It’s a saffron versus saffron contest in Madhya Pradesh’s Malhara Assembly constituency, as the Congress has chosen Sadhvi Ramsiya Bharti — a 36-year old kathawachak who recites mythological texts — as its candidate for a seat widely known as the bastion of veteran BJP leader and former Chief Minister Uma Bharti.
Ms. Ramsiya Bharti, who dons a saffron robe and puts vermilion on her forehead, has several other similarities with Ms. Uma Bharti. Both are nuns who belong to the Lodhi community and are widely popular religious leaders of this small rural area in Chhatarpur district.
Pointing to another similarity between the two women, local Congress leader Narendra Yadav said that Ms. Ramsiya Bharti was close to Jyotiraditya Scindia, who switched loyalties from the Congress to the BJP a few years ago. Ms. Uma Bharti too was close to Mr. Scindia’s grandmother, Vijayaraje Scindia.
Ms. Uma Bharti is not contesting or even campaigning in this election, due to a leg injury. However, her influence in the area can be gauged from the fact that the BJP candidate and incumbent MLA Pradyuman Singh Lodhi is not just using her pictures in his posters, but actually making them larger than the pictures of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan or even Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Ms. Ramsiya Bharti, whose followers claim that she has recited the Bhagwat Katha and Ram Katha across India and even abroad, is campaigning with folded hands to seek votes from the people. She stops every time she sees a woman passing by, speaks to her about her needs and asks her assistant to write down the details in a diary. She starts and ends her rallies with a slogan of “Jai Shree Ram”, and uses the “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” slogan as well, both of which are more commonly heard in BJP campaigns.
“I am not here to win and go. I am yours. I am writing down what all you need and I will get it for you. The only thing you have to do is vote for Congress and bring Kamal Nath’s government to power,” Ms. Ramsiya Bharti said during a public rally in Buxwaha.
Her poster reads, “Congress Dukh Sukh Ka Saathi, Raamsiya Sabko Bhati (Congress is there in all your pain and happiness, Ramsiya is the favourite of all).
Born in a village in Tikamgarh district, as the beloved eldest child of Swami Prasad and Harkunwar, Ms. Ramsiya Bharti started reciting Ram Katha at the age of seven, her family members say.
“Her maternal aunt, resident of Malhera, had no child in 10 years of her marriage. By then, Ramsiya’s parents had three children so they gave Ramsiya to her aunt. After they adopted Ramsiya, within years, her aunt got pregnant. Such divine powers she has,” said Tulsidas Rajpute, the candidate’s cousin, who claims that though she never went to school, Ms. Ramsiya Bharti can still recite long versus of the Ramcharitramanas.
When she decided to become a full-fledged monk in her teens, the family did not stand in her way. Currently, she lives in a small house in Malhera with some religious books, two sets of saffron robes, a gas stove, and some pictures of gods. According to her election affidavit, she has ₹30 lakh in her bank accounts.
‘BJP’s nationalism is fake’
Ms. Ramsiya Bharti, who was hospitalised due to chest pains last week, resumed campaigning soon after getting discharged. She has been criticising the BJP for giving tickets to goons and corrupt leaders, and also attacked the saffron party’s claims of protecting cows and women, and helping farmers. She maintains that the BJP’s nationalism is fake and its proclaimed love for Hindus is only confined to election season.
“They do nothing but only cheat people. You have seen that all their leaders win from Malhera and move to Bhopal. If you want to get your work done, vote for a local person who understands your concerns and issues,” she says while seeking votes.
People in Malhera know little about the Congress candidate’s personal life, but she is popular among women, who attend her katha (sermon) in larger numbers than men.
In her katha, Ms. Ramsiya Bharti speaks about the lack of development in this area. She adds that she is not a turncoat who will change her party after winning. She is targetting the BJP’s sitting MLA, Mr. Lodhi, who won on a Congress ticket in 2018 but later joined the BJP.
‘Not every sadhvi can be Uma Bharti’
Kamal Lodhi, a resident of Buxwaha, claims that her adoption story is fake and termed it a ploy to seek votes in the name of being a ‘local person’. “She is famous but I am not sure what she will do for us as even Uma Bharti, who won from Malhera, has done nothing. Her popularity is reducing here, especially among the young population,” he says.
The BJP candidate rejects the claim of Ms. Uma Bharti’s waning influence, claiming that her popularity in the area is such that she does not even have to come here to campaign for him. “Wo jaha hain waha se aawaz laga dengi to log sunenge (People will hear her even if she speaks from wherever she is),” says Mr. Pradyuman Singh Lodhi.
Taking on his Congress rival, he adds that not every ‘sadhvi’ can be Uma Bharti, adding that the BJP is the only party that works for people’s development.
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