New Delhi: Congress MP Shashi Tharoor's warning that a BJP victory in the next general election would turn India into a "Hindu Pakistan" triggered attacks from the ruling party and prompted the Congress to urge leaders to choose their words carefully.
The BJP accused Tharoor of insulting both the Hindu religion and India's constitutional democracy and demanded an apology from Rahul Gandhi.
The Congress, which has been flagging a threat to the Constitution over the past four years, seemed to have come under pressure and appeared to caution Tharoor, who refused to concede any wrongdoing.
"If they (the BJP) win a repeat in the Lok Sabha, our democratic Constitution as we understand it will not survive, as they will have all the elements they need to tear apart the Constitution and write a new one," Tharoor had said on Wednesday at a discussion of "Indian democracy and secularism" in Kerala.
"That new one will be the one which enshrine the principles of Hindu Rashtra. That will remove equality for the minorities, that will create a Hindu Pakistan and that isn't what Mahatma Gandhi, (Jawaharlal) Nehru, Sardar (Vallabhbhai) Patel, Maulana Azad and the great heroes of the freedom struggle fought for."
BJP ministers and spokespersons on Thursday described the comment as a reflection of the Congress's "anti-Hindu mindset", although Tharoor has asserted he is a proud Hindu who believes in an inclusive Hinduism.
"Tharoor has lost (his) mental balance. (The) Constitution is a sacred document for the Prime Minister. The Congress changed the Constitution several times and imposed (the) Emergency," I&B minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore said.
BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra told a news conference: "Tharoor is the same person who called Indians 'cattle class'. He is cattle-classing Indian democracy.... If you want to love Pakistan, do so. But do not display such hatred towards Indians."
Tharoor, then junior foreign minister, had in 2009 appeared to mock a government austerity drive by tweeting he would "travel cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows", triggering accusations of insulting the common man and the Congress leadership.
Patra screamed in anger: "This is an insult to compare India's democracy to Pakistan's. Pakistan is terroristan. And you compare our democracy to Pakistan's?... Rahulji, you have begun hating the people of this country. What is more disheartening is that you show hatred for Hindus. It is shameful to denigrate your own country. Rahul Gandhi should apologise for this."
In response, Congress communications chief Randeep Surjewala posted a tweet accusing the Narendra Modi government of creating "an unprecedented atmosphere of division, bigotry, hatred, intolerance & polarisation" and contrasting this with the Congress values of "pluralism, diversity, compassion & harmony".
He added: "India's values and fundamentals are an unequivocal guarantee of our civilisational role & set us apart from the divisive idea of Pakistan. All Congress leaders must realise this historic responsibility bestowed upon us while choosing words & phraseology to reject BJP's hatred."
Many in the party who disapproved of Tharoor's phraseology saw this as a rap to the MP. They said that expressions like "Hindu Pakistan" create an opportunity for the BJP to give its own spin to them.
Tharoor wondered why an apology was being sought. He said he would stop saying the Sangh-BJP wanted to transform India into a Hindu Rashtra if the Prime Minister declared he disagreed with M.S. Golwalkar, V.D. Savarkar and Deendayal Upadhyaya on that count.
"The BJP can't have it both ways. They say they want to change the country and yet repose faith in the Constitution. Let the BJP repudiate the theory of Hindu Rashtra."
Tharoor later issued a statement on Facebook clarifying what he had meant by "Hindu Pakistan".
"Pakistan was created as a state with a dominant religion that discriminates against its minorities and denies them equal rights. India never accepted the logic that had partitioned the country," he wrote.
"But the BJP/RSS idea of a Hindu Rashtra is the mirror image of Pakistan - a state with a dominant majority religion that seeks to put its minorities in a subordinate place. That would be a Hindu Pakistan.... Many proud Hindus like myself cherish the inclusive nature of our faith and have no desire to live, as our Pakistani neighbours are forced to, in an intolerant theocratic state. We want to preserve India and not turn our beloved country into a Hindu version of Pakistan."