“How’s the josh?” calls out a middle-aged man, who identifies himself as Madhugiri ‘Modi’ (the suffix added for the Prime Minister), and as the Karnataka president of the ‘Hindu Samrat Dharmsene’. Seated on a raised platform in the middle of Bhopal’s busy New Market, Madhugiri is waiting for Pragya Singh Thakur to arrive for her last meeting of the day.
“High sir, high sir!” respond friends Sunil Kumar Thakur, Shashikant Sharma and Piyush Tripathi, who have also come from Karnataka to lend support to the BJP candidate from Bhopal.
The quartet then break into slogans, among others, of ‘Hindu Dharma Ki Jai’, drawing the attention of bystanders. “We work for Hindutva, not for any party,” insist the four, two of them sporting saffron tees with Pragya Thakur’s face. Posing for selfies with local Bajrang Dal activists, they, at one point, introduce themselves as part of the NaMO (Narendra Modi) brigade. Madhugiri adds he has nearly 200 police cases against him.
Asked whether they were on leave from work, the four say no. “We are on duty of the nation.” So did they first hear about Pragya Thakur after the Malegaon case? They are a little cagey, before saying, “Anyone who is Hindu has heard about her.”
Around 9 pm, Thakur arrives in an Innova and gets into an e-rickshaw for a round of the market’s narrow lanes. Some respond enthusiastically, others look on impassively. Getting down, she goes into a shop to appeal for votes, and then covers a stretch of 300 metres on foot. While one of the grounds for bail for the Malegaon terror accused was that she was ailing, leaving her in no condition to walk, Thakur doesn’t seem to be in any discomfort.
As the clock ticks towards the Election Commission’s campaigning deadline of 10 pm, Thakur is helped on to the raised platform. Sitting BJP Bhopal MP Alok Sanjar tells the crowd that a vote for Thakur would achieve three victories: “Yours, for choosing nationalism; the BJP candidate’s and Modi’s” — a “buy two get one free” scheme.
Thakur begins with a prayer, a ritual at all her rallies. Calling her fight a battle between dharma and adharma, she says, “It’s an eternal truth that dharma always triumphs.” Her Congress rival Digvijaya Singh is an “anachari, papachari, bhrashtachari and deshdrohi (uncivil, sinful, corrupt and a traitor)”, she adds.
Accusing him of coining the term “bhagwa aatankwad (saffron terror)”, she says Digvijaya prefixes names of terrorists with “ji”. About herself, the 49-year-old says as a sanyasi, she owns and earns nothing. “If we start earning, who will live and die for the nation?” she says, as the crowd claps. Wrapping up her speech by praising schemes of the Modi and previous BJP governments, she heads to the Hanuman temple nearby.
Thakur’s elder sister Upma, who has been by her side lately, grumbles about the long day and asks a BJP leader if it’s necessary to show up at a newly inaugurated campaign office at this hour.
Next morning, by 9, the media is already crowded around a bungalow that has been rented for Thakur, who is from Lahar in Bhind. But soon word spreads that the candidate is running late. A new door-frame metal detector, additional security and an entry register are new acquisitions to regulate access to Thakur.
The first to emerge is Upma, referred to as ‘didi’, who squeezes her way out through the waiting media. It’s another 20 minutes before Thakur emerges, taking just one question.
Her first halt is a Hanuman temple, a different one from the night before. Offering prayers from outside, she asks for a flower from inside the temple. One of the two men who are always with her, helping her climb stairs and raised platforms, rushes in, removing his shoes on the run.
At 11.25 am in Fanda, she addresses a group of less than 20 seated in the car. But the people are overwhelmed. “Our saansad (Sanjar) was good. You too will be good,” says a villager. There is a round of selfies with her. At Sehore, where Thakur holds her first meeting for the day, Sanjar says she was “tortured for nine years” in jail. “I salute the BJP leadership for fielding her. I won by 3.71 lakh votes, make her win by five lakh.” He goes on to say Thakur speaks like Goddess Saraswati.
Thakur too talks about her jail time, and again slams Digvijaya. Touching briefly on the locals’ concern about shut factories, she blames Digvijaya for their closure. Leaving in an open vehicle, the 49-year-old next makes a roadside halt at Jamonia Talab, apologising for reaching late. “I have been hearing about her from the day she went to jail,” says Jitendra Tyagi, a villager. As she leaves, the crowd shouts “Modi Modi”.
The temperature is now around 42 degrees, and with the heat keeping crowds small, Thakur touches upon the matter at her meeting in Raipura, underlining her “asceticism”. Hearing her at Mungavali, Thakur’s next stop, a villager named Prakash Sharma says, “Bachcha bhi khada hoga toh jitega (Even a child fielded by the BJP from here would win).”
At a 4 pm meeting in Doraha, a preacher known for her provocative speeches at VHP meetings, Sadhvi Saraswati, joins Thakur on the stage. Briefly talking about triple talaq, Thakur says, “No true Mussalman, Christian or Hindu will go against one’s country.” Taking a break for just over 30 minutes, Thakur again hits the road around 5.45 pm, making her way first to Ahmadpur. Kallu Khan, a villager standing in the crowd, is not sure who she is. “Is Shivraj Singh Chouhan not contesting?” he asks. The BJP is said to have offered Chouhan, the former chief minister of the state, who was popular across communities, the Bhopal ticket, but he refused.
Addressing small gatherings in Charnal and Sultanpura over the next 90 minutes, Thakur admits she has come here for the first time. But, she claims, she had gone to school and college, as well as to jail, in Bhopal. In Padiyala and Bamuliya, she tells people they must have heard of “bhagwa aatankwad”. When that doesn’t resonate, she says “Hindu aatankwad”. When even this doesn’t work, she resorts to talking about Digvijaya.
It’s just half an hour for the 10 pm deadline now, and the organisers have their eye on the watch. Thakur’s last speech for the day, at Shyampur, is rushed. As the organisers pack up, a bystander quips, “Ho gaya sabzi bazaar khatma (The vegetable market has shut)” — likening the commotion to the temporary market in that space during the day.