A rare row between a sitting and a former premier broke out on Monday after Narendra Modi insinuated that Manmohan Singh colluded with Pakistan in the Gujarat polls with the Congress leader accusing his successor of setting a "dangerous precedent" and asking his apology.
Launching a sharp counteroffensive, Singh tore into Modi over what he called the prime minister's "ill-thought transgression" and rejected his charge as "innuendos and falsehoods".
In uncharacteristically strong words, a usually reticent Singh crossed swords with his predecessor to say the Gujarat polls was never raised by anyone present at a dinner hosted by Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar for a visiting Pakistani leader at his house on December 6 and that the discussion was confined to India-Pakistan ties.
Congress spokesperson Anand Sharma accused Modi of dragging the political discourse to an "unacceptable low" by making statements that harmed the dignity of his post and demanded he apologise to the former premier.
His party colleague P Chidambaram wondered whether winning an election was so important that such allegations can be made against a former prime minister and a former Vice President. Addressing an election rally in Palanpur in Gujarat yesterday, Modi sought to suggest that Pakistan was trying to influence the assembly polls in the state. The second and final phase of Assembly polls in Gujarat is to be held on December 14.
Modi claimed that some Pakistani officials and Manmohan Singh met at Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar's house over dinner on December 6. This was a day before Aiyar's "neech" jibe against Modi that led to his suspension from the party.
Singh issued a statement on Monday, listing those who attended the dinner hosted in honour of the visiting former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. He said besides himself and former vice president Hamid Ansari, others present at Aiyar's dinner hosted for Kasuri, were the Pakistan High Commissioner, Natwar Singh, K S Bajpai, Ajai Shukla, Sharad Sabharwal, Gen Deepak Kapoor, TCA Raghavan, Satinder K Lambah, M K Bhadrakumar, CR Gharekhan, Prem Shankar Jha, Salman Haider and Rahul Khushwant Singh.
"None of them could be accused of indulging in any anti-national activities," he said. Lambah, a former diplomat, was quoted as having said he does not comment on private dinners. He, however, said there was just a general discussion on Indo-Pak relations. Gharekhan, another former diplomat said, said the invitees were talking about the relations between India and Pakistan.
"But nobody, if I recall....I am hundred percent sure that, not a single person, talked about Gujarat elections or anything about the present situation... or for that matter, the present situation in Pakistan," he told NDTV. "It was only about India-Pakistan relation, We didn't talk about any kind of politics." Gen. Kapoor, a former Army Chief, was quoted as having said Gujarat elections were never discussed at the dinner meeting. Manmohan Singh said he did not discuss the Gujarat Assembly elections with anyone at the dinner meeting.
"I sincerely hope that Prime Minister will show the maturity and gravitas expected of the high office he holds instead of concentrating his energy solely on erroneously conceived brownie points.
"I sincerely hope that he will apologize to the Nation for his ill-thought transgression to restore the dignity of the office he occupies," he said.
Singh said he was "deeply pained and anguished" by the "falsehood and canards" being spread to score political points by the prime minister in what he said was a "lost cause" in Gujarat.
"Fearing imminent defeat in Gujarat, desperation of Prime Minister to hurl every abuse and latch on to every straw is palpable. Sadly and regrettably, Sh. Modi is setting a dangerous precedent by his insatiable desire to tarnish every constitutional office, including that of a former Prime Minister and Army Chief," he alleged.
The Congress Party, Singh said, needs no sermons on "nationalism" from a party and prime minister, whose "compromised" track record on fighting terrorism is well known, while reminding Modi of his "uninvited" visit to Pakistan after terrorist attacks in Udhampur and Gurdaspur.
"Let him also tell the country the reason for inviting the infamous ISI of Pakistan to our strategic Air Base in Pathankot to investigate a terror attack that emanated from Pakistan," he said.
Claiming that his track record of public service to the country over the last five decades is known to all, he said no one, including Modi, can "lamely question it to gain lost political ground". Anand Sharma alleged that Modi was "frustrated" as he had sensed a clear defeat of the BJP in Gujarat and was resorting to use of foul language in his bid to whip up emotions and polarise Gujarat.
"There cannot be anything more as an explanation and there cannot be anything more reprehensible than what he has done," he alleged.
"The prime minister should restore the dignity of the political discourse, withdraw what he has said and apologise to the former prime minister and the former vice president," Sharma told reporters in Delhi.