| Sonia garlanding Swaroopananda at the Kumbh in 2001. (PTI)
Seoni (Madhya Pradesh), April 28: Kalyani Pande wanted to be a sadhvi when she was 15, but didn’t become one, thanks to Swami Swaroopananda Saraswati.
She can thank him again now as she is taking on the party of that other sadhvi, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Uma Bharti, with the blessing of the Sankaracharya of Jyotirmutt (in Seoni) and Dwarka Mutt (in Gujarat).
Swaroopananda, nicknamed the “Congress Swami”, is fighting a proxy battle for his disciple Kalyani, the Congress nominee from Seoni in the state’s Mahakaushal region.
Now camping in Ujjain for the Simhasta (Kumbh), Swaroopananda’s heart is in Seoni, where Kalyani is locked in an all-woman contest with newcomer Neeta Pateria of the BJP and Raj Rajeshwari Uike of the Gondwana Gantantra Party.
The seer from Dhigouri in Seoni, who is fiercely opposed to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has emerged a vocal campaigner for the Congress, urging his followers to vote for his disciple.
Before leaving for the Simhasta, he even issued an appeal in Kalyani’s favour and mocked the BJP’s campaign against Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, whom he had famously blessed during the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in 2001.
“She is every inch an Indian,” Swaroopananda said during a brief halt at Bhopal railway station, defending Sonia’s likely candidature for prime ministership.
Swaroopananda, 79, heads several religious bodies such as the Ramrajya Parishad, the Ramalaya Trust and the Ram Janma Bhumi Nyas — not the same as the one led by Mahant Nritya Gopal Das.
He has a faithful follower in Kalyani. Referring to her desire to renounce the world in her teens, she said: “Guruji stopped me and guided me all through.”
Her spiritual bent, however, did not come in the way of her gaining the reputation of a firebrand leader.
Kalyani had created a flutter in 1991 in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly when she hurled a chappal. She said she had to as it was in response to a “sexist” remark by a BJP MLA.
Her speeches focus on three issues — what Swaroopananda means to her, the chief minister’s failure to ensure power supply and the Congress’ contribution to tribal welfare.
Feeling the heat, an inexperienced Neeta is missing Uma, who has not been campaigning because of indifferent health. Last week, the chief minister had been admitted to a hospital in Nashik after she complained of chest pain.
BJP insiders said several SOS have been sent to the chief minister to bail out the party’s candidate.
Both the BJP and the Congress have been hoping that the Gondwana Gantantra Party — the third angle in the three-way fight — would cut into each other’s votes. The local tribal outfit has been on the rise in the Mahakaushal region, within which Seoni falls.
Seoni’s all-woman contest is a rather peculiar feature in a state that tops in crime against women.
Tribal-dominated Seoni is thus truly an exception if one goes by the list of candidates in most of Madhya Pradesh.
For instance, the seven parliamentary seats of Bhind, Morena, Sagar, Khajuraho, Damoh, Satna and Sidhi, hundreds of kilometres apart from each other, have no woman candidates at all, not even as Independents.
Both the Congress and the BJP call it an “aberration”.
Swaroopananda, for one, says he is gender-sensitive. He says he set up the Akhil Bharti Ubhay Bharti Mahila Ashram in Bengal in 1993 to “honour” women by making them proficient in shaastraarth (verbal duel in religious matters), a male domain.
He claims it is the first ashram “run by women for women”, saying it is headed by Maina Kanodia (who is now known as Vimla Kanodia) with Kalyani Pande as secretary.