By fielding former chief minister Digvijaya Singh from Bhopal, the Congress has forced the BJP to go back to the drawing board to revise its strategy for a seat that it considers one of its safest in Madhya Pradesh. The Congress’s last victory from Bhopal parliamentary seat came way back in 1984. After that, its efforts to wrest the seat from the BJP have failed, including in 1991, when it fielded Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi and his wife Sharmila Tagore campaigned for him.
Singh was not keen on contesting from Bhopal, the state capital where he spent 10 years as CM between 1993 and 2003, but reconciled to the idea after the AICC released his name officially, hours after Chief Minister Kamal Nath had made it public.
While the BJP has publicly boasted that it would be easy to defeat Singh, things have changed since the last Assembly elections when the Congress won three out of eight Assembly segments that make the parliamentary seat. Two of the three Congress legislators are Muslims, a community that has a sizeable presence in Bhopal.
Currently a member of the Rajya Sabha from the state, Singh last contested a direct election in 2003. After the Congress was routed in that election, Singh had announced he would not contest any election for 10 years, a vow he kept. Singh’s term in the Upper House ends in 2020 but he had indicated that he was keen on contesting from Rajgarh, his home turf. He has won Rajgarh twice and the Raghogarh Assembly segment, which is part of the Rajgarh parliamentary seat, thrice. When he won Raghogarh for the third time in 2003, he had defeated Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
After Singh’s wish became public, Nath told reporters that he had requested the senior leader to choose one of the ‘tough seats’ such as Bhopal, Indore or Jabalpur. The party chose Bhopal for him and he has not refused to contest.
Singh had undertaken the 3,300-km Narmada Parikrama, when he circumambulated the river between late 2017 and early 2018. Some had seen the arduous walk as his attempt to shed the anti-Hindu image thrust on him by the BJP while some read in it his intention to return to active politics in his home state.
In the 2008 and 2013 Assembly elections, the Congress had deliberately kept him away from MP because the BJP campaign had harped on the shortcomings during his 10-year rule. Not surprisingly, Chouhan reacted to Singh’s candidature by saying,
“Mr Bantadhar returns’’. Bantadhar, which loosely translates as ruiner, is a pejorative the BJP uses regularly for Singh.
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“Whether Digvijaya Singh contests from Bhopal or anywhere else he will pose no challenge for the BJP,” tweeted Chouhan after Singh’s candidature became public. Interestingly, the BJP is mulling the option of fielding Chouhan against Singh, though Chouhan has often made it clear that he is not keen on contesting the general election. If the party does field Chouhan, this will be a battle to watch out for: two senior leaders contesting against their wishes.
Given Singh’s views on the RSS and Hindtuva politics, the election is likely to be fought on polarising issues.
“Even if Shivraj contests, we will win Bhopal,’’ asserted Nath on Sunday, apparently banking on rural areas, the constituency’s Muslim population and the government’s farm loan waiver.
Sadhvi Pragya Singh, who was once accused of involvement in several acts of terror, including the Malegaon blasts, has volunteered to contest against Singh, whom she calls “anti-religion” and “anti-national”.
Before Singh’s name was announced, the BJP was looking at Bhopal as a seat where it would field an outsider in search of a safe seat. The name of Union minister Narendra Tomar had done the rounds till the BJP announced his candidature from Morena.
Bhopal has a significant population of government employees who had turned against Digvijaya Singh during his second tenure, when he guaranteed reservation in promotion. Incidentally, Chouhan’s comments in 2016 in favour of reservation in government jobs were said to have cost the BJP dearly in the recent elections.