Pragya Singh Thakur, a candidate with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), addresses people on her way to file her election nominations in Bhopal, India, on April 23. (Sanjeev Gupta/EPA-EFE/REX)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supporters believe that, by this time next week, he will be chosen to lead India for a second term.

They are likely right. But the very characteristics that give Modi an electoral advantage — particularly his reputation for being both incorruptible and a strongman — make the way he has run this campaign utterly baffling.

Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, have fallen back on some of the coarsest rhetoric that India’s elections have ever seen. And just when you thought it could not possibly get any worse, it has.

On Thursday, a BJP candidate, Pragya Singh Thakur — who is accused of participating in a 2008 terrorist attack in which at least six people, all Muslims, were killed — defended the man who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. She called Nathuram Godse a “deshbhakt,” or “patriot.”

After the BJP distanced itself from her statement, she issued a reluctant retraction. But given how passionately Modi himself has defended her candidacy, this is simply not good enough. Thakur is a blot on India’s democracy. If Modi does not withdraw her as a nominee now, it will stain his reputation as well.

Thakur’s controversial comments came after a statement by actor-politician Kamal Haasan, in which he referenced Gandhi’s killer and said, “Independent India’s first extremist was a Hindu. His name was Nathuram Godse.” In response, Haasan received threats, had slippers thrown at him and has been dragged to court.

To understand why this comment was met with an outcry, you need to understand how the BJP has run its 2019 election campaign. Modi has craftily wedded populist nationalism with Hindu majoritarianism. He has located criticism from the opposition within a narrative of elitism and liberal bleeding hearts. These barbs against liberals extends to how they have responded to Thakur. The prime minister has attempted to present her as a victim who was framed and as a symbol of what he claims is the opposition’s assault on Hinduism.

This is all in keeping with the BJP’s larger populist strategy of constructing a fabricated sense of injustice in India’s Hindu community. Given that Hindus make up close to 80 percent of the country’s population, and it is in fact the country’s nearly 200 million Muslims who have been pushed to the margins during this election, this is nothing but a post-truth appropriation of victimhood.

But as messaging goes, it seems to be working. India is polarized like never before — and candidates such as Thakur are taking full advantage.

Even before her outrageous comments on Gandhi, Thakur had already crossed all norms of civility and decency. The very fact that the BJP fielded a candidate on bail from terrorism charges was bad enough. Then she insulted Hemant Karkare, a police officer who was killed while leading anti-terrorist operations during the 2008 Mumbai attacks. While investigating the bomb blast that Thakur is charged in, Karkare traced a motorcycle used in the attacks to her. On the campaign trail, Thakur declared that Karkare had been killed because she “cursed” him, and that his death was “karma” for treating her badly.

Then, like now, the party distanced itself, forcing her to roll back her comments. But these retractions are farcical — especially given that the party’s leadership has repeatedly defended her.

Incredibly, the BJP’s hardcore base, which otherwise brands anyone with a dissenting view as “anti-national,” is unable to see the irony in endorsing someone who has insulted a police officer who died on duty — and now the icon Indians revere as the “father of the nation.”

Some Modi supporters may be tempted to dismiss her as the “fringe,” but that is a disingenuous argument. There used to be a similar adjective used for Yogi Adityanath, the rabble-rousing monk who is now the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most politically important state. In this election cycle, men accused of lynching a Muslim ironsmith attended a rally for Adityanath and sat in the front row. Both the Thakur and Yogi campaigns illustrate how the moderate faction of the BJP is all but dead.

So will Modi continue to defend these hatemongers? That question will remain valid even if the results deliver a massive election victory to Modi. In fact, it will be even more relevant.

Will India remain the land of Gandhi? Or will the Mahatma be cast as anti-national and his assassin cast as a patriot?

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