Rahul Gandhi's north-south remark was controversy waiting to happen
The north-south divide inadvertently flares up before every election, especially in southern Indian states. This time it has come before the Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and the UT of Puducherry
Bickering over intended or unintended connotations of a politician's statement is usually the first indicator of the approaching poll season. With elections due in as many as four states and one Union Territory, Rahul Gandhi's comment comparing the way politics is conducted in the north and south India is at the centre of the storm.
The BJP, on the other hand, is leaving no stones unturned to capitalise on it.
The original comment, made on Tuesday in Kerala, is now two days old but the barbs just keep coming.
The latest jibe was fired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a public rally in Puducherry on Thursday, where he criticised Rahul without naming him. He alleged that the party's policy was to "divide, lie and rule".
"Our colonial rulers had the policy of divide and rule. Congress has a policy of divide, lie and rule. Sometimes their leaders put region against region, sometimes they put community against community."
"They are gold, silver and bronze medal winners in telling lies," he said, apparently referring to Rahul's recent statement in Kerala.
During his Kerala visit on Tuesday, Rahul had said he was used to a "different type of politics" in north India and coming to the southern state was "very refreshing" as people are interested in "issues", which drew condemnation from the BJP, whose leaders accused him of an opportunistic anti-north bias.
"For the first 15 years, I was a member of Parliament in the north. So I had got used to a different type of politics. And for me coming to Kerala was very refreshing. Because suddenly I found that people are interested in issues and not just superficially but going into detail in issues," Rahul had said.
He told the gathering that while talking to some students in the US recently, he said he "really enjoys" going to Kerala because of "the way you do politics".
"Recently, I was talking to some students in the United States and I said that I really enjoy going to Kerala and really I love going to Wayanad. It's not just the affection, because affection of course is there, but it's the way you do your politics."
The comments triggered sharp reactions from several BJP leaders, including some senior ministers, who immediately accused the Congress of being an 'opportunist' and alleged that Rahul belittled north Indians, despite him and his family members winning several elections from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh in the past.
Following Rahul's speech, Union minister Prakash Javadekar on Wednesday called the opposition leader "superficial" and said "insulting Indians" was the former's "favourite pastime".
Javadekar also said the Congress leader has been severely admonished on social media while his Cabinet colleague Ravi Shankar Prasad asserted that the remarks have raised questions over the level of responsibility shown by the former chief of a national party.
"Insulting Indians is a favourite pastime of Rahul Gandhi. Indians are not superficial you are Mr Rahul Gandhi," Javadekar tweeted.
Later during a post-Cabinet media briefing, the information and broadcasting minister said that the BJP leaders have already reacted to that and "social media pe poori dhulayi hui hai (he has been severely admonished on social media)".
Prasad said, "I do not take political questions generally (during the post-Cabinet briefing), but this is one question on which I want to speak... Gandhi talks about fresh air when he goes to the North East and when he is in South India, he says the atmosphere in Kerala is different from the north."
"Yours is a national party and you are differentiating the country's atmosphere. This certainly raises a question about the level of your responsibility (as a national party leader)," the minister added.
Reacting to the attack from BJP leaders, Congress on Wednesday said the north-south divide was a "toolkit" being sold by the BJP to the public.
Congress's chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala alleged that the BJP was raising "superficial" issues on a daily basis to divert the country's attention from the people's issues.
"The North-South divide is a toolkit being adopted and sold by the BJP to the news channels and the public. Let us all rise and ensure that the governments of the day answer on issues and not on superficiality that they want to divert our attention to," he told reporters on Wednesday.
Senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal, refusing to directly comment on Rahul's comment, slammed the BJP for accusing Congress of creating a divide, saying it was not only ludicrous and laughable but mischievous as well for a party to level such an allegation that has "perfected the art of dividing communities, dividing mindsets and polarising societies".
The north-south divide has often been used as political fodder by parties both at the state and central level. The subject inadvertently flares up before every election, especially in southern Indian states.
In 2018, when Karnataka was due to elect its Assembly, then chief minister and Congress leader Siddaramaiah had engaged in a bitter exchange with BJP leaders over Twitter after he dubbed BJP campaigners, including Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as "north Indian imports".
"@BJP4Karnataka by waiting for North Indian imports like PM Modi, UPCM Adityanath is admitting they have no leaders in the state. They have reduced their CM face @BSYBJP to a dummy," Siddaramaiah had tweeted at the time.
The BJP had picked up on these comments and claimed that the Congress' attempt to divide North and South India is "disgusting".
The party had also pointed out that Rahul, who was then the Congress president, was also of north Indian descent.
Now, we think it is time we teach CM definition of
'Import': bring (goods or services) into a country from abroad. For ex: when you get Italian toiletries for your Bengaluru bathroom, it's import.
Not 'Import': When you get rape accused KC Venu from Kerala as Karnataka Incharge https://t.co/YYo978DO74
— BJP Karnataka (@BJP4Karnataka) April 25, 2018
There was also a massive controversy over a separate state flag for Karnataka just ahead of the 2018 polls. The Siddaramaiah government, in its last few days, had unveiled the flag amid much fanfare. But the BJP had accused the party of using the flag to exploit Kannadiga pride for votes. Siddaramaiah had also written a scathing blog post stating that southern states were at a historical disadvantage because they have been forced to subsidise the north.
"Historically, the South has been subsidising the North. Six states south of the Vindhyas contribute more taxes and get less. For example, for every one rupee of tax contributed by Uttar Pradesh that state receives rupee 1.79. For every one rupee of tax contributed by Karnataka, the state receives 0.47 rupees," Siddaramaiah said.
DMK president MK Stalin had once unwittingly suggested that India’s southern states should came together to demand autonomy for a separate Dravidanadu, a statement he retracted within two days after a controversy broke out.
Rahul's comments, in the light of these precedents, were a controversy waiting to happen. The former Congress leader, perhaps, unintentionally let the genie out of the bottle.
Rahul, who was representing the Amethi constituency of Uttar Pradesh in the Lok Sabha since 2004, contested from the Wayanad seat in Kerala simultaneously in the 2019 general elections. Although, he lost Amethi to Smriti Irani of the BJP, he won from the Congress bastion in Kerala.
With inputs from PTI
Senior leaders and members of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) have been carrying out 'PM House ghero' in protest, while party MPs are holding a 'Chalo Rashtrapati Bhavan' from Parliament
BJP MP Ravi Shankar Prasad on Wednesday came down heavily on Nitish Kumar, asking if the JD(U) leader has compromised on his principles of politics which always revolved around non-Congressism.
The Congress general secretary was subsequently put in a vehicle forcibly by police and taken away.