Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has condemned a firebrand Hindu candidate from his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who called the assassin of independence icon Mahatma Gandhi a “patriot”.
Modi was forced to act on Friday after a backlash grew over the comments made 24 hours earlier by Pragya Singh Thakur, who separately faces charges in connection with a 2008 mosque bombing that killed six people.
Thakur issued an apology for her statement that Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse “was, is, and will remain a patriot”, but it failed to douse the controversy, and the Hindu nationalist BJP said it had launched an inquiry into the incident.
Gandhi was shot three times in January 1948 by Godse, a Hindu fanatic angered by what he considered to be Gandhi’s pandering to Muslims and by India’s partition after independence from Britain in 1947.
On Friday, Modi told India’s News 24 channel that Thakur’s “language and thoughts should be condemned and are unacceptable in a civilised society”.
‘I won’t forgive her’
“People with such beliefs must think one hundred times before saying such things … She apologised publicly for the comments, but I won’t forgive her at a personal level,” Modi added.
India’s main opposition Indian National Congress party, which Gandhi once led, said Modi’s words “mean nothing” and called on the 68-year-old to take “real action” over Thakur.
“Remove terror accused Pragya Thakur from your party. Her statements have not only brought disgrace but also hurt the sentiments of people in India & across the world,” Congress said in a statement posted on Facebook.
The BJP last month named Thakur as its parliamentary candidate in the state capital of India’s central Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal, prompting criticism from opponents who accused the party of using her candidacy in a bid to polarise voters along religious lines.
The 49-year-old candidate, commonly known as Sadhvi Pragya, has since emerged as a symbol of a Hindu nationalist movement showing increasing intolerance towards Muslims in Hindu-majority India.
Thakur’s run for office has been overshadowed, however, by an ongoing trial over her suspected involvement in a bomb blast near a mosque in Malegaon, Maharashtra state, in 2008 that killed six people and injured 100.
She has denied having had any role in the 2008 explosion in the Muslim-majority town. But, according to court filings cited by Reuters news agency, the motorcycle on which the explosives were strapped was Thakur’s, and she was among those who planned the attack to avenge so-called “jihadi activities”.
The trial started in December but a final verdict is not expected anytime soon.
‘This government should continue’
This week’s controversy erupted ahead of Sunday’s final round of India’s marathon election. Polls predict Modi will be re-elected but with a reduced majority after scooping up 282 of the 543 seats at stake in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, in 2014.
At the national level, Modi’s primary rival is Congress party President Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has produced three prime ministers.
On Friday, the notoriously media-shy Modi left journalists disappointed as he declined to answer questions at what Indian reporters had dubbed his first-ever press conference as prime minister.
“The people have decided that this government should continue. Our government introduced a new culture of governance in India,” Modi told Friday’s event.
With 900 million registered voters and about a million polling stations spread throughout the country, the election is the world’s largest democratic exercise. Final results will be announced on May 23.