But Pragya Thakur’s case doesn’t fall into the same playful category as that of Rajesh Khanna, Govinda and Poonam Sinha.
The BJP has become a force to reckon with in Indian politics, and its leaders feel they can indulge in calculated improprieties and get away too. One of the temptations of the right-wing Hindutva party is to thumb its nose at genteel liberals on the one hand, and on the other challenge other parties, from the Hindi heartland’s socialist parties, regional parties elsewhere and the Communist parties, that if they can field candidates with questionable reputations, so can the saffron party. The fielding of Pragya Thakur, who was inducted into the BJP overnight and given a party ticket from the prestigious Bhopal Lok Sabha seat, is calculated to ruffle feathers. And of course there is the Digvijay Singh factor. The Congress candidate in Bhopal, a practicing Hindu, has needled saffronites for decades. He is neither a secular atheist nor a secular agnostic. He is a typical example of that ideological oxymoron — the religious Hindu who is also secular. It cannot get more maddening and provocative. Mr Singh has literally driven the BJP to find an extreme figure who would match his strident ideological posture. The ochre-robed political Hindutva propagandist has turned out to be an ideal match for Mr Singh.
In contrast, a parallel ceremony of innocence was being played out in the neighbouring capital of Lucknow, where Poonam Sinha, actress and wife of Shatrughan Sinha, joined the Samajwadi Party and was straightaway given the Lucknow Lok Sabha ticket to fight the BJP’s candidate, Union home minister Rajnath Singh. It seemed the SP was quite aware that it does not have a strong enough political heavyweight to challenge the senior BJP leader, and that it would be better to field someone who would evoke surprise and interest, if nothing else. There was no cynicism in this as there is in the choice of Pragya Thakur in Bhopal. The BJP indulged in something of this kind of empty dramatic gesture when it fielded Smriti Irani, then a television actress, against Congress’ Kapil Sibal in Chandni Chowk in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. That streak of innocence continued when the party fielded her against Rahul Gandhi in Amethi in 2014. Of course, in 2019, it has turned into a heated, even malicious, political battle between Ms Irani and Mr Gandhi in Amethi.
It is a gamble political parties are willing to take as they know they cannot field candidates in every constituency who would stand up to the stature of their chief opponent. And sometimes, the gamble even pays off. The party that tried this trick in the first place was the ever-cunning Congress, when it fielded Rajesh Khanna against Lal Krishna Advani in the 1991 Lok Sabha polls for the New Delhi constituency, when Mr Advani won by a whisker of 1,500 votes-plus. Similarly, in 2004, actor and political greenhorn Govinda defeated seasoned BJP leader Ram Naik in the North Mumbai constituency.
But Pragya Thakur’s case doesn’t fall into the same playful category as that of Rajesh Khanna, Govinda and Poonam Sinha. There is a cynical intent here, and it comes at the cost of tarnishing the image of the BJP, though many BJP leaders in the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah era might believe it is legitimate policy. The complication for the BJP in the case of the ocher-robed Ms Thakur comes from the fact that she is an accused in a terrorism case. Had a Muslim accused in a terror case been fielded by any party, the BJP would have gone to town that the secular parties were hands-in-glove with Muslim terrorists. In fielding Ms Thakur, the BJP wants to score the polemical point that there’s no such thing called “saffron terror”. It is a difficult point to sustain because the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and other Hindutva affiliates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal) believe in resorting to violence against other religious groups, especially Muslims and Christians, on the fallacious base that Muslims and Christians are trying to convert Hindus to their faith and therefore pose a danger to Hindus. This is the bare-knuckle ideological point. The Hindutva organisations tacitly believe that resort to violence and terror is justified in certain circumstances. They would not have Mahatma Gandhi’s moral courage of denouncing violence in all circumstances. The Hindutva folk then fall into the pit they dig for others when they unconsciously believe that terrorism is justified when they use it to protect their own faith.
Ms Thakur is just an accused so far, and it could be the case the court would acquit her, either because the prosecution fails to prove its case or the court decides, based on evidence, that Ms Thakur was not involved in the bomb blast in Malegaon. The BJP and other Hindutva organisations fail to recognise that even if Ms Thakur is acquitted, the tag of “saffron terror” is unlikely to vanish as they subscribe to violence in principle.
The Hindutva ideologues also do not have the cunning sophistication to argue that the use of violence against the enemy is the prerogative of the State, and not that of the individual. So the BJP’s knee-jerk reaction to Digvijay Singh’s “saffron terror” label remains unconvincing and ineffective. The unstated reason the BJP fielded Ms Thakur is that it did not have good enough leaders in the party in Madhya Pradesh to field in major constituencies like Bhopal and Guna. In the same way as the SP did not find a matching political leader from its ranks to field against Rajnath Singh, the BJP was at a loss about fielding a credible candidate from the party ranks to stand against Digvijay Singh. The decision to field Ms Thakur is not a smart one as the party leaders may want to believe. The BJP veers off from the political track and it doesn’t know what to do with the hotheads it has inducted into its own ranks. The party is also aware that people will not accept its Hindutva tantrums, and if it wants to attain political legitimacy it has to spurn its own variant of ideological frenzy. Ms Thakur doesn’t pose any challenge to India’s polity, but her presence threatens the BJP from inside. It must restrain its inner demons if it wants to govern the country. The joke then is on the BJP.