The name of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Lok Sabha candidate for the city of Bhopal says much about the state of contemporary Indian politics: Sadhvi Pragya Thakur. For those not fully conversant with Hindi, the “Sadhvi” is an honorific referring to something akin to a nun – a woman who renounces all worldly possessions and devotes herself entirely to her faith.
Ms Thakur's entry into the all-too-worldly realm of electoral politics has proven controversial and alarming, both for what it says about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP and the fabric of India's secular democracy.
Some of Ms Thakur’s statements since the announcement of her candidacy, two weeks ago, place her squarely within the extremes of Hindu nationalist thought.
In a television interview last week, for example, she stroked the back of a cow, from tail to neck, claiming that doing so helps to reduce a person’s blood pressure. She also said that Hinduism’s holiest animal had helped her cure herself of cancer, extolling the medicinal virtues of drinking a stomach-churning concoction of milk, butter, curd and bovine waste.
Her views are in perfect sync with the anti-intellectual, anti-scientific ideology promoted by the BJP. In their eagerness to trumpet the superiority of Hinduism over other religions, the party’s leaders have frequently claimed that ancient Hindus predicted or even pioneered the advances of modern science.
Mr Modi invoked the elephant-headed deity Ganesha as an example of the age-old art of cosmetic surgery. Biplab Deb, the BJP's chief minister in the state of Tripura, has argued that the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic, composed thousands of years ago, featured both satellite technology and the internet. Satya Pal Singh, a junior minister in charge of education, hailed an Indian man as the inventor of the aeroplane – eight years before the Wright brothers. He has also said that Newton’s laws were codified in old Hindu scriptures and that Darwin’s theory of evolution is untrue.
These declarations would be funny, if they weren't being made by men and women in power, in a country where the benefits of science – especially healthcare and sanitation – have still not reached every citizen.
Ms Thakur's fetishising of the cow also recalls some of the ugliest incidents in India under Mr Modi's rule. Vigilante gangs have carried out repeated acts of violence against anyone they suspect of butchering cattle. At least 44 people were lynched on such suspicions, between May 2015 and December 2018, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Most of them were Muslim. The report pointed to police inaction, and even complicity, in the face of such crimes.
But most worrying of all is Ms Thakur’s background. At present, she is out on bail from an ongoing trial that accuses her – among other crimes, such as criminal conspiracy and illegal possession of arms – of planning two bombings in the town of Malegaon in 2008. One of the charges that she faces is that of terrorism, under Section 16 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967. Not unusually for India, Ms Thakur’s trial is still crawling through the courts.
Her application for bail was made on the grounds that she had breast cancer. However, doctors who examined her back in 2010, when it was first filed, concluded that she was suffering from no major disease, and that scans did not reveal any evidence of cancer.
Five years later, when a small tumor was detected, Ms Thakur underwent surgery to remove the tissue. She did not rely on the powers the cow to cure herself. Then, in 2017, after she was released on bail, claiming that she was so sick that she could not “even walk without support”, she underwent a preventive mastectomy. But, as the father of one of the victims of the Malegaon bombings has pleaded in a petition, attempting to bar Ms Thakur from contesting the election, she appears to have been in fine health ever since her release.
This, then, is the BJP’s candidate: a proponent of dangerous junk science, who just so happens to stand accused of a string of terrorist offences. What does it say about Mr Modi’s BJP that it apparently fields such a person for high office with no compunction whatsoever?
In an election that many predict will be closer than the one the BJP won comfortably in 2014, Ms Thakur’s candidacy appears to be a call to Mr Modi’s right-wing base – not so much a dog whistle as a howling siren, announcing that the party will stick by the most extreme tenets of Hindu nationalism.
It also exhibits a blatant disregard for India’s minorities, who are bound to be fearful in the face of the BJP’s explicit support of someone like Ms Thakur. Finally, it displays a brazen indifference to the rule of law and the proprieties of power.
One of the criticisms of Mr Modi’s government is that it has bent independent institutions to its will, subverting the courts, the central bank, the election commission and federal investigating agencies, in an effort to advance its agenda and protect its interests.
In this election season, the candidacy of one woman has been the sharpest reminder yet that the BJP is perfectly happy to ignore established rules and ethics in its quest for power. That does not bode well for a country it may very well rule for another five years.
Samanth Subramanian is the author of "This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War." His journalism has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Guardian