No, by no means do I intend to defend the candidature of Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, accused of murder, conspiracy and more in the bomb blasts in Malegaon in 2008. She is the BJP’s nominee against Digvijaya Singh of the Congress in Bhopal Lok Sabha Constituency. However, I do believe that she should not be prevented from seeking people’s mandate just because she has been charge-sheeted and is being tried in the court of law.

She should be considered innocent until she is pronounced guilty by the judiciary. The issue that needs to be discussed is not whether she is qualified to contest or not, but whether the BJP should have fielded such a tainted person as a party nominee, who may one become a lawmaker. After spending nine years in jail, Thakur was granted bail in 2017.

Her candidature is a defining moment for several reasons. In my opinion, this is what distinguishes the BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah from all other political parties. No other party is so toxic as to field a terror accused as its candidate. The explanation from Amit Shah, the BJP president, for choosing Thakur, is that it will serve to punish the Congress for raising the bogey of “Hindu terror”.

This unapologetic statement explicitly rejects the probe by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the court which is trying her. It also suggests the BJP is giving a clinical burial to the plank of “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas” to push a hard Hindutva line and achieve polarization in the remaining phases of voting.

A ‘Dharma Yudh’
Pushing that line further, Thakur described the contest as a “Dharma Yudh” and accused Digvijaya Singh of equating saffron with terrorism. Digvijaya, so far, has been extremely circumspect, refusing to comment and beyond saying that he “welcomed Thakur to Bhopal”.

Digvijaya had earlier been extremely vocal on “saffron terror”, questioning even the UPA government, which was led by the Congress, on the Batla House encounter in Delhi in 2008 which saw the police killing Muslim terrorist suspects. The BJP, on the other hand, has mainstreamed new-age Hindutva warriors during Modi’s tenure, including priest-turned-Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath and, now, Pragya Thakur.

Note that the “fringe” — which once represented Adityanath and others — is now the core of the BJP; incidentally, Adityanath was recently barred from campaigning for 72 hours by the Election Commission for remarks that violate the Model Code of Conduct and were designed to provoke communal feelings. Thakur’s candidature in the BJP citadel of Bhopal, a seat it has held for 30 years, came a month after Digvijaya said he has accepted the challenge to fight from a ‘tough seat’ .

The suggestion to field Thakur came from the RSS. It was quickly embraced by Modi and Shah, especially as the first round of voting in western UP for eight seats saw the anti-BJP Mahagathbandhan of Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati and Ajit Singh perform well.

The message from Nagpur, the RSS headquarters, was that development and national security are not cutting ice as selling points. The Ram Temple issue, which the BJP had a brief alliance with before abandoning it for the Balakot air strike, had failed to enthuse the committed BJP voter; so, it was time to ratchet up the Hindutva message.

Sound bites for BJP
The Congress has been taken by surprise. A senior leader said, “We will fight Thakur on the ground but we will not give the BJP the sound bites they are desperate for. It is a trap for us and we will not help them escalate polarisation.” Mehbooba Mufti, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in a coalition government with the BJP, tweeted, “Imagine the anger if I had fielded a terror accused. Channels would have gone berserk trending a mehboobaterrorist hash-tag. According to these guys terror has no religion when it comes to saffron fanatics, but otherwise all Muslims are terrorists. Guilty until proven innocent.”

The question that still is crying for an answer is whether the BJP, the world’s largest political outfit by their own declaration, did not find any other candidate to take on Digvijaya in Bhopal, the traditional stronghold of the party, except Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur? The answer would shape up the nature of the contest in the remaining five rounds. Let’s wait and watch.

—Bharat Kumar Raut is a political analyst and former Member of Parliament (RS)