Digvijay Singh has political experience in his favour, while Sadhvi Pragya is a symbol of Hindutva and has the support of Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
The average Bhopali is very clear in his views on who he or she should support, but predictability is not the hallmark of this contest.
In Bhopal, the experience of Digvijay Singh matters for some, while for others, their experience with Digvijay Singh matters.
Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a new face in politics, is touching the sympathetic nerves of some but will she be able to convince Bhopal at large to vote for her? And yet another face which emerges in this contest of two as a deciding factor is that of former MP chief minister and BJP strongman Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
Bhopal, a stronghold of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), gave two shocks to the party in the last Assembly elections in the form of Bhopal Dakshin-Paschim and Bhopal Madhya. Moreover, the declaration of Digvijay Singh, who is known to be a sharp and diplomatic politician, as the Congress candidate from Bhopal, has galvanised the BJP to put up a solid counter. The incumbent MP, Alok Sanjar, was not given the ticket due to his ‘not-so-effective’ work in Bhopal; but, choosing another candidate in his place was not easy for the party and hence the delay in the announcement of Sadhvi Pragya’s name.
Sadhvi Pragya As Candidate
The declaration of Sadhvi Pragya’s candidature was followed by many controversies, but not all Bhopalis react in the same manner to her name as was shown in sections of the mainstream media. This is borne out by the magnitude of public participation in the rallies of the Sadhvi.
Many people in Bhopal are aware of her struggles in jail. Ravi Sharma, an elderly man from Semra Dangi village of Sehore, who claims to know everything about Sadhvi’s nine-year-torture in jail, is sympathetic towards her. He says, “It is not in the power of a common man to bear what Sadhvi tolerated.”
Dulari Sharma from Ratibad village of Huzur Assembly constituency says, “We can’t elect a government who can damage the backbone of an innocent woman.”
When questioned about Sadhvi Pragya’s experience in politics, Shankarlal Kushwaha from Bhopal Uttar expresses his confidence in Sadhvi, saying, “She will learn soon.” A young man, he is preparing for a government job in Halalpura, calls himself a “dharmrakshi” and displays his support for Sadhvi.
Many voters, like the villagers of Ratibad, believe that the charges against her were false. They say she has been acquitted by the court and hence they have no issues with her contesting the elections.
But as is always the case in India, the opposite of anything is true too. One person that this correspondent talked to in Koh-e-Fiza area believes Sadhvi Pragya to be a ‘terrorist’. He supports Digvijay Singh saying, “At least he is not a criminal”.
Some people find statements by her to be embarrassing. A fruit vendor near Iqbal Maidan in Bhopal Uttar says, “Bhopal is a city of tehzeeb. At least, Congress maintains that. Digvijay Singh maintains decorum in his statements. But statements by Sadhvi are heartbreaking.” He claims to have voted for Modi in 2014 but will not do so this time. A Muslim voter in Govindpura felt offended by Sadhvi Pragya’s comment of “Babri Masjid humne todi hai.” and is going to vote for Digvijay.
The Sadhvi, however, seems to lag behind Singh in terms of political experience. A considerable number of people this reporter spoke to pointed out that she didn’t have a political background. RS Yadav from Malviya Nagar even believes that sadhus-sanyasis should not enter politics. “If they enter, the condition worsens like what happened in Uttar Pradesh under the Yogi government”. On the other hand, people in Huzur constituency perceive this contest as a war between Dharma and Adharma.
Song Sharma of Ratibad village believes that the “Hindutva factor” will definitely attract votes for the BJP. People of this village respect Sadhvi for stating her views on various issues clearly, “unlike the unclear stand of Congress on Hindutva,” they say.
However, there are still others who maintain that they don’t know much about Sadhvi, but would vote for Modi.
Digvijay Singh’s Experience or Memory of his Tenure?
Sehore has sour memories related to Digvijay’s tenure as Chief Minister. A sugar mill was shut down in the area which resulted in unemployment of thousands of youth, affecting around 50 villages nearby. Mungawali village in the area that this correspondent visited, also holds a grudge against Singh. The villagers are in no mood to trust Singh again. Similar was the scene in other villages of Sehore like Semra Dangi.
