Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury's "rashtrapatni" reference triggered a political firestorm both inside and outside Parliament with BJP going on the offensive to accuse Sonia Gandhi of masterminding the insult to President Droupadi Murmu and demanding an apology from the Congress president.
Chowdhury’s reference to Murmu, India’s first tribal President, as “rashtrapatni” on a Hindi TV channel set the tone with the BJP members up on their feet and demanding an apology as soon as the Lok Sabha had assembled for the day. BJP’s women members, who occupied the front rows, led the protest.
“The Congress leader has disrespected the President. Congress cannot tolerate that PM Narendra Modi made a poor tribal woman the President. . Soniaji sanctioned humiliation of a woman in the highest constitutional post," Union minister Smriti Irani said.
As the House adjourned soon after noon, Gandhi walked across to the treasury benches, unusual for a senior leader, and sought to know from BJP member Rama Devi why she was dragged into the issue when Chowdhury had already apologised.
Irani stepped in and was seen gesturing towards Gandhi while protesting against Chowdhury's remark. Gandhi too was seen gesturing towards the minister and speaking angrily.
According to accounts, Rama Devi responded to Gandhi by saying that the apology was demanded of her because she had appointed Chowdhury as leader of the Congress group in the Lok Sabha. Soon, Irani stepped in to say that she could help the Congress chief better because it was she who had levelled the allegation against Gandhi.
Sonia is said to have angrily responded to the minister. "I don't want to talk to you," she said, according to accounts. Soon, Jyotsna Mahant (Congress), Supriya Sule (NCP) and Aparupa Poddar, Mahua Moitra and Mala Roy (all TMC) were seen escorting the Congress chief away from the treasury benches.
However, the confrontation continued, with the purported exchanges between Gandhi, Irani and Rama Devi fuelling it further. Congress member Mahant, who was just behind Gandhi, accused Irani of insulting the Congress chief.
When Soniaji went to the other side, Smriti Iraniji came and started talking to her by pointing her finger and in an insulting tone. Gandhi is our leader, elder to us in age… She deserves respect,” she told the media later.
Though the row had the Lok Sabha as its epicentre, it had loud reverberations also in the Rajya Sabha despite leader of the opposition Mallikarjun Kharge's attempt to pre-empt a discussion on the ground that Chowdhury, being a Lok Sabha MP, could not be criticised in the Upper House. The protest was waved aside by deputy chairman Harivansh Narayan Singh who reminded him that the remark was not made on the floor of the Lok Sabha but outside.
Later, BJP fielded six of its tribal leaders - Union ministers Kiren Rijiju, Sarbananda Sonowal and Bharati Pawar besides Rameshwar Teli, Jaskaur Meena and Hina Gavit - to attack Congress over the issue.