A meeting of chief ministers to discuss internal security on Wednesday triggered a fierce verbal battle between top generals of India's two biggest political parties.
Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi attacked the Centre, terming the meeting a “ritual” and the UPA's plan to set up a National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) a “poorly conceived idea”.
“There is a law on match-fixing but no law against terrorism,” Modi said.
The Centre’s counterattack was swift. Finance minister P Chidambaram and information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari took on the Gujarat CM.
“Modi is asking for anti-terror laws. Why doesn’t he just say he wants Pota and Tada,” said finance minister P Chidambaram, referring to two highly controversial anti-terror legislations which provide for long and often arbitrary detentions without bail.
He also warned that “the country will pay a price from time to time” if there was no consensus even on the diluted version of the NCTC.
In the latest version, the home ministry had withdrawn NCTC's powers to conduct raids and arrest terrorists after several states complained this was violative of the federal structure.
Instead, it proposed that NCTC would conduct operations “through or in conjunction with state police forces”.
While other opposition chief ministers, too, opposed the NCTC — Bihar's Nitish Kumar said it was not required at all - it was Modi's no-holds-barred assault on the Centre that made any possibility of common ground impossible.
Some Congress CMs such as Maharashtra's Prithviraj Chavan and Karnataka's Siddaramaiah suggested the move required more examination and cautioned against “unbridled powers” to the Centre.
Seen by many as the BJP's potential prime ministerial candidate for next year's general elections, Modi became the face of the opposition-ruled states against the anti-terror body.
NCTC bore the collateral damage of a political tussle which the government wanted to avoid but Modi made it a point to latch on to.
First at the conference and then in front of television cameras, Modi ran down the UPA government for pushing NCTC and even came up with his own version of what a conference of CMs should be discussing.
The government had sensed that the issue could become a sticky point and tried to play it down, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde skipping any reference to NCTC in their speeches.
The BJP's upcoming national executive in Goa — which will see sections of the party clamour for Modi as the party's face in the general elections — is expected to focus on national security and corruption as the party's poll planks.