Pragya Thakur, a Hindu ascetic accused of plotting a bomb attack on Muslims in India, defeated an opposition strongman by a big margin on Thursday as her ruling Hindu nationalist party headed towards a massive victory in the country's general election.
Thakur, contesting from the central city of Bhopal for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is the first person accused of terrorism to be fielded by a major political group in India.
Latest Election Commission data showed she had received 69 per cent more votes than her opponent, Digvijaya Singh, a two-term chief minister of Madhya Pradesh state and a senior member of the main opposition Congress party.
Final results are likely to come later in the day, but two television stations said she had won, spooking many Muslims.
“This will be a victory of religion,” Thakur, clad in her usual saffron, told reporters.
The 49-year-old — described as a pious nationalist, fiery orator and champion of women's rights by her family members — stoked a controversy this month by calling the killer of India's independence hero, Mohandas Gandhi, a patriot.
Modi said he would never be able to forgive her for the remark.
She has also boasted of her role in demolishing a mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya in 1992, which had sparked nationwide riots and killed about 2,000 people.
The BJP has said Thakur was given an election ticket “so that the whole world can know that these accusations against her were fabricated”.
Many voters said Thakur's election was more a reflection of their desire to see Modi as prime minister for another term than anything else.
“She's only popular because people are voting for Modi, otherwise people dont know her much,” said Osama Khalid, a Muslim running a lemon juice stall by a busy street.
“I had voted for Congress. Everything I have heard about Pragya Thakur is bad. She has spent time in jail.”
Thursday's victory completes Thakur's emergence to prominence alongside the rapid rise of a Hindu nationalist movement since Modi first took office in 2014, and which is showing increasing intolerance towards minority Muslims.
Thakur, who is facing charges under an anti-terrorism law for plotting a bomb attack on Muslims in 2006, said this month that the election would deliver a “fitting reply” to those calling Gandhi's killer, Nathuram Godse, a terrorist.
The BJP quickly distanced itself from the comments and Thakur later apologised.
According to court filings, Thakur had planned attacks to avenge “jihadi activities” and the motorcycle on which the explosives were strapped was Thakur's.
She denies all links to the attacks.