In Dhamarra village of Berasia Assembly constituency, Roop Singh Kushwaha expressed his anger over Singh for reportedly saying, “The word Hindutva is not in my dictionary.” Kushwaha believes India is a “Hindu Rashtra” and such statements by Singh are in no way getting him Hindu votes. Similar opinions were displayed in Ratibad. Ksheersagar Sharma from the village criticises Singh for creating the “Hindu terror” bogey.
Two Muslim families, one at upper lake and other at Jinsi Square, are going to vote for Congress but don’t like Singh either. However, there are Congress supporters who have faith in Digvijay Singh. The most important point which goes in Singh’s favour is his experience in politics. A chunk of Congress supporters believe that Singh can use his experience for their development. A voter in Berasia Mandi finds Singh to be a "local" while Sadhvi an "outsider". Some defend the low development rate of the state under Singh’s tenure stating that the BJP was in the centre that time and didn’t sanction much funds for the state.
The Third Face, Shivraj Singh Chouhan
Shivraj’s popularity has not been affected even to the slightest by his defeat last year. Instead, it can be said that in many respects it has increased. His Bhawantar Yojana has impressed a lot of people and benefited many farmers. However, villagers have claimed that this scheme has been made ineffective after the Kamal Nath government came to power. A farmer from Mungawali of Sehore told Swarajya that under the Shivraj government, they used to get payment for their crop within 24 hours, but now, “it has been 15 days since we sold wheat, but no payment has been received yet”.
Similar was the opinion of Ajay Sen from Semra Dangi village. He said during natural disasters, if crops were harmed, Shivraj used to give compensation to farmers, but this time, when frost affected crops during winter, no such announcement was made. Amar Singh from Dhamarra village told Swarajya that compensations given to farmers by the Shivraj government were much better than the “false promise of loan waivers”. Banwari Sharma from Ratibad also misses his bonus on wheat that he used to receive under the Shivraj government.
In Bhopal, you may find many Modi haters, but to find a Shivraj hater will be a difficult task. Sanu Ahmed from old Bhopal, who is going to vote for Congress, believes that whatever votes BJP gains, the credit for it goes to Shivraj. Another Muslim man from Bhopal Madhya does not like Modi and Yogi for their “Hindutva agenda” but praises Shivraj stating, “There is no leader like him in BJP.” A shopkeeper from MP Nagar Zone 2 said, “Shivraj ne Bhopal ko chaman kar diya,” praising the former chief minister.
Shivraj campaigning for Sadhvi Pragya is going to be a boost for the latter. He is bringing a sense of trust to this unfamiliar face. Shivraj is believed to be a man of his word, and his statements supporting Sadhvi are touching a nerve amongst Bhopalis.
Rural Bhopal More Saffronised Than Urban Areas
Of the eight Assembly constituencies coming under the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat, three are rural: Sehore, Berasia and Huzur. These have been a stronghold of the BJP. Good roads and regular power supply are the major reasons why voters in these segments say they support the BJP. The Modi government has further strengthened its support here with three specific schemes: Ujjwala Yojana, Awaas Yojana (PMAY) and Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan.
In Mungawali village, 66 houses have been allotted under PMAY, out of which 12 have been built. In Gunga village of Sehore, 300 houses have been allotted under PMAY. Bala Prasad, who lives in a pucca house built under PMAY is also a beneficiary of Nal Jal Yojana. In Dhamrra village, 250 houses have been allotted under PMAY and 400 toilets have already been constructed, Khajra Singh Kushwaha informed us. Similarly, in Ratibad, 45 houses have been allotted under PMAY.
Besides these benefits, another factor that is motivating villagers to vote for the BJP, is their belief that the party works in national interest. People know about the Balakot air strikes and praise the Modi government for its foreign policy.
