Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav on Thursday said it was unfair to award death penalty to rapists for their 'mistakes'.
He also said at a rally in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, that there would be changes in the tough anti-rape law if his party came to power after the 2014 general elections.
An ANI tweet quoted Mulayam as saying, "Rape ke liye phaansi dena ghalat hai, ladkon se ghalti ho jaati hai, hum satta mein aaye to kanoon mein badlav karenge (Handing death sentence for rape is not fair... boys make mistakes... there will be changes in the law if we come to power)."
Read: Cong, BJP ask Mulayam to immediately apologise for rape remarks
Mulayam's statement triggered a controversy at a time when women's security has emerged as one of the key issues in the elections, especially against the backdrop of the December 16, 2012, gang rape of a paramedical student in Delhi.
Less than a week ago, a Mumbai court had sentenced three repeat offenders in the two Shakti Mills gang rape cases in Mumbai to death.
It was the first time in the country that rape convicts were sentenced to death under the provision of section 376E under the Indian Penal Code brought in by the new Criminal Law (Amendment) Act in 2013.
Referring to the Shakti Mills case, Mulayam said, "Efforts will be made to change such a law so that those misusing it are punished. Those filing false reports will also be taken to task."
He added boys and girls fall in love but part ways due to differences. "When their friendship ends, the girl complains she has been raped."
The SP has declared in its manifesto that if voted to power, it will check misuse of anti-rape law.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flayed Mulayam for his "insensitive and shameful" statement.
Vijay Bahadur Pathak, state spokesperson of the BJP, said the former UP chief minister's comments were unacceptable and very sad.
"It is unfortunate that any leader makes such a statement regarding a crime like rape. Such statements encourage persons involved in such crimes," Congress spokesperson Shobha Oza told reporters in Delhi.
BJP leader Subramanian Swamy said the comment smacked of Yadav playing "minority politics" in the backdrop of recent Muzaffarnagar riots in which many women were allegedly raped.
"Mulayam Singh Yadav must have thought of playing minority politics in Nirbhaya case also," he said.
Social activist Kiran Bedi said, "These statements call for total boycott of such a political leader. People should be asked to vote out such people completely."
"This statement is against the society and it is spreading lawlessness," she said.
Another activist Ranjana Kumari demanded Yadav's arrest in the light of these remarks.
She said the EC should take cognisance of it and an FIR must be lodged against him for making such a statement as "calling rape a small mistake is directly encouraging rape."
Former Chairman of National Commission for Women Poornima Advani said, "Public apology is the least. The Election Commission should take up this matter. This is a negative and useless election stunt which is going to hit him hard. And, I am sure he will be voted out."
The SP chief's statement comes close on the heels of party leader Azam Khan stirring up a massive row by saying that India won the Kargil War solely because of Muslim soldiers.
Mulayam Singh Yadav and Abu Azmi's comments on women and rape are