May 23, 2024

Bengaluru, India – Standing behind former Indian Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, the country’s current leader Narendra Modi smiled into the cameras. Next to Modi was HD Revanna, the son of Deve Gowda. In another photo of that meeting, a young man can be seen standing a few feet away from Modi.

That young man, Prajwal Revanna, is now at the centre of a political firestorm that threatens to reset the electoral landscape of the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

Prajwal, his father and grandfather belong to the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), a regional party allied with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the ongoing national elections. It is an alliance that the BJP was counting on to deliver its coalition a majority of Karnataka’s 28 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament.

But the leak of nearly 3,000 videos, allegedly shot by the 33-year-old Prajwal, apparently showing him sexually abusing multiple women, has tuned the alliance into a weapon the opposition Congress Party is using against Modi and the BJP.

Prajwal, the sitting member of parliament from Hassan in Karnataka, contested as the coalition’s candidate from the constituency again when it voted on April 26, in the second phase of the national election. Now, the sex scandal hovers over the remainder of Karnataka’s election on May 7 – when 14 of the state’s seats vote.

Alka Lamba, the president of the Congress Party’s women’s wing, said the videos had “shaken the conscience of Kannadigas [people whose roots originate from Karnataka and speak Kannada] and Indians alike,” in a statement to Al Jazeera.

“In these videos, some recorded against the consent of the victim, women are pleading to be spared but MP Prajwal Revanna continues to brutalise and sexually violate them,” she said.

Separately, a woman has filed a police complaint against Prajwal, accusing him of sexually assaulting her between 2019 and 2022.

Prajwal Revanna has denied all allegations and filed a counter-complaint on Sunday claiming that the videos circulating “are doctored”. He has left for Germany, where he is believed to be at the moment.

On Tuesday, the JD(S) said it had temporarily suspended the MP from the party. Meanwhile, the Congress-led state government has launched a police investigation into the allegations against Prajwal.

But questions have also emerged over whether the BJP knew about the videos: Prajwal’s former driver has confessed to having leaked the videos on a flash drive to another BJP leader, Devarajegowda.

Did the BJP know?

The sex scandal has erupted at a time when Modi has sharpened his political focus on Karnataka, ahead of the May 7 third-phase vote. On Sunday, Modi campaigned in Belagavi, Karnataka.

“Our daughters are not safe under the Congress government in Karnataka,” Modi said at the rally and added that his party would protect women if they were elected to power.

Since the Prajwal scandal emerged, the BJP has distanced itself from the case.

“The case of MP Prajwal Revanna is shocking. BJP’s stand on this matter is clear – we stand with the power of Nari Shakti [women’s power]. BJP will never tolerate humiliation of Nari Shakti,” S Prakash, the party’s chief Karnataka spokesperson, told Al Jazeera when asked for the party’s response.

“Even though the Congress government is in power in Karnataka, it is doing politics instead of taking strict action. Instead of asking us questions, congressmen should question the Congress government in the state.”

But members from the Congress have accused the BJP of being aware of the videos.

In a December 2023 letter shared by many Congress Party members on social media and seen by Al Jazeera, Karnataka BJP leader Devarajegowda warned the party against nominating Prajwal as a candidate from Hassan.

“There are grave allegations against several leaders of the HD Deve Gowda family (including Prajwal Revanna, the NDA candidate) of the JD(S), the party that we are in alliance with,” his letter said.

He said that he had also received a flash drive with the videos of the women Revanna had allegedly sexually abused.

Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra also lashed out at Prime Minister Modi for remaining silent on the case and supporting Prajwal’s candidature.

“Just hearing about his heinous crimes makes my heart tremble. He has ruined the lives of hundreds of women. Modi ji will you remain silent?” she said in a post on X.

Congress Party members organised protests outside their office in Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka on April 28 and April 29, against Prajwal.

How will elections be impacted?

Still, it is unclear whether the allegations against Prajwal will stick – and whether they will hurt the BJP-JD(S) alliance in Karnataka, or the prime minister nationally.

“The voter for the BJP party and Modi ignores these indiscretions,” Rasheed Kidwai, an author and political analyst, told Al Jazeera.

He referred to another instance in 2023 when BJP MP Brij Bhushan Singh, who heads India’s wrestling federation, was accused of sexual abuse by many of the country’s top female wrestlers. Singh remains a free man, out on bail, and the BJP is not known to have censured him.

There will be some impact, however, on voting patterns, said Kidwai. “It will impact neutral or swing voters while the political impact will remain confined to Karnataka,” Kidwai said.

What’s next?

The JD(S) is on the defensive. A letter from party legislator Sharan Gouda Kandkur, made public, describes the videos as having caused huge “embarrassment” to the JD(S).

Former Prime Minister Deve Gowda – Prajwal’s grandfather – has spoken too. “If there is any wrongdoing, action should be taken,” he said, insisting that the family and party leadership had no prior knowledge of the accusations.

That Prajwal left the country amid the accusations is not surprising, said Kidwai.

“There is [a] lot of shame in matters of sex… so politicians duck and flee instead of going through a trial,” he said.

But addressing a news conference in Karnataka on Monday, the state’s former Chief Minister and Prajwal’s uncle HD Kumaraswamy said his nephew would not be forgiven if proven guilty.

“Uppu thindavanu neeru kudiyabeku,” he said, referring to a Kannada proverb that means, “Whoever has consumed salt, will drink water”.

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