There were, however, a few who expressed their discontent with the government for not being able to solve the local water crisis. Mungawali has been trying hard to deepen its village pond, but the requests of the locals have gone unheard thus far. Similar was the case in Dhamarra, where Shyamlal Ahirwar says he is going to vote for Congress, as “BJP didn’t construct the Kalara dam which could have solved the water crisis, only because the party MLA’s land would have been lost in the construction process.”
Urban areas had mixed reactions to the Modi government, especially with respect to GST and demonetisation. Many claimed to have witnessed a slump in the market while some praised these steps. Rohit Sharma of Malviya Nagar was happy as he saw demonetisation to be a proverbial hammer on the black market. Similar was the reaction from a businessman in MP Nagar Zone 1. For him, opportunities have opened up due to GST as it made the market open up while demonetisation, as per his assessment, was like a “sacrifice for the nation”. Many, however, find Congress to be a better government for the poor in urban centres.
Muslim vote with Congress
Bhopal consists of around 4 lakh Muslim votes. The Muslims to whom this correspondent talked to, believed that they had faced discrimination under the Modi government. However, when asked about specific incidents of discrimination, they were unable to quote any. Some also believed that there is a scarcity of government jobs under the Modi government.
Asif from old Bhopal claimed to have voted for Modi in 2014 but isn’t going to do so in 2019 because he feels that the government failed to address the issues of middle-class families. He says the promises of bringing back black money and increasing employment have not been fulfilled. Shera Bhai, who deals in spare automobile parts, finds the Congress to be a reliable party in government. He also defends the poor performance of Digivijay’s last term, accusing the then BJP government at the centre for allotting low funds.
Sanu Ahmed is upset with GST and demonetisation, and is thus going to vote for the Congress. He claims to have faced “loss” due to these schemes. Congress supporters, like Ahmed, are also hoping that the party will bring in employment. Some men in Koh-e-Fiza find that their lives are more “peaceful” under Congress rule.
A battery seller named Faizal in Govindpura claims to have faced losses due to GST and finds sale-purchase will gain ground under Congress rule. He also wishes to see Rahul Gandhi as Prime Minister. Another man in the area feels that Congress treats all communities equally. A man on Jinsi Square in his forties finds Congress to be the only party which can work for the upliftment of the Muslim community. A woman Swarajya met at the Jahangirabad bus stop said that she will vote for Congress and trusts Digvijay. The BJP’s stand on triple talaq did not seem to have had any impact on her.
Anti-incumbency for Kamal Nath?
While most of the people that this correspondent talked to think a five-month span is too soon to comment on the workings of any government, there was a chunk of people who spoke out against the Congress regime. Among them was Shankar Lal Kushwaha, who says he voted for Congress in 2018 but was now determined to vote for the BJP. There is also discontent among people about frequent and unannounced power cuts too.
The Congress’ promise of loan waiver within 10 days remains unfulfilled. Though many have received certificates regarding the amount that will be waived, no transaction has been made yet. Also, there are others who have neither received any certificate, nor have their names been included in any list. Takhat Singh of Gunga village warns the Kamal Nath government saying, “If there is any discrepancy in the loan waiver, it will take no time for MP to become Congress-mukt.” Farmers in Berasia Mandi are dissatisfied with the amount received for soyabean in four installments.
Bhopal Madhya voters who unexpectedly chose a Congress MLA this time also expressed discontent. A fruit seller told Swarajya that their MLA never came to visit them after winning the seat.
Apart from this, the Congress manifesto also doesn’t seem to have impressed people in the area. Many feel that the promise of 72,000 rupees income transfer will make people incompetent. People in Ratibad village also showed their dissatisfaction with the Congress proposal of curtailing the special powers of the army and the sedition law.
The election in Bhopal is likely to be a tough contest and both candidates have heft behind them. What makes the elections here more interesting is the fact that local issues matter as much as national issues. The driving factors here are so contradictory that there are less chances of a voter getting confused. People will go out to vote with clear opinions and only 23 May will tell you which side was stronger.