Bhopal: The BJP's belated decision to pit the firebrand Hindu nationalist, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, against the Congress' foremost minority appeasing leader, Digvijaya Singh, for the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat, has doubtlessly set the cat among the pigeons.

A "civilisational" contest to boot is what it may well turn out to be given the larger issues at stake. In no other single contest are the battle lines as clearly drawn as in Bhopal: National interest versus minority appeasement.

The fight will test the waters on whether voters prefer a certified Hindu baiting candidate who raised the fictive spectre of "Hindu terror" over a relatively obscure Sadhvi committed to working for the national interest hitherto beyond the pale of party politics. 

A saffron clothed woman on whom dubious fame was thrust and trumped up charges foisted by the UPA over her alleged involvement in the 2008 Malagaon bomb blasts in which she remains an accused. This, despite the NIA's confirmed clearance in the case under the Maharastra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999.

Also read: Sadhvi Pragya BJP's answer to Digvijaya Singh

Development will thus necessarily take a backseat, and for good reasons. Not that it was ever at the forefront in earlier elections as much as the Congress and others would have us believe. Voting has always been on predictable lines in a seat with a 4.5 lakh plus Muslim population. 

That is how the BJP has been a consistent winner since 1989, with victory margins of well over a lakh to a record 3.7 lakh at the height of the Modi wave in 2014. Reversing this will take nothing less than an electoral earthquake which is unlikely. The BJP won five of the eight assembly segments within the Bhopal LS seat despite the much touted anti-incumbency in the 2018 state poll.

Having taken an early decision to nominate the Raja of Raghogarh, the Congress had been gloating at the BJP's discomfiture. The sheer audacity of nominating someone with an anti-Hindu tag coupled with the BJP's difficulty in finding a suitable candidate to take him on, it was thought, would demoralise the 'bhagwa' brigade, and give the raja breathing space to strategise his campaign.

Temple hopping, performing puja, posing to being a good Hindu, is all that Digvijaya has done these few days, even asking people to gloss over his anti-Hindu remarks of the past. Offering land to build a Ram temple was a clever ploy to convince voters of a change in heart. Pragya’s nomination now has him nonplussed, and has sent his party scurrying for cover. 

Till his surprise nomination, Digvijaya was angling to fight from his old seat, Rajgarh, but was goaded by chief minister Kamal Nath to accept the challenge from Bhopal instead. Congress insiders, however, feel Nath acted at the behest of Rahul Gandhi (heeding a request from Jyotiraditya Scindia). 

Both want to make "life difficult" for the raja. For a defeat will almost certainly lower the latter's stocks given the popular perception that it is his decree which has been running the Madhya Pradesh government these last four months in almost every aspect of administration.

Though Pragya's name had been floating for nearly a fortnight, both the Sangh and the BJP's central leadership were biding time mulling over the consequences of her nomination, both good and bad. 

The decision was taken after considerable brainstorming. Speculation that the nomination was a toss-up between Shivraj S. Chouhan and Uma Bharti were purposely encouraged to boost their ego with the full awareness that neither would openly agree to contest. 

Also read: BJP fields Sadhvi Pragya in Bhopal: The moral equivocation of Congress

Bharti, whatever her formal excuse, might have been willing but Chouhan did not want her back in state politics given their past animosity. Chouhan, on his part, knew that a chief minister under whose stewardship the party had just lost power was ill-suited to running a credible campaign.

Family intimates admit that the people's 'maama' knows only too well that stepping out of state politics would render him irrelevant in the long run just it has Uma Bharti.

Politically, the more important reason in the choice of Pragya is her incorruptibility and diehard image, an advantage which neither Chouhan nor Bharti enjoys. Both share a private bond with Digvijaya. And this is too well known. The view within the Sangh is that established leaders cocooned in their own power groove are not suited to taking on a 'Chanakya' like Digvijaya if a hard message on national interest has to be driven down the hustings. You can't fight an opponent you are cushy with.

Digvijaya's charm is difficult to shun. Nothing pleases the astute raja more than doing petty favours for political rivals when sought, and sometimes unrequested. The decision to reverse the decision on withdrawal of security at the RSS state headquarters was his alone.

Contrapuntally, the Sangh's perceptions on Pragya, the case against her notwithstanding, are much the same as what they were on Uma Bharti during the run-up to the 2003 assembly poll when appointed star campaigner. Uma was perceived as an unprivileged, gutsy fighter above factional politics. 

Time, predictably enough, has taken a toll, and she no longer enjoys the same goodwill. Her casteist mindset has harmed her repute. Chouhan too has never been known to help anyone outside his charmed circle. Ego and overconfidence cost him the 2018 poll. He thought he was invincible.   

Pragya, a political innocent, is unfazed by all the negative opinions in the national media. She told this writer that she has a clearcut agenda to which she would stick. 

Development cannot be subordinated to the national interest. A nation whose very existence is called in question by internal enemies, where saffron is seen as the colour of terror, where seditious elements abuse the army and its general by vile names, must first secure its survival. Only then will true development be possible. What good can you do when people live in constant fear of their lives being torn asunder?

Talk of 'vikas', she says, has been a running theme in all elections. Seldom before has a Lok Sabha election focussed on the need to put nation before self. Digvijaya's political stature, she says, holds no importance.

He is a mere symptom of the disease which ails the body politic. Fissiparous elements have steadily been gaining the upper hand, thanks to politicians like him who abuse their own history and heritage. They now threaten to rupture the nation's spine. 

Nothing exemplifies the malaise more than Pragya's own eight-year long sufferance in jail at that hands of the Maharashtra ATS despite the absence of a single piece of evidence.