Hindu celibate baits Muslims with fiery nationalist brew

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The Independent Online
UMA Bharti is one of the dark stars of India's general election: a firebrand orator of the Hindu nationalist BJP, scourge of the Muslims, a good-looking woman of 37 who as a sannyasin or Hindu ascetic has taken vows of celibacy, devoting herself to religion.

She also has a talent for self-publicity. A fortnight before polling, she was all over India's papers urging that the Spice Girls be banned from making a video with the erotic statuary of Khajuraho - in her constituency - as the backdrop.

Accompanying her in a convoy of jeeps and cream Hindustan Ambassadors, we all suddenly lurch off the bumpy, ragged ribbon of asphalt that is the main road, into the trackless dunes that lead to the village. There are no street lights here; only the headlights of the white jeep carrying the candidate illuminate the whitewashed mud huts bordering the narrow lanes. The jeep stops in front of a high, blank white wall, and the candidate, this quick, small figure shrouded in saffron, jumps out, kicks off her shoes at the entrance to the temple and marches up to the shrine inside. There she bows to the god, rustles the hair of the aged Mahant (priest) and marches out again.

A hundred yards on, the jeep gets stuck in a rut. Uma Bharti jumps out again and holds an impromptu surgery there in the main street, under the stars.

She has been on the stump now for six weeks. One of the many problems with the size of India's democracy is the size of its constituencies: Ms Bharti's constituency of Khujaraho, with 1.2 million voters, is quite normal. It contains 3,000 villages like this. By polling day yesterday she had visited more then 500 of them, casting her intense gaze, poker faced, up and down lanes like this, all very much alike wherever she goes in this northern section of Madhya Pradesh, and much like the lanes in the dirt-poor village where she was born and raised. Supporters touch her feet, press palms together, or hang on to her jeep's windows, and pitch their own special problems. Enemies stay away.

Uma Bharti is expected to win in Khujaraho but it may be a close thing. In the constituency named after the village that contains the fabulous medieval Hindu temples with their erotic statuary, the Hindu tradition is unusually strong and proud: the Hindu Nationalists, "fascists" to their enemies, of which Ms Bharti is the candidate, have a big natural "vote bank" of upper-caste Brahmins here. But Ms Bharti, is from a caste of impoverished farmers. She gets their vote, too. Most BJP candidates are ageing men; she is a woman, and she knows how to use her gender.

"Being a woman she can walk into any house in a village without asking permission," says a local journalist. "She goes up to the oldest woman in the house and touches her feet and she's got them all on her side." Again, many will vote for her because of who she is: famous, outrageous, aggressively pious. She was a child prodigy, memorising the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana at the age of six and spouting them before ex-patriate Hindu audiences all over the world. Then she took vows, became a national political figure loathed and beloved while still in her mid-twenties.

"Congress has ruled India for 45 years," she tells the crowd in the market square at Harpalpur. "The BJP has not ruled for 45 days." In 1996, when it became the biggest party in Parliament, its government floundered and fell for want of allies after less then a fortnight. "This time it is make or break, it is do or die," says Ms Bharti.

So the BJP is bidding strenuously to broaden its support. In Harpalpur the direct attacks on Muslims were missing, but the obnoxious baiting tone was still there. During the BJP's 13 days in office in 1996, she said, the Pakistan Prime Minister shook hands with Mr Vajpayee, the prime minister, because he had had the courage to outface the Muslims in Kashmir

Driving to another meeting, she talked more about her religion. "Hinduism is the lifeblood of the country. I cannot accept any criticism of Hinduism. I was in the forefront of the movement to demolish the Ayodhya Mosque, and that's something I am proud of. Muslims like us, because we are honest. They know we will not appease them."