With Sadhvi Pragya, Is The Fringe No Longer The Fringe?
Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, an accused in the Malegaon blast and the face of ‘saffron terror’, has been picked by the BJP as their candidate from the Bhopal parliamentary constituency. A controversial figure, does her nomination mean that radical elements of the party are now at the forefront? This article also carries a podcast with historian Aditya Mukherji.
With two phases of the general election coming to a close, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) played its cards and nominated Sadhvi Pragya Thakur as a candidate from the Bhopal parliamentary constituency. It would be an understatement to say Thakur is a controversial figure. She is an accused in the Malegaon blast case and is still on trial. She is currently out on bail. Since her nomination, she has already caused a ton of controversy with her comments. However, in the din, a fact has slipped into the background, that the so-called right-wing fringe may not be on the fringe anymore.
On April 18th, after her candidature was declared, Thakur told a gathering that former Mumbai Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) chief Hemant Karkare was killed because she “cursed him”. Karkare was killed during the 2008 attack by terrorists on the city. Karkare, who was awarded the Ashoka Chakra posthumously, was investigating Thakur’s role in the Malegaon blast at the time of his death. She also alleged that he had “tortured” her while she was in custody.
This statement has caused a furore. It was criticised from several quarters, from both political parties and civil society. The Congress even hit out at the BJP and said Prime Minister Narendra Modi must apologise for Thakur’s remarks on Karkare and take action against her. Following the backlash, Thakur retracted the statement. However, Modi has defended her candidature. In an interview to the TV channel, he said that Thakur’s candidature was a “symbolic answer” to all those who falsely labelled the rich Hindu civilization as “terrorist”, particularly the Congress.
“Samjhauta Express verdict came. What came out? Without any evidence, a rich civilization as old as 5000 years, which gave the message of 'the whole world is one'... You called such a civilization terrorist? To give a reply to all such people, this (fielding of Thakur) is a symbol and this symbol will cost the Congress dearly," he said. He went on compare her parole status with Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, asking why no such questions are being asked of both of them contesting from Amethi and Rae Bareli constituencies, respectively, despite being on “bail”.
His remarks are also an indirect dig at Thakur’s opponent in Bhopal, Digvijaya Singh. Singh was at the forefront of efforts to raise the bogey of “saffron terror”, after Thakur and Lieutenant Colonel Shrikant Purohit were implicated in the Malegaon and Samjhauta Express blast cases. Singh has been targeted by the BJP in the past as well for this. This was made clear by BJP general secretary Ram Madhav’s statement to the media. "She [Thakur] is probably the right challenger for a person like Digvijaya Singh who is largely responsible for propagating the dubious and mischievous idea of Hindu terror in this country. He needs a proper challenge that is why Pragya Thakur was fielded by the party," he said.
While Modi’s statement might seem like a crass attempt to defend Thakur, it has a deeper meaning. It shows that a segment, once dismissed as the fringe, may not be fringe. They are in the mainstream. For a long time, radical elements on the Hindu right have been dismissed as irrelevant as they are on the margins, the fringe. Outrageous statement after statement dismissed because they are of no consequence. But the line seems to have shifted over time.
Before Thakur, there was Yogi Adityanath, who was considered too radical for the mainstream. Yet, the BJP appointed him chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2017. After the 2002 Gujarat riots, Modi himself was considered unpalatable for many. Yet, he stormed into power in 2014. So, the question to ask is, where does the fringe begin?
Another question that emerges from this is, is the fringe real? Has it all just been smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that the fringe is actually in the driving seat? According to historian Aditya Mukherjee, this is the case. Speaking to Asiaville, he said the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has been following a dual strategy. One is a face of moderation, which is on the surface and the one which is projected, which hides the second, of hard Hindutva, which is actually the driving force.
“It (the fringe) was never the fringe. They (sangh) have kept up the notion that BJP has some lunatics who should be ignored. That is wrong. That is the core. They hide it with various things. It is a misnomer to call them the fringe. They represent the core of their ideology,” he said.
By bringing Thakur to the forefront, the BJP has clearly signalled that all the talk about development is no longer relevant. Modi rode to power in 2014 on promises of development. But now, that has given way to hard Hindutva. Does this mean that Modi has not done enough in that field to use it to come back to power? Whatever may be the case, the so called radical fringe doesn’t seem to be on the fringes anymore.