It is a full blown war. A day after Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi's accused the Congress of hiding behind the "burqa (veil) of secularism" when faced with crisis, the ruling party hit back on Monday, saying the burqa was much better than naked communalism.
With a battery of senior Congress leaders taking on Modi, the issue of secularism versus communalism looks set to take the centre stage ahead of the 2014 general elections.
"The burqa of secularism is much better than naked communalism. While communalism divides, secularism binds," Congress' communication department head Ajay Maken said.
Modi came under fire from estranged ally the Janata Dal (U) as well. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar said use of words such as "puppy" and "burqa" would not yield votes for the BJP but would certainly vitiate the environment.
Modi's comments appear to have created disquiet in his party as well. Party leader Yashwant Sinha cautioned that the "spurious" secular-communal debate could divert attention from the real issues of corruption and price rise on which the UPA government could be cornered.
A combative Congress was unsparing. The people of the country would have to choose between those who were for an inclusive India and those with a sectarian outlook, information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari said.
"The vision of the Congress party is pluralistic and inclusive. And the vision of the section of the Opposition has been sectarian, majoritarian and communal right from the beginning," he said.
Another minister Shashi Tharoor joined in, saying secularism burqa was preferable to "khaki shorts of the Italian fascists which signify intolerance and hatred."
The BJP, in turn, accused the Congress of running away from the debate on development. "We thought Ajay Maken will answer questions raised by Modi, but he ended up posing out of context questions," said party spokesperson Captain Abhimanyu.
Yashwant Sinha, however, said the focus of the debate should be the problems confronting the common man such as poverty and unemployment.
"These are the issues which are hurting people. It is not communalism or secularism," he said.
Addressing students in Pune on Sunday, Modi accused the Congress of failing to address poverty and using a "veil of secularism" to cover its failures.