Nagpur: Tracing The Saffron Party's Rise In Congress' Historic Bastion

While the Congress is deeply rooted in the city’s psyche, the BJP is eyeing 3.5 lakh Muslim voters

Photo: Dinesh Parab/Outlook
Muslim voters in Jama masjid, Nagpur during Ramadan with Congress candidate Vikas Thakre. Photo: Dinesh Parab/Outlook

Ahead of the 18th Lok Sabha polls, Nagpur, Maharashtra’s winter capital and the country’s geographical heart, is set to witness a keen clash between secular democracy and Hindutva ideologies as the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) bloc and the BJP, respectively, vie for electoral supremacy.

Despite being synonymous with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Nagpur has been a traditional Congress bastion, even as it also nurtures Ambedkarite politics, embodying India’s diverse political landscape.

Nestled along the Nag River, Nagpur epitomises a planned modern city with smart infrastructure like electric transport and metros. Despite modernisation, traditional ideologies persist, with residents, divided by their political vichardhara (ideology), shaping the city’s social fabric.

Nagpur, a historic Congress stronghold, had seen limited Sangh influence in the days of yore, according to Rajendra Naikwade, an author and a Sangh supporter. The Congress’ post-independence dominance deterred even Sangh members from openly displaying their allegiance.

“Congress workers would gather in large numbers and pelt stones at us to foil our attempts to establish Sangh’s shakhas. They would conduct morchas on the streets, single out our houses and attack them. They held an upper hand,” said Naikwade about his childhood years spent near the RSS headquarters in East Nagpur’s Mahal area.

BJP workers are confident of Union Minister Nitin Gadkari’s victory over the Congress’ Vilas Thakre by around five lakh votes.

During the Emergency, despite widespread anti-Congress sentiment, Nagpur reposed faith in the Congress. Then Prime Minister the late Indira Gandhi’s crackdown led to the Congress and the Sangh members being jailed together. The RSS, previously apolitical, joined the opposition’s anti-Emergency movement, shifting public perception and softening the opposition toward the Sangh.

“Congressis realised their party did not practice the Gandhian principles it preached politically,” Naikwade said.

In 1980, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Janata Party merged to form the BJP. Initially, the BJP had minor wins in Congress-dominated Nagpur. The mid-80s saw the BJP’s rise with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and LK Advani’s rath yatra, while the Congress weakened due to the Shah Bano fiasco and the Mandal-Kamandal issue, prompting local leaders to join the BJP. Its popularity subsequently surged in Nagpur, almost erasing the Congress’ presence. From six corporators in 1972, the BJP secured 66 seats in 1997, maintaining control since. Nagpur has four BJP MLAs and two from the Congress, highlighting the saffron party’s dominance.

BJP workers are confident of Union Minister Nitin Gadkari’s victory over the Congress’ Vilas Thakre by around five lakh votes. Thakre, Nagpur’s Congress chief, shares a broad frame and a politically broad-minded friendship with Gadkari. Their modest campaign style avoids personal attacks and poster blitzes. The Congress emphasises Thakre’s accessibility, contrasting Gadkari’s limited availability due to his commitments in Delhi, as an asset. “There is a difference of a lakh votes between Gadkari and Thakre and he (Thakre) is giving a formidable challenge on the ground to the Union Minister,” the Congress workers said. “He is a dark horse.”

The Congress, deeply rooted in Nagpur’s psyche, spans communities, according to leader Chotu Bhoir. His shift from the BJP to the Congress is indicative of the OBC’s disillusionment with Sangh leadership’s Brahmin dominance. Despite significant OBC votes, ministerial roles for members of the grouping remain elusive, Bhoir insists, even as the BJP, under Gadkari, claims to strive for inclusivity, countering the Congress’ narrative and broadening its appeal in Nagpur and the Vidarbha region.

The Sangh and the BJP seek to court 3.5 lakh Muslim voters, navigating the tension between Hindutva and inclusivity. The Sangh denounces Hindu extremists for tarnishing Hindutva’s image with anti-Muslim rhetoric. “Like any major organisation, the Sangh has hardliners, moderates and Gandhiwadi Hindutva too. Sangh is trying to work with the Muslims through our Muslim Manch,” a Sangh leader said.

Gadkari’s pivotal role in BJP’s success in Nagpur is evident, but doubts arise over the party’s future in the city amid reports of his sidelining by the BJP’s top brass. BJP workers expect Gadkari’s leadership to bolster the Sangh’s ideology in Nagpur. Ahead of the Sangh’s centenary, the city plans year-long programmes to promote Hindutva and Indian values, signalling a shift towards inclusivity and adaptability.

According to some Sangh workers, who have grown up on Gandhi’s humanitarian principles, unless the BJP is ‘Congressified’ it cannot retain power for long.

Shweta Desai in Nagpur

This appeared in the print as 'Orange Country'