BJP president Amit Shah is technically correct to say that Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, one of the accused in the September 2008 Malegaon (Maharashtra) bomb blast case, who is on bail, has a right, under our liberal electoral laws, to contest the elections. It hardly matters that she voluntarily claimed being part of the Hindutava forces which had pulverised the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 and that an FIR has been registered against her by the Madhya Pradesh police on the orders of the Election Commission.
A galaxy of BJP leaders headed by Lal Krishna Advani, who went on to become deputy prime minister, and Hindutava firebrands Version 1 from the 1990s era — Sadhvi Rithambra, Vinay Katiar, Hari Vishnu Dalmia, et al — were criminally indicted for conspiracy but let off by a CBI special court in 2001. The Allahabad high court upheld the order of acquittal in 2010. But curiously, the Supreme Court directed that the case be revived in April 2017, under the Narendra Modi government.
To be honest, there was little reason, back then, not to indict both Kalyan Singh, the BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and P.V. Narasimha Rao, the Congress Prime Minister. Culpability for dereliction of duty runs deep and inefficiencies in the judicial system help gaming transgressors.
Our laws consequently acknowledge this judicial gap and do not bar a candidate from political office, even though serious criminal charges have been drawn up in court against the person and a trial is under way.
But that does not fully explain why the BJP chose her. After all, Bhopal is not just any other seat. It is the capital of Madhya Pradesh and she has been pitted against Digvijay Singh, a former chief minister of the state and a senior Congress leader.
More to the point, isn’t she out of sync with the BJP government’s soothing signature tune of “Sabka saath, sabka vikas” (with everyone, for everyone)? Does this signal a major change in stance and hitherto is revisionist social policy likely to overshadow the imperative for economic growth?
Pragya Thakur has no qualms about evoking her mystical powers to “damn” (curse) her opponents, demonstrating a conflation between her private well-being and that of all Hindus — a distinction which is necessary in those holding public office. But ascetics and mystics live by the code of “bhakti” — a submersive ecosystem, in which the followers are one with the guru. This leaves no space for the rule of earthly, common law.
Bhakts believe the spiritual power of an ascetic’s curse causes irreparable harm. Such pervasive, blind faith begs the question — should India have lawmakers who exult in evoking their spiritual powers to shield themselves from the law? Given these rough edges, what compelled the Modi-Shah team to field Sadhvi Pragya from Bhopal? Two motivations suggest themselves.
First, electoral strength breeds hubris. Nominating Pragya Thakur sends the message that a new, assertively Hindu India is on its way and those with different views should make way.
Hinduism is resilient because it absorbs and subsumes other beliefs. Think Tamil Nadu 70 years ago. Anti-Brahmanism, rationalism and primacy for Tamil culture and language — versus Hindi — drove the atheist Dravida movement to its peak. Today, with political power firmly with the Tamil middle castes, ritualistic Hinduism is resurgent in Tamil Nadu.
Hinduism facilitates Sanskritisation — a religious version of the Stockholm syndrome, where the marginalised empathise with and seek to emulate their oppressors, thereby perpetuating the status quo.
Even the Congress Party has succumbed. The symbols of ritualistic Hinduism — special prayers at temples and endorsements from Hindu religious leaders — are the norm. This is canny, since Muslims and Christians have nowhere else to go, at the national level — though the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh; Trinamul Congress in West Bengal; Telangana Rashtra Samiti in Hyderabad, the Communists in Kerala and the Aam Admi Party in Delhi offer classically secular, regional alternatives.
An alternative driver behind Pragya Thakur’s nomination could be sheer desperation, in the absence of a Narendra Modi wave, unlike 2014. After all, the party lost Madhya Pradesh along with two other cow belt states to the Congress only a few months ago during the state Assembly elections. Fielding the Sadhvi is sure to rake up Hindu resentment against the Congress for subscribing to a counter narrative of “Hindu terror” around the 2008 bomb blasts. The credibility of our police agencies has sunk so low that in the public’s perception, the “caged parrot” syndrome of ruling party capture, overrides the merits of any police action.
But multiple poll surveys, thus far, do not validate significant electoral loss for the BJP. The most recent endorsement comes from Surjit Bhalla’s new book Citizen Raj: Indian Elections 1952-2019. He forecasts a simple majority of 274 for the BJP on its own. Lord Meghnad Desai, a British peer of Indian origin, also endorses a clear win.
Narendra Modi is no one’s tool. Were he to succeed, his game would be to tame the tiger that he is riding. This is risky. But a more grounded strategy could well emerge, which seeks to rid Hinduism of its caste-based fractures; infuse the religion with modern concepts of universal human rights and worry more about generating income and wealth for all, rather than protecting India from without whilst dividing it from within.
The Modi-Shah duo’s dodgy electoral tactics are not new. Encouraging social divisiveness; kitchen cabinets to bypass government structures; centralisation of authority; a quasi-presidential form of campaigning and the systematic decimation of potential opponents — all these have all been used by other parties in the past. Banyan tree leadership is hardly unique to today’s BJP.
What is new is the blinding speed with which the Modi-Shah team has executed their strategy of building a “New India” — a narrative which promises to change social endowments and norms in ways that have never visualised previously. Status quoists will resist this seismic makeover. Beneficiaries will support it. Make up your mind, dear reader, where you belong....