Sadhvi Pragya, she of the saffron robes and tranquil mien, serves multiple purposes for the BJP: she is the militant and martyred face of Hindutva, underscores the party’s stand that national security is under threat and poses a formidable challenge to a Congress leader abhorred by the Sangh Parivar.
The BJP clearly sees poetic justice in fielding the Sadhvi against former chief minister Digvijaya Singh in the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat. If she was dubbed the ‘Hindu terror’ prototype, he was the prime mover behind the Congress’ campaign against it.
Pragya Thakur evokes memories of another sadhvi, Uma Bharti, who led the BJP to a slam-dunk victory over 'Diggy' in 2003. Like Bharti, she was a parkati (bob-cut), motorcycle-borne firebrand in her youth and evolved into a saffron-clad, Ramayana-spouting political activist.
A woman and relatively young, she represents the hard-right Gen Next in the Sangh Parivar. Having trained youngsters in the use of arms in the Durga Vahini, “for self-protection and protection of society”, she is precisely the kind of militant sanyasin acceptable in a basically patriarchal set-up.
Bhopal is usually a walkover for the BJP, which has held it for eight consecutive terms, since 1989. This is remarkable, because it is not a pocket borough. Four different MPs have represented the seat in the last 30 years and yet, the margins of victory have consistently been massive, the least being 65,000 in 2009. Even the city's very own celebrity Nawab, Mansur Ali Khan, lost by over one lakh votes in 1991. This, despite a 27 per cent minority vote share, which traditionally goes to the Congress.
Hoping to break the BJP's stranglehold over the city, the Congress has fielded 'Diggy Raja', who emerges from self-imposed political sanyas with nothing to lose and everything to gain. He enjoys the advantage of being a former CM with a long and successful political career behind him, not to mention his royal lineage.
His Hindu credentials are beyond doubt; he carries a portable mandir, leaves no temple unvisited and is a disciple of Dwarka Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopananda. He prays for half an hour a day, has nine temples in his palace and observes a fast on auspicious days. Firmly grounded in his own religiosity, he launches virulent attacks on the RSS.
Sadhvi Pragya, by contrast, is a rookie and four decades younger than her rival. Just 31 years of age, she has spent nine of them behind bars. She also carries the burden of heinous charges in the 2008 Malegaon bomb blasts, which claimed six lives.
Despite her youth, she is an accomplished orator, breaking into chants from time to time. She has the electoral spiel down pat, projecting herself as a sanyasi beyond caste, community and temporal concerns.
In TV appearances, she has presented herself as the victim of a malignant conspiracy, illegally detained and subjected to relentless torture in order to extract a forced confession. The deadpan manner in which she recounts spine-chilling brutalities by her captors is highly effective; tears and histrionics would not been as impressive. The level of detail adds depth to her story.
By owning and projecting Sadhvi Pragya, the BJP has given its campaign a deeper shade of Hindutva. The hope is further polarisation and caste consolidation. The BJP lost traction among upper castes in the 2018 assembly elections, perhaps owing to its OBC focus. In 2014, the Congress had lost 31 per cent of OBC votes to the BJP, as compared to 2009 — a vote bank that Chief Minister Kamal Nath tried to dent with an abortive effort to double the OBC quota in the state, from 14 to 27 per cent.
Lost votes must be regained and so, Sadhvi Pragya embarks on her 'dharam yudhh', armoured in saffron, rudraksh and crystals and holding aloft the standard of nationalism.
(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)