BJP candidate accused of terror finds support in Bhopal

BJP supporters in Bhopal wait to welcome candidate Pragya Singh Thakur, an alleged conspirator in a 2008 terrorism case.
BJP supporters in Bhopal wait to welcome candidate Pragya Singh Thakur, an alleged conspirator in a 2008 terrorism case.ST PHOTO: DEBARSHI DASGUPTA

The group waited patiently at a bus stop, shielding themselves from the 40 deg C heat in the central Indian city of Bhopal. The women were dressed in saris emblazoned with the electoral symbol of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - the lotus. Men wore caps and scarves that were similarly branded.

They stood holding garlands and earthen lamps to greet Pragya Singh Thakur, the local BJP candidate passing through their neighbourhood on a motorcycle campaign tour during the ongoing parliamentary elections.

A Hindu ascetic, Thakur and her party have attracted widespread opprobrium since she was named as the BJP's local choice.

She is on trial as an alleged conspirator in a 2008 terrorism incident in which explosives packed onto a motorcycle killed six people and injured more than 100 in Malegaon in the western state of Maharashtra. She is currently out on bail.

Even with India's despairingly low level of probity in politics - many candidates contest elections despite charges of corruption and murder - her arrival is a new low.

She has been widely described as the first candidate accused of terrorism to contest the parliamentary elections. But this is hardly a deterrent for 40-year-old Kunjilal Kushwaha and others in the group at the bus stop.

"All we know is we have to vote for the BJP even if our body is torn to bits," says the gardener, who has always voted for the BJP.

This is a refrain heard from many in this Hindu-dominated neighbourhood of Murgi Farm that has around 100 families. People were given rights to the plots they live on, as well as water and electricity supply, by a BJP-ruled state government which came into power around 15 years ago. This is why they are indebted to the party.

"They helped us in our time of need, so it is natural that we help them whenever they need us," adds Ms Sukhwati Kushwaha, 40.

Committed voters like them form the party's support base in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh that votes today. The seat has been held by a BJP MP for the last eight elections. For them, Thakur is a saviour of Hinduism.

"She is a sanyasi lady," says Mr B. L. Prajapati, 28, another Murgi Farm local, using the Hindi term for an ascetic. "If this is something that can happen to a sanyasi, how can then the common public be safe?" he adds, alluding to a belief among BJP supporters that charges against her were a Congress party ploy to defame Hinduism.

In 2008, the opposition Congress held federal power. As details of the terror case began to emerge, it was widely referred to as a "Hindu or saffron terror" plot. The charge was even exploited by leaders of the Congress party. This infuriated the BJP and other right-wing organisations, which now use it as a plank to mobilise Hindu support in this city of around two million residents. A quarter of them are Muslims.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, has defended the decision to field Thakur as a symbolic answer to those who "falsely" labelled the Hindu civilisation as "terrorist".

Right-wing Hindus have accused Mr Digvijay Singh, the Congress candidate for Bhopal, of propagating the idea of "Hindu terror". Ensuring Thakur's win has, therefore, become a battle of prestige.

Even the choice of venue from where a roadshow in support of Thakur, featuring BJP president Amit Shah and other senior party leaders, rolled off in Bhopal on Wednesday, accentuated this latent tension that seeks to pit Hindus against others.

BJP campaign posters referred to the spot as "Bhavani Chowk Somvara" - named after the Hindu deity Bhavani, to whom a temple is dedicated there. But officially the place is still known as Peer Gate, named after a Muslim ascetic.

The emphatic endorsement Thakur enjoys from the BJP leadership has widened her support base. "We are supporting those who support her," says Mr Tushar Balwani, 26, a local cosmetics and jewellery shop owner, referring to the Modi-Shah duo. "If they have chosen her, she must be worthy."

The local backing for Thakur is also a sign of how India's parliamentary system of democracy is turning presidential due to Mr Modi's popularity, which transcends the appeal of the party and its local candidate. When Thakur showed up at a packed local industry association meeting on Wednesday, many there were Modi supporters.

"Our vote is for Mr Modi and to ensure he returns to power for a second term," says Mr Madanlal Gurjar, 68, a local industrialist. "The work under his leadership in the last five years is praiseworthy,"

Mr Chandrakant Naidu, a Bhopal-based political commentator, thinks Thakur's selection is a "clear sign" of despair from the BJP. "What is happening in Bhopal is a more shrill manifestation of the wider BJP scheme to polarise Indian society either by riots or some other form of discontent," he adds.

"The party and its leaders are absolutely confident they have constituted their ways among Hindus who believe that Muslims have had more than their share of liberties."

A win by Thakur, many fear, threatens to further queer the right-wing Hindu pitch, unlike the sweet lingering scent of rose left behind from petals thrown at her and crushed under the feet of those at the BJP roadshow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 12, 2019, with the headline 'BJP candidate accused of terror finds support in Bhopal'. Print Edition | Subscribe