Derogatory comments by first-time minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti have provided opposition parties with a convenient handle to attack the government in the Rajya Sabha – where the opposition commands a majority – as important legislation hangs in the balance during the current session of parliament.
The controversy started when Jyoti, a 47-year old former Hindu preacher, told voters at a campaign rally in Delhi this week that they must "decide whether you want a government of the sons of Rama (Ramzaadon) or of those born illegitimately (haramzaadon)". By haramzaadon, the minister may have been referring to supporters of other parties or even to non-Hindus.
The minister apologised a day later after critics called for her to be prosecuted for violating the secular spirit of the constitution. The government also distanced itself from her comments, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling them “not acceptable”.
On Thursday Modi sought to draw a line under the row, urging opposition MPs to accept her apology and move on. "I request the house that now that the minister has given an apology, and there is a message in it for all of us - let us get on with our work in the interest of the country," he said.
But opposition lawmakers were not satisfied. They demanded that Jyoti be fired for her speech, threatening to derail the passage of bills in the upper house of parliament.
According to Reuters, Jyoti is one of many first-time MPs of the BJP who were elected in Modi's landslide victory in May. Many are drawn from hardline Hindu affiliates, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and were given tickets to mobilise the religious vote.
Emboldened by their stunning election victory, some MPs have now taken a stridently pro-Hindu line that they project aggressively, raising suspicions that Modi's development agenda could be hijacked by divisive religious politics.
The BJP needs the support of the opposition to pass a long-delayed insurance reform bill to liberalise investment in the sector. The bill, first tabled by the previous administration, enjoys bipartisan support with only a few details left to iron out.
According to Reuters, the controversy over the minister's remarks has given opposition parties a platform to unite and attack the government after their defeat in May.
Yet some of these parties have been guilty of making controversial comments of their own in the past. For instance, Trinamool Congress MP Tapas Pal was caught on video earlier this year making a public speech where he threatened political opponents with “rape” and death.