The traditional Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strongholds of Bhopal and Indore are set to witness tough contests this time around. These constituencies haven’t returned a Congress MP since 1989 but that could change as a resurgent Congress seems determined to wrest the two prestigious seats from the BJP.
Bhopal has been receiving a lot of attention across the country after the BJP fielded Malegaon blast-accused Pragya Singh Thakur against Congress’ two-time Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh. Thakur is still undergoing trial in the case and has terror charges slapped against her. While Digvijaya Singh has been touring the constituency and meeting with community leaders, Pragya Thakur has yet to commence her campaign. Singh has even come up with a vision document for Bhopal in quick time.
Meanwhile, Pragya Thakur has been making news for her controversial statements. Her claim that former Maharashtra ATS chief Hemant Karkare got killed in the line of duty on account of her ‘curse’ attracted widespread derision. Although she withdrew her remarks on Karkare, the damage had been done. The controversial statements didn’t stop at that. An FIR has been filed against her over her comments regarding the Babri Masjid demolition; she had claimed that she was at the site with karsevaks when the Masjid was pulled down. Thakur has also invited the Election Commission’s ire.
With the party now wary of Thakur’s propensity to put her foot in the mouth, a team of Sangh Parivar and the BJP has been asked to accompany her so that there are no more ‘reckless’ comments that could hurt the party’s campaign.
It seems the BJP has been taken by surprise by the Congress’ gamble to field veteran Digvijaya Singh in Bhopal. Such was the impact of the decision that it took nearly 25 days for the BJP to declare its candidate. It remains to be seen if the decision to deploy Pragya Singh Thakur ends up as a self-goal for the BJP. After all, Bhopal is a seat that has been a BJP bastion and where the party claims any BJP candidate could win with a huge margin.
Sushil Chandra Varma, a bureaucrat-turned-politician, first won it for BJP in 1989. He got elected four times in a row. Later, heavyweights Uma Bharti and Kailash Joshi represented Bhopal seat in the Lok Sabha. In 2014, Alok Sanjar contested and retained it for the BJP. Sanjar, a local, who is seen as down-to-earth and accessible, had won by a huge margin in 2014, but wasn’t given the ticket this time.
Congress’ decision to field Digvijaya Singh had turned the tables. Singh, a master strategist with a mass following, may have been dubbed by BJP as ‘Mr Bantadhar’ for the poor roads and bad power situation during his tenure, but has seen his political stocks rise of late. Given his stature, Congress leaders have shunned factionalism to unite behind him.
Singh, a vociferous and consistent critic of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is expected to receive the support of Dalits and certain Other Backward Communities (OBCs), apart from the minorities. The search for a formidable candidate to take on Singh led to Pragya Thakur, who wasn’t even a party member of the BJP until recently. Now, in the light of her controversial statements, even a section of the BJP leaders feel that her comments may not go down well and can hurt the BJP’s prospects. Even among core BJP supporters, there is a section that appears unhappy with her candidature. And this is a cause for worry for the BJP.
However, speaking to the media, Shivraj Singh Chouhan claimed that Pragya Thakur will win by a huge margin from Bhopal. Interestingly, Chouhan was the Chief Minister when Thakur was arrested for the Malegaon blasts and he had been quick to disassociate with her then.
In Indore, after denying ticket to eight-time MP Sumitra Mahajan, the BJP has fielded a lightweight in Shankar Lalwani against Congress’ Pankaj Sanghvi. Lalwani has never won a major election but has been a corporator thrice. He has also served as the chairman of Indore Development Authority (IDA). However, Lalwani is seen as a compromise candidate in the city where the BJP is divided between the Kailash Vijayvargiya and Sumitra Mahajan camps.
Congress’ Pankaj Sanghvi is a seasoned politician and seen as a stronger candidate. After Congress gave Sanghavi the ticket, it took several days for the BJP to announce its candidate. The delay was on account of the opposition to Lalwani’s candidature from local BJP leaders. Party leaders including BJP’s Lok Sabha constituency-in-charge Ramesh Mendola and party’s city chief Gopal Krishna Nema went back to the party with the feedback that he is a weak candidate.
However, Lalwani is seen to have the backing of both Sumitra Mahajan and Chouhan. He is not too well-known in rural areas but the Sindhi community concentrated in Indore city will vote for him. It is assumed that Lalwani’s candidature will assuage members of the Sindhi community upset over the snub to party veteran LK Advani.
On the other hand, Pankaj Sanghvi commands the support of the Jain community and the trading community. Sanghvi had contested unsuccessfully against Sumitra Mahajan in 1998 from the same constituency. He lost the city’s Mayoral election by a whisker in 2009 but the political climate in the state is very different in 2019. The BJP will find the going very tough in its strongholds of Bhopal and Indore.