Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, 48, accused of murder, conspiracy and more in the bomb blasts in Malegaon in 2008, is the BJP's choice to run against Digvijaya Singh of the Congress in Bhopal.
After spending nine years in jail, Thakur was granted bail in 2017. Her candidature is a definitive moment for several reasons. In my opinion, this is what differentiates the BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah from all other political parties in India. No other party has grown so toxic as to field a terror accused as its candidate.
The belligerent explanation from Amit Shah, the BJP president, for choosing Thakur, is that it will punish the Congress for raising the bogey of "Hindu terror". This unapologetic in-your-face statement explicitly rejects the probe by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the court trying her.
It also sees the BJP giving a clinical burial to the plank of "sab ka saath, sab ka vikas" (development for everyone) to solely push hard Hindutva and polarization for the remaining six phases of voting (including today).
Thakur, pushing that line, has called the contest a "dharma yudh" and accused Digvijaya Singh of equating saffron with terrorism. Singh, so far, has been extremely circumspect, refusing to comment and beyond saying that he "welcomed Thakur to Bhopal".
Singh 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.
Singh versus Thakur in Bhopal will be the most polarised battle of 2019.
The BJP has mainstreamed new-age Hindutva warriors during Modi's tenure including extremist monk-turned-Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, and now, Thakur, while exiling into retirement the original Hindutva hardliners, party founders L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi.
Note that the "fringe" which was where Adityanath and others were once placed is now the core of the BJP; he has been banned from campaigning for 72 hours by the Election Commission for remarks that violate the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) and were designed to provoke communal feelings.
Pragaya's candidature in the BJP citadel of Bhopal, a seat it has held for 30 years, came a month after Singh said he has accepted the challenge to fight a "tough seat".
Shah had earlier asked former Chief Ministers Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Uma Bharti to contest from Bhopal. Both had refused.
The suggestion to field Thakur came from the RSS - the mothership of the Sangh. It was quickly embraced by Modi and Shah, specially as the first round of voting in western UP for eight seats, saw the anti-BJP Maha-Gatbandhan of Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati and Ajit Singh perform well, according to reports.
Vidarbha voted in the first round on April 11 and is also voting today. In 2014, the BJP had scored 10 out of 10. This time around, the first round of polling had not been particularly good for the party according to BJP in-house surveys.
The message from Nagpur, the RSS headquarters, was that development and national security are not cutting it as selling points. The Ram Temple "mudda" (issue) which the BJP had a brief dalliance with before abandoning it for the Balakot air strikes had failed to enthuse the committed BJP voter so it was time to ratchet up the Hindutva messaging specially as the Balakot bounce for Modi seemed to quickly fade.
The Congress has been taken by surprise. A senior leader told me, "We will fight Thakur on the ground but we will not give the BJP the sound bytes 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 hashtag. According to these guys terror has no religion when it comes to saffron fanatics but, otherwise all Muslims are terrorists. Guilty until proven innocent."
Imagine the anger if I'd field a terror accused. Channels would've gone berserk by now trending a mehboobaterrorist hashtag! According to these guys terror has no religion when it comes to saffron fanatics but otherwise all Muslims are terrorists. Guilty until proven innocent https://t.co/ymTumxgty7— Mehbooba Mufti (@MehboobaMufti) April 17, 2019
But Thakur's choice aims at corralling the committed BJP voter and trying to win back the disillusioned faithful. It will also ensure that the RSS, which is the real boots-on-the-ground advantage for the BJP, works on overdrive to secure a victory.
Crossing the red line and sending a terror accused to parliament as a law-maker is irrelevant to Modi and Shah, who are desperate to win 2019.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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