BHOPAL: The Bhopal Lok Sabha seat is under unprecedented national attention for the past few days as the debate between "soft Hinduism" versus "communal Hindutva" plays out in the electoral contest.
Many political observers believe former Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh, who is the Congress candidate, was the prime reason for the Bharatiya Janata Party's ascent and record 15-year rule in Madhya Pradesh. Uma Bharti led the BJP to power in 2003 ending his decade-long reign, when he had remained in the news for his snide remarks against BJP's brand of Hinduism and for the defence of everything Islamic, thereby giving the Hindutva forces appreciable traction.
Paradoxically, Digvijaya Singh is also a typical conservative Hindu who goes temple-hopping, frequently performs tantric pujas and undertakes pilgrimages. He effectively countered the Narmada Yatra of then Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan by footing out the distance of 3,300 km along the banks of the sacred river. His wife Amrita joined him to reap considerable political mileage.
But for Digvijaya Singh, the trip offered more religious fulfilment than political drive.
Madhya Pradesh also was in the news when Congress President Rahul Gandhi called himself a "Shiv Bhakt" and went visiting various temples in the state including the famed Mahakaleshwar in Ujjain. His party defended his moves, reminding the people that Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi had also made similar visits to temples.
In another poignant reminder, the party members underscored the Hinduism of Rahul Gandhi when he performed last rites of his father in conservative Hindu tradition.
Surprisingly, the issue remained undecided despite long arguments.
Digvijaya Singh has, in several interactions with media, clarified that as a conservative Hindu, he believes in cow puja, drinking of cow urine and other such rituals. His only clash with the forces of Hindutva is over using the religion to run down other beliefs or seeking political ascendance through movements like Ramjanmabhoomi agitation.
"The temple was never there on their agenda. They only counted the votes the movement could fetch," he once said.
Fielding Digvijaya Singh was part of Congress plan to get intra-party equations right in the state right as well as to consolidate gains from the assembly elections. Digvijaya Singh gamely accepted the challenge despite his preference for the Rajgarh seat near home town Raghogarh.
He plunged headlong into the contest campaigning diligently for almost a month before the BJP sprang a surprise by picking terror-accused Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur to face him.
All eyes turned towards Bhopal after the party admitted her at the instance of the RSS and sidelined the likes of former Chief Ministers Uma Bharti, Chouhan, Babulal Gaur and Union Minister Narendra Singh Tomar to nominate her.
The message was loud and clear. Though the visible face was that of BJP, it was the RSS that had shed all pretensions of being a cultural (or cultured) organisation to jump into the fray, polarising the electorate communally.
With no political merit to boast of, the Sadhvi did what she knew best--- spew venom. She became a national phenomenon by announcing that the national hero of anti-terrorist operations in 26/11 Mumbai attack, Hemant Karkare - who was in charge of investigations in the 2008 Malegaon blast where she was the prime accused - faced the violent death because of her curse.
Thakur hogged more limelight by claiming that she was proud of being part of the gang that pulled down the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. Now more than being a candidate in a key electoral contest, she is an issue in herself.
Several infringements incurred an FIR and many warnings. After strong protests from the Congress and others, the Election Commission imposed a three-day ban on her campaigning.
The RSS saw its plan working while the BJP had to guard her against falling foul of election laws and getting disqualified. A subdued Sadhvi didn't suit the Congress. It was happy that senior leaders like Nirmala Sitharaman and Uma Bharti submitted a letter to the Election Commission on her behalf, seeking pardon and pleading for the ban to be lifted within a day. Though the ban was not lifted, Thakur again started campaigning.
The party backed up by insulating her from the media while the RSS machinery kept playing up her "victimisation". Interviews were a no, no, with questionnaires having to be handed to the party leaders who get them answered.
Senior leaders like Vinay Sahasrabuddhe and Prabhat Jha have ensured that she says only what the party wants her to say. It is anybody's guess as to how the Sadhvi would (if elected) represent a constituency that reflects political, social and economic aspirations of over two million voters in the Lok Sabha.
And as the state capital, it represents the concerns of the nearly 7.5 crore people. Hindutva, as a ploy, may please the RSS but it affects the BJP's performance.