue, its media cell head in Madhya Pradesh, Anil Saumitra, called Mahatma Gandhi not the "Father of the Nation" but the “father of Pakistan”. He was quite defiant about his Facebook post and told reporters after the controversy erupted that his remark was not wrong. “No scholar can prove me wrong. I will not delete my post.” Saumitra has since been suspended from the party’s primary membership.
The BJP may be trying to put daylight between itself and the controversies, but the way these issues have erupted in a party that is known for its discipline points to a deeper fault line. As it aggressively pursues expansion throughout the length and breadth of India, the party may need to introspect on its ideological stances. Or else, incidents such as these will become alarmingly regular.
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Updated Date: May 18, 2019 11:19:09 IST