ABC News
Meghna Bali and Bhat Burhan
New Delhi

Prajwal Revanna was supposed to be Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's weapon in the country's national elections, with a political pedigree unlike any other.

The 33-year-old candidate in the key southern state of Karnataka is the grandson of a former prime minister, and the nephew of an ex-chief minister.

His mother, father and brother are also actively involved in politics as members of an influential regional party called the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), which is allied with Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP had been counting on the alliance to deliver it a majority in the state's 28 seats and the prime minister threw his full weight behind JD(S).

"Every vote you give them will make Modi stronger," Mr Modi said at an election rally last month.

Voters went to the polls on April 26 to vote for Mr Revanna and other candidates in the second phase of nationwide elections.

But the vote was overshadowed by scandal a day later when almost 3,000 videos of him allegedly sexually assaulting multiple women began circulating.

Shortly after the news broke, Mr Revanna disappeared. It is believed he has fled to Germany on a diplomatic passport.

While he has denied the charges, the political controversy has triggered the formation of a special task force, which was approved by Karnataka's state government, to investigate the alleged crimes.

It has also put the treatment of women into centre focus in India at a delicate time for Mr Modi and the BJP.

The swirl of allegations against a Modi-backed candidate

The reports have placed Mr Revanna in the eye of a political storm that could cost the alliance a majority in the state.

Local media reported the footage of the politician was uploaded online from hundreds of USB flash drives that were left in public spaces.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said the allegations were "horrific and shameful and have shaken the conscience of the country".

Opposition parties — especially the BJP's main opponent, Indian National Congress (INC) — have also seized on the issue.

Rival politicians have accused Modi's party of having prior knowledge of the videos and of choosing to align themselves with Mr Revanna despite the allegations.

"Despite knowing every detail, how could you make a man who is so engrossed in sexual violence and sexual crime against women your candidate?" said Supriya Shrinate, the INC's national spokeswoman.

At an election rally, Rahul Gandhi, who is the INC Party leader and Mr Modi's main opponent, called Mr Revanna a "mass rapist".

"The [prime minister] should know that all the women know that he protected Prajwal Revanna because he wanted the alliance and was greedy for power," he said.

Letter indicates BJP knew of allegations in December

A letter written by BJP leader Devarajegowda in December 2023, which the ABC has independently verified, indicates the party was made aware of the allegations against Mr Revanna months ago.

The author warned the party against nominating Mr Revanna as a candidate in the note.

It said Mr Revanna was a "womaniser" and "psycho" and alleged "during his illegal activities with woman he himself has recorded many number of videos which include sexual and physical activities and these videos".

The author goes on to say that the Congress Party also has a copy of the videos and that he is "confident … the Congress party will certainly make use of these videos as a trump card in the election, and we cannot imagine the damage and impact".

Mr Devarajegowda told the ABC he had also received a USB with the videos of the women Mr Revanna had allegedly abused.

Mr Modi said it was the Congress Party's responsibility as the state's government to investigate the incident and he also condemned the behaviour.

"I am of the clear view that there should be zero tolerance for such people. Stringent punishment should be given," he said.

Treatment of women under scrutiny in India

The scandal has intensified the scrutiny on how political parties handle allegations of sexual misconduct among their ranks.

A 2023 report by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) noted that out of 762 sitting MPs and 4,001 sitting members of the legislative assembly in its study, 134 had declared cases related to crime against women.

The scandal involving Mr Revanna comes shortly after another political storm around a politician from another party in Sandeshkhali, a fishing village near the Bangladesh border.

Dozens of tribal women accused Shahjahan Sheikh, a leader of the All India Trinamool Congress Party (TMC), of sexual abuse and forcibly grabbing land.

In January, they took part in protests calling for his arrest and the issue soon attracted the attention of Mr Modi and other political leaders.

One of Mr Sheikh's accusers has now been endorsed by Mr Modi as an election candidate, with the prime minister pointing to her appointment as an example of how his party is empowering women.

"I will help everyone here and work with them to make sure as their MP I fulfil all their demands," she said.

But the move was panned by anti-rape activists, including Yogita Bhayana, as little more than political point scoring.

"Every single day I get calls from girls [getting] raped, killed, like in most brutal manner," she said.

"But why do they pick and choose the cases where they went all the way to Sandeshkhali and encouraged her to speak … And then when she reports you give her a ticket."

Several other sexual assault cases have also recently dominated the headlines in India.

Last year, a video that went viral showed two women being assaulted by men on a street in the north-eastern state of Manipur before they were allegedly gang raped.

It occurred as violent clashes between ethnic groups swept through the state.

Mr Modi was criticised for staying silent on the case despite the BJP governing the state, but he eventually condemned the alleged sexual assault following continued pressure.

"My heart is filled with pain, it is filled with anger," Mr Modi said at the end of customary comments he makes before the start of each session of parliament.

"The law will take its strongest steps, with all its might. What happened to the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven."

Women are an important voting block but have little sway

When the Modi government was first elected 10 years ago, it galvanised female voters by promising women's empowerment regardless of their economic background.

The prime minister has promised his third term will write a new chapter in the rise of women power.

Social policy scholar Yamini Aiyar says it's no surprise that major parties like Mr Modi's have devoted significant time in their campaigns to courting women.

She says female citizens are an increasingly influential group of voters.

"Women voters are now outstripping in some parts of India [the] male voters," she said.

"But more importantly … you're beginning to see women choosing to vote fairly differently to the male members of their household or their household in general."

Mr Modi has touted the welfare schemes he's introduced to empower women, including providing cooking gas, free grain, houses, increased access to toilets, sanitary pads, piped water, electricity and bank accounts.

Many of these benefits are delivered directly to their bank accounts, which are linked to identity cards held by more than a billion Indians.

But Ms Aiyar says women have become a "beneficiary class" without getting a real voice in public discourse and, as a result, there is less emphasis on women's safety.

"What exactly is happening with several politicians that are known offenders?" she asks.

"Why is it that critical issues around women's reproductive rights are not part and parcel of the political discourse at all?"

Gender rights activist Ranjana Kumari says studies across India have shown when more women become political leaders, there are lower rates of violence against women.

But female representation in Mr Modi's government has remained low in the past decade, sitting at about 14 per cent.

Activists say the few women who are in power can sometimes also become victims themselves.

"As long as women's political future will depend on these male politicians … women will face this kind of harassment," she said.

What will this mean for the election?

Dr Kumari says the scandal around Mr Revanna has put the spotlight on the BJP's commitment to women's rights.

"Revanna is kind of a phenomena in this country," she said.

"Revanna is a kind of indicative of how sick the society has become; how dangerous the society is for women."

She said the fact there were 97,000 rape cases pending across the country, meant courts were "not delivering justice".

"And the way everybody points finger to the women, the victim is blamed," she said.

"Not these politicians, not these men who are brutalising them or who are sexually harassing them."

As the treatment of women remains in focus, elections are continuing to take place across India.

Voting occurs in seven phases across six weeks, with India entering the fourth phase on Monday.

Parts of Karnataka are yet to vote but the state is key to Mr Modi's goal of winning 400 out of 543 lower house seats with his allies.

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