In Bhopal, a battle of contrasting styles

In Bhopal, a battle of contrasting styles

Pragya Singh Thakur and Digvijaya Singh

It’s arguably the spiciest battle of Election 2019: Bhopal, which pits Hindutva terror-accused Sadhvi Pragya against patrician Congressman and ace BJP-baiter Digvijaya Singh.

But there is little apparent conflict, probably because it’s clearly a case of fire versus ice, of sharply contrasting styles. Pragya, a first-timer, gained some notoriety early in the game with intemperate remarks on Hemant Karkare, a senior cop martyred in the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, which embarrassed her own party. She talks less now, but on Wednesday night none other than BJP president Amit Shah turned up in her support in a high-powered roadshow that wended its way through the gullies of old Bhopal as the sizeable Muslim population looked on. Voting is on Sunday.

Digvijaya, a two-time chief minister who has a penchant for getting under the BJP’s skin, has played it straight in this election. Gone are the throwaway one-liners that the BJP could have outraged about; instead, there is a show of Hindu faith, and a yagna with sadhus, and nothing to rile the majority community. It is almost as if the 72-year-old Digvijaya, widely perceived as one who popularised terms like ‘saffron terror’, is a new, mellowed man.

“I fought my last election in 2003. Since then a lot of technology has come in. I have changed my campaign style to embrace technology, along with mass contact,” Digvijaya tells DH

In an interview in his SUV while travelling to meet the faithful he said, “I avoid the big public rallies because it’s our workers who come there, not the people.”

Has he turned over a new leaf? Is this a new, non-controversial Digvijaya? “I have always been like this. I’m not going to say anything about my rival.” He maintains that he has always been religious and that “terror has no colour.”

Digvijaya has a solid command at booth level and is a formidable candidate, new leaf or old. He has a loyal support base among Muslims, who constitute 40% of the population of Old Bhopal, and nearly 20% of Bhopal as a whole. He knows many of his potential constituents by name, and gets out of his car regularly to press the flesh.

While Digvijaya runs a relatively quiet campaign – with little support from Congress bigwigs and a complete no-show from party president Rahul Gandhi – Pragya’s roadshow draws a large crowd. There is a carnival atmosphere featuring women dressed in sarees modelled on the BJP flag, saffron balloons, confetti, fireworks, and youth shouting slogans at the top of their voices.

But there is a sinister overtone: A speech by Narendra Modi played in a loop, drumming up fear. “They are selling India. How can I sleep? I will not let the country be wiped out, nor let it lower its head. I will bring as much light as they bring darkness. Everyone here is afraid.” And so on.

Muslims in the neighbourhood dismiss all this as par for the course. “What is there to fear, this (campaigning) is a regular occurrence,” says Yunus Khan, a 63-year-old shopkeeper. “Terrorists are killing people and terrorists are standing for election,” he adds, a trifle bitterly.

“Aisa to chalta rahta hai (this is what keeps happening). All they are doing is building a frenzy. In the end Digvijaya will win,” says an elderly bystander, Mohammad Fareed.

Auto driver Mohammad Hafeez says that he voted for the BJP in the last two elections but will switch to Digvijaya this time. “Aurat badmaash hai (the woman is a rogue),” he says.

Not everyone in the local BJP is keen on Pragya, widely seen as a candidate foisted on them by their ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. The RSS wants to make an example of this constituency: What could be more powerful than a wrongly (in their eyes) accused terror suspect defeating one of the men who tried to equate them with Muslim terrorists?

In contrast, the local Congress machinery is solidly behind Digvijaya, and the Hindu-Muslim polarisation that the BJP actively seeks seems to be absent.

“It’s likely to be a close thing,” says a worker in the Digvijaya camp. “Pragya loses them 50,000 votes each time she opens her mouth, but the Congress has been out of power in Bhopal for 35 years and its network is shaky.”