New Delhi: Rahul Gandhi issued a rapid rebuke and the Congress swiftly suspended Mani Shankar Aiyar on Thursday evening after Prime Minister Narendra Modi seized on a distasteful remark on him and sought to portray it as an "insult to Gujarat".
The blizzard of exchanges less than 48 hours before Gujarat goes to the polls threw up two clues: the BJP feels the battle has reached such a stage that every emotive issue needs to be milked and the Congress has gauged that it cannot afford to dither in the last mile and neutralise the perceived anti-incumbency driven by livelihood issues.
The chain of events unfolded after the Prime Minister alleged that "efforts were made to erase Ambedkar's contribution to nation-building" to promote a "family".
"Anyway, these days they remember Baba Bhole (Lord Shiva) more than Baba Saheb," Modi said. Recently, in order to nip a controversy over his religion, Rahul had described himself as a devotee of Lord Shiva.
In response, Aiyar was later quoted as saying that Modi was "a neech kism ka admi who has no sabhyata (civility)". "Neech kism ka admi" can be translated as "vile man" but a caste connotation can also be ascribed to the phrase. The Congress is heavily banking on the backward classes and Dalits in Gujarat.
Modi struck with surgical precision at an election rally in Surat: "Aiyar today said I belong to a neech (low) caste, that I am neech. This is an insult to Gujarat."
Rahul said that while the BJP and Modi "routinely use filthy language" to attack it, the Congress had "a different culture and heritage".
"I do not appreciate the tone and language used by Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar to address the PM. Both the Congress and I expect him to apologise for what he said," he tweeted.
Aiyar then apologised. "I meant low level when I said ' neech'. I think in English when I speak in Hindi as Hindi is not my tongue. So if it is translated and it has some links to caste, I apologise for my words," he said.
But aware that the BJP could take full advantage of the issue, the Congress suspended Aiyar from the primary membership of the party. He was also showcaused on why he should not be expelled."Will Modi show the courage (to act against BJP leaders who use intemperate language)?" Congress's Randeep Surjewala asked.