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Lok Sabha elections 2019: Backed by RSS, Pragya Thakur emerges as new Hindutva mascot

Pragya Thakur’s candidacy is seen by analysts as signalling the return of Hindutva as one of the poll planks of the BJP, which has been juggling between economic development and nationalism as its central themes in the ongoing Lok Sabha election campaign

lok sabha elections Updated: May 03, 2019 08:00 IST
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Pragya Thakur,RSS,Pragya
The torture that she allegedly endured in prison and her resolve to punish those who coined the term “saffron terror” is the fulcrum of Pragya Singh Thakur’s election campaign.(PTI Photo)

The torture that she allegedly endured in prison and her resolve to punish those who coined the term “saffron terror” is the fulcrum of Pragya Singh Thakur’s election campaign.

To Thakur, 49, being chosen as the Bhopal candidate of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is recompense for her incarceration as a suspect in the 2008 Malegaon blasts in which six people were killed and over 100 injured. She calls the case a part of a “larger conspiracy to defame Hindus.”

Her candidacy is seen by analysts as signalling the return of Hindutva as one of the poll planks of the BJP, which has been juggling between economic development and nationalism as its central themes in the ongoing Lok Sabha election campaign

A senior party leader in Bhopal said on condition of anonymity that the party is not averse to shifting the narrative towards nationalism and is banking on Thakur to do so, too.

“It is not a battle for votes, it is a fight against anti-national sentiments...” he said.

Thakur, in her saffron robes, and with her story of her alleged persecution fits the bill.

Following this script, on the pit stops she makes on the campaign trail, Thakur, who is often helped by two or more associates, becomes vocal about her nine-year prison term. The narrative traverses from pain and self-pity to anger, interspersed by spiritual detachment. The theme of retribution remains a constant in her speeches.

For instance in Sehore, an expanse of wheat and soyabean farms in the Malwa region; Thakur made perfunctory references to development and agricultural issues. Her preferred role is that of a crusader out to absolve Hindus of the “saffron terror” tag . Her opponent in the May 12 Bhopal electoral battle, the Congress’s Digvijay Singh, is her main target. She pins the blame of coining the term on him.

“Digvijaya Singh tortured me, he is a sutradhar (impresario); he lights a flicker and blasts happen afar,” she told a gathering in Sehore. The Congress, for its part, refuses to bite the bait. Sobha Ojha, a spokesperson for the Congress. said, “We have chosen not to respond to her. Our campaign will be positive. We will focus only on the achievements of our government in the last 75 odd days of being in power (in MP).”

RSS backing

Thakur, who is currently on bail on health grounds, does not have too many supporters within the BJP, but she has the blessings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor. Some in the RSS see her as a natural choice to fight Singh, who has been a vocal critic of the Sangh and its ideology.

“There are efforts being made to destabilise the nation. While enemies outside the country attack our soldiers, there are subversive forces acting in our universities and through other channels; only the BJP has the will to stop these,” said a senior RSS functionary who is currently in Madhya Pradesh. The person didn’t want to be named.

The RSS is confident that the narrative of nationalism and Hindutva being set in Bhopal will be a template for other regions and states that are yet to go to the polls.

Within the party, however, there are murmurs of dissent. While teams have been deputed to help her in electioneering, star campaigners of the party, her more well-known colleagues are conspicuous by their absence at her rallies -- at least so far.

A close aide to Thakur differed. “Uma Bharti and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, apart from local MLAs have been campaigning for her. We are also expecting UP CM Yogi Adityanath, Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis and party president Amit Shah to address rallies in her support,” said the aide, who didn’t want to be named. In an interview to a television channel, PM Narendra Modi defended her candidacy by pointing out that he too had been accused of “many things” when he was the Gujarat chief minister

Voices of dissent

Many within the party fold are not convinced.

A BJP functionary in the capital city said there was consternation within the party on her candidacy. A few party members like Fatima Rasool, the only Muslim candidate in the 2018 MP assembly elections, have refused to campaign for her.

A stern warning was issued to the corporators and MLAs to support her after three-fourths of them did not attend a meeting called by BJP national vice president Vinay Sahasrabuddhe earlier this week to discuss her campaign. “She joined the party a day before her candidacy was announced. She has no political base, is a loose canon and this has upset many leaders in the party.She was not even the first choice for Bhopal,” said Rakesh Dixit, a senior journalist and political commentator.

Why her?

Her remarks about having cursed the then Mumbai anti-terrorist squad (ATS) chief Hemant Karkare ,who led the investigation into the Malegaon blasts, caused a furore and led to the filing of a first information report against her. Karkare died in the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

In Bhopal, which has about 20% Muslims, she is perceived as a polarising figure. “Just as Union Carbide poisoned Bhopal, her speeches have the same effect. Barring a short period after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, there has never been communal tension here. It’s unfortunate that the BJP has chosen her,” said Abdul Jabbar, who runs the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (Bhopal Gas Female Victims’ Association), an advocacy group for the victims and survivors of the 1984 gas disaster.

A group of students at a popular eatery, Hawkers Corner, were ambivalent about Thakur. While most of them said they wanted to see Modi return as PM; they seemed unsure about Thakur’s claims. “She should not have cursed Karkare; he was a national hero,” said a student who is also a first-time voter.

Another political watcher, ND Sharma, said the BJP would have done well to have leaders such a Uma Bharti to run the Hindutva campaign in the constituency, which the party has won consistently in the last eight elections. “She is a politician and would have carried the Hindutva agenda without even making it evident. Thakur, as an agent of creating a communal divide is a misfit, because to this day, Hindus have not questioned Karkare’s integrity. It has caused anguish to the people of Bhopal that a terror accused has been fielded opposite a formidable opponent,” Sharma said.

First Published: May 03, 2019 07:30 IST

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