India election: Concerns over BJP choice for Bhopal seat

Sadhvi Pragya Thakur giving an address in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh state, on Tuesday. Those who follow politics in the Indian state say the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's choice of Ms Thakur in Bhopal has not gone down well with some in the local part
Sadhvi Pragya Thakur giving an address in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh state, on Tuesday. Those who follow politics in the Indian state say the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's choice of Ms Thakur in Bhopal has not gone down well with some in the local party chapter.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Fielding ascetic linked to 2008 blast is meant to woo Hindus, but it may backfire: Experts

Sadhvi Pragya Thakur entered the fray just a week ago.

Yet the short-haired Hindu ascetic, who dons saffron robes and Hindu prayer beads, is already the most divisive figure in the ongoing general election to choose India's next federal government, essentially a contest between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the main opposition Congress party, as well as a host of regional parties.

The title of Sadhvi, which means "virtuous woman", is given to those who follow a spiritual life, and the BJP's decision to field Ms Thakur as its candidate in Bhopal, capital of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, has proved to be tricky.

Ms Thakur, a history postgraduate who joined the BJP on April 17, is currently out on bail in connection with a bomb blast that some described as India's first instance of Hindu terror.

Analysts say her candidacy could be counterproductive for the BJP.

She came to public attention in late 2008 after being arrested for a bomb blast that took place in September that year in Malegaon, a Muslim-majority town in Maharashtra state. Six people were killed and over a hundred injured.

A defining image of the case was of her in saffron robes being led away by half a dozen khaki-clad police officers. A court later found that there was enough reason to charge her, even though the National Investigation Agency had concluded otherwise in 2016.

 
 

Ms Thakur, who is in her late 40s, has been charged with murder, carrying out a terror act and promoting communal tension.

Some analysts believe the BJP's decision to field her is aimed at consolidating Hindu votes, but that it has the potential to backfire.

"They are trying to consolidate the Hindu vote. But this won't bring people to their side. Their supporters are already with them. Fence sitters could be pushed to the other side," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and pro-vice-chancellor of Jain University. "It could be counterproductive in the long run."

The BJP won in the previous general election in 2014 by a landslide, bagging 282 of the 543 seats at stake in the Lok Sabha, or Lower House of Parliament. A handful of opinion polls have given the BJP the edge in this general election, although repeating a landslide would be tough.

The BJP is depending on heartland states such as Madhya Pradesh for a resounding win, but it has had to work hard to woo voters. Last December, voters in Madhya Pradesh expressed their displeasure with the ruling party by booting it out as the state government after 13 years. Congress now rules the state.

Those who follow politics in Madhya Pradesh say the BJP's choice of Ms Thakur in Bhopal, where she is pitted against veteran Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, has not gone down well with some in the local party chapter.

They do not quite know what to make of her, while she is reported to be having trouble putting together a team for the polls.

"It is going to be definitely counterproductive. Hardcore BJP supporters are not happy with her candidacy. First, she is a rank outsider and she is not familiar with the party organisation in Bhopal. Her candidacy has just been announced while Digvijaya Singh has been campaigning for four weeks," said Bhopal-based political analyst and journalist Rakesh Dixit.

The BJP is working on multiple themes in the general election, including banking on the popularity of Mr Modi. But reaching out to Hindu voters remains a core part of its strategy.

"A Hindu can never be a terrorist. They have fabricated a false case to frame her," BJP president Amit Shah, referring to Ms Thakur, was quoted as saying at a rally in Madhya Pradesh.

 
 

But opposition to her candidacy is mounting, with family members of those killed in the Malegaon blast, along with social activists, retired judges and police officials from Maharashtra, deciding to campaign against her in Bhopal. Voters in the city will go to the polls on May 12.

"She is among people who create an atmosphere of hatred. It is not right that she may enter Parliament. We will tell voters to not vote for her, explain what she has done and the charges against her," said social activist Anjum Imandar.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2019, with the headline 'Concerns over BJP choice for Bhopal seat'. Print Edition | Subscribe