India’s Modi risks losing key state election over alleged sex scandal involving ex-PM’s grandson

The scandal billowed because Modi had campaigned for Revanna this election season, but the BJP later distanced itself from the 33-year-old and denied any prior knowledge of his purported crimes.

Revanna reportedly flew to Germany a day after voting was held in his constituency on Friday.

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India’s opposition Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, sister of the party’s de facto leader Rahul Gandhi, has slammed Modi’s conduct on the issue.

“The leader for whom Modi asked for votes in Karnataka, that person, mistreated thousands of women. I ask what our Prime Minister and Home Minister has to say about it?” she wrote in Hindi on the social media platform X on April 29.

Revanna has denied the allegations against him in a police complaint. A report in The Times of India newspaper on Tuesday said there is a possibility the videos supposedly showing Revanna were faked and leaked by a disgruntled party aide.

“At one level, the onus is also on the BJP to come out and address the issue. The prime minister had campaigned for Revanna,” said Sanjal Shastri, assistant professor at the western Indian city of Pune’s Flame University. “It is quite clear that the BJP is on the back foot.”

BJP leader Amit Shah, India’s home minister and a close ally of Modi, has gone on the counteroffensive by attacking the Congress party-ruled Karnataka state government for “inaction” regarding the sex abuse case allegedly involving Revanna.

“This cannot be tolerated. BJP’s stand is clear – we stand with ‘Nari Shakti’ [Women’s Empowerment],” he was quoted as saying in the Business Standard newspaper on Tuesday.

“I want to tell Priyanka Gandhi that instead of asking PM Modi, question your own chief minister Siddaramaiah. Why isn’t he taking action? We are in favour of a probe.”

Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate shows a photograph featuring JD(S) MP Prajwal Revanna who was summoned for alleged sexual abuse case. Photo: AFP

A matter of survival

For the JD(S), the scandal could snowball into an existential crisis because it has benefited from considerable goodwill towards its founder Deve Gowda. Revanna’s grandfather served as India’s prime minister from June 1996 to April 1997 after his tenure as chief minister of Karnataka from 1994 to 1996.

“This election was seen as a battle for survival and now, with a member of the Gowda family getting implicated, it is very hard to see the party recovering from this. It could be an existential crisis [for JD(S)],” Shastri said.

JD(S) suspended Revanna from the party on Tuesday after the scandal blew up this week.

“The issue is of narratives. Even if it comes out that the videos were altered or faked, it will take several months, if not years, to establish. The most important thing is the immediate consequence because the damage has already been done,” Shastri said.

The scandal is expected to hurt JD(S) and the BJP at the election, as voting is yet to be held in northern Karnataka.

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In 2019, the BJP won 25 out of the 28 parliamentary states in Karnataka, but Congress Party trounced the ruling party in state elections last year.

The BJP has traditionally fared well in southern India, where the state is located. Any huge losses in parliamentary seats in Karnataka could prevent the BJP and its allies from securing a majority in the state.

“If the BJP starts losing seats, then it will end up with a tally much lower than 2019. If they go below 272, then the more difficult it will be for Modi to become Prime Minister again, said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, an independent political commentator.

A cornerstone of the BJP’s political messaging has centred around educating and protecting girls and women, Nilanjan said.

“Those who voted for Revanna will feel cheated. Other voters, who are yet to vote, will penalise the BJP and the JD(S). Deve Gowd is a nationally known personality. The implications will also be felt in north, central, eastern and western India.”

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Srinivasan Ramani, a senior journalist, said that while the BJP and JD(S) were mired in the scandal, the Congress party’s government in Karnataka had introduced welfare measures like free bus rides for women to encourage them to take up factory and other jobs. This contrast could sway the remaining polls in the state, he added.

The combined vote share of the BJP and JD(S) in last year’s Karnataka state elections was around 49 per cent compared with Congress’ 46 per cent, but past data may not be indicative of trends in the current election as voter sentiment could shift significantly, Ramani said.

Other analysts said the BJP may still win a large share of parliamentary seats in Karnataka as voters prefer a strong national leader like Modi.

Harsh Ramaswamy, an independent political analyst, said questions have been raised about whether it was prudent for the BJP to enter into an alliance with a small regional party like the JD(S) for national elections.

“[The scandal] would disturb them definitely. This event is like squeezing lime into milk,” he added.

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