A major political row broke out on Thursday over Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury's 'rashtrapatni' remark with the BJP launching an all-out offensive against the opposition party, accusing Chowdhury of hurling a "deliberate sexist insult" at President Droupadi Murmu and demanding an apology from Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.
In his defence, Chowdhury, who is the leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha, said he never intended to disrespect the President and his 'rashtrapatni' remark was a "slip of the tongue". Accusing the BJP of making a "mountain out of a molehill" over the issue, he said he will apologise to President Murmu but not to "these pakhandis" (hypocrites).
The Congress leader said he has sought time from the President the day after tomorrow and will apologise to her if she has been offended by his inadvertent comments. Taking on the Congress, both inside and outside Parliament, Union ministers Nirmala Sitharaman and Smriti Irani said Chowdhury used the term knowing well that it demeans Murmu and her office and is against India's values. Both houses also witnessed frequent adjournments due to protests by BJP members on the issue.
"Chowdhury's comments were not a slip of tongue. It was a deliberate sexist insult against the President," Sitharaman said, making a brief statement in Rajya Sabha. Demanding an apology from the Congress president, the finance minister said Sonia Gandhi appointed Chowdhury as the leader in Lok Sabha to speak and he had insulted the President.
The BJP also fielded six of its tribal leaders, including three Union ministers --Kiren Rijiju, Sarbananda Sonowal and Bharati Pawar, to attack the Congress over the issue. Addressing a press conference at BJP headquarters here, the leaders said Sonia Gandhi should tender an apology to the country on behalf of her party as Chowdhury had insulted the tribal community as well as women.
Chowdhury's clarification was even "more objectionable" as he has tried to make light of the remark, Rijiju told reporters. "What he said was not a mistake. He said it deliberately and with stress," Rijiju said, criticising the West Bengal leader for his allegation that the BJP was making a mountain out of a molehill.
Alleging that the Congress has been targeting Murmu "maliciously" ever since the BJP-led NDA named her its presidential candidate, Irani said she was called a "puppet" and a "symbol of evil" by its leaders. "A tribal woman from a poor family who created history is being continuously demeaned by the Congress," she told reporters.
Later, a face-off between Gandhi and Irani in the Lok Sabha chamber added to the already raging row over Chowdhury's remark with the Congress accusing BJP MPs of subjecting the party chief to "brutal heckling, verbal assault and physical intimidation", and demanded an apology from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The incident took place after Gandhi walked across to the Treasury benches and sought to know from BJP member Rama Devi why she was dragged into the issue.
Irani stepped in and was seen gesturing towards Gandhi and apparently protesting Chowdhury's remark. Gandhi at first tried to ignore Irani's protestations, but was soon seen gesturing towards the minister and speaking angrily. NCP member Supriya Sule and Trinamool member Aparupa Poddar were seen escorting the Congress president away from the Treasury benches as BJP members flocked around Rama Devi and Gandhi.
In a tweet, Moitra said, "Was in Lok Sabha when 75 year old lady senior leader encircled & heckled pack-wolf style when all she did was walk over & speak (masked) to another senior lady panel chairperson." Earlier clarifying his remark, Chowdhury said,"yesterday, when we were holding a protest at Vijay Chowk, journalists asked where we wanted to go. I said 'rashtrapatni' only once by mistake. I urged the journalists not to show my video where I committed a mistake. The BJP is creating a row over it now. What should I do? I said it and realised I uttered the wrong word".
In a video message later, he said India's president, be it Brahmin or tribal, is respected by all. Accusing the Congress of insulting the President of India by using derogatory words, Leader of the House in Rajya Sabha Piyush Goyal alleged that the opposition party now wants to view the President's office through the prism of caste and religion.
"Today the entire country is seriously concerned that the President has been insulted and it will not tolerate this," he told the house amid uproar by the ruling party members. Goyal said Chowdhury repeated this insult again today by saying that the president can be a Brahmin or Adivasi.
According to Chowdhury, the BJP does not have anything on the party and is finding "masala" against it. "The issue is being blown out of proportion... I do not have the remotest intention of humiliating the highest chair of our country," Chowdhury said.
Women BJP MPs, including Union ministers -Sitharaman and Shobha Karandlaje- also held a protest and raised slogans in the Parliament complex against Chowdhury. In a related development, the National Commission for Women and 13 state women commissions issued a joint statement, saying Chowdhury's remark was "deeply insulting, sexist and constitute an attempt to humiliate the Hon'ble President".
The NCW issued notice to Chowdhury to appear before it in person on August 3 and tender a written explanation regarding his controversial comment. The Commission also wrote to Gandhi to intervene and take appropriate action against Chowdhury for his derogatory remark.
The issue also echoed in the Odisha assembly as opposition BJP MLAs trooped into the Well and shouted slogans against the Congress. Opposition chief whip Mohan Majhi of BJP said,"the Congress has not only insulted the president of India, but also Odisha's daughter. Sonia Gandhi must take action against Adhir Ranjan immediately."
BJD MLA Raj Kishore Das from Murmu's Mayurbhanj district also condemned the Congress leader's remark. Protests were also held by the BJP members over the issue in some parts of the country, including Imphal.BSP chief Mayawati termed Chowdhury's remark as "most shameful and condemnable", and demanded that his party apologise for his comment.