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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 November 2005, 11:15 GMT
India's firebrand Hindu nun

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News Online correspondent in Delhi

BJP leader Uma Bharati on campaign trail
Uma Bharti: Plain speaker with common touch
A fiery saffron-robed Hindu nun is at the centre of a political row in India's main opposition party.

Uma Bharti is one of India's most controversial and charismatic right-wing political leaders who has taken a pledge of celibacy and has promised to shun meat.

She is also one of senior leaders of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and has been a federal minister as well as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh state.

But after clashing with the party leadership, the BJP has once again suspended her from the party. An earlier suspension in November 2004 was revoked after a few weeks.

Temple row

Ms Bharti, 45, is one of the best-known leaders of the Hindu right. A former cabinet minister, she is at the centre of a campaign to build a controversial temple in the northern city of Ayodhya.

More than 10 years ago, she watched from the sidelines as a Hindu mob tore down a 16th century mosque, which they believe was built over the birthplace of the Hindu God Ram.

Hinduism is the life of this nation
BJP leader Uma Bharti
Like many others in the BJP, Ms Bharti wants a temple to be built in its place, although over the years she has toned down her rhetoric.

She is alleged to have egged on the crowd with cries of encouragement and is still fighting a court battle against charges of inciting the mob.

These days her speeches are far tamer - she focuses on development, not religion, roads and power stations, not temples.

But she is still faithful to her core belief.

"Hinduism is the life of this nation," she said in an interview in 2003. "I strongly believe in it."

Her opponents accuse her of an exclusivist Hindu supremacist ideology, one that has little place in it for minorities.

But she defends herself of that charge, pointing out that she belonged to one of the lower rungs of Hindu society, as a member of the lower castes.

"I am also a woman in a world dominated by men. I more than anybody else knows what it means to be in the minority," she says.

Inspired by radicals

Ms Bharti is a school dropout and became a nun at a young age.

BJP leader Uma Bharati addresses press conference
Ms Bharti: From school dropout to cabinet minister
During election campaigns, her ability to rouse people through raw emotion is used by the BJP to reach out to the electorate, particularly in the villages and among the working classes.

And she rarely lets her party down.

During the 2004 general election she targeted the then opposition Congress at every point, in particular its president, Sonia Gandhi.

"No Italian will become the prime minister as long as a sanyasin like me is alive," she said.

She is said to have a mix of heroes - ranging from revolutionaries to radicals.

They include Indian independence leader Gandhi, Latin revolutionary Che Guevara and 17th century Indian warrior Shivaji, who defied the Muslim Mughal empire.

'Electrifying' speaker

The nun who once spent her day walking from door to door begging for charity soars above the clouds in a helicopter as she takes her message to voters.

Her campaign style is earthy and not without symbolism as she stops to stroke and feed a cow, revered by Hindus.

Like many in the BJP, she is against the slaughter of cows for their meat and wants the practice to be banned.

"I see hope in the cow. She is the future. Why can't we learn from Holland where dairy products form a big industry?" she once said.

Her plain-speaking draws gasps as well as admiration, even from her opponents.

But it has often got her into trouble and political observers will be keenly watching her next move.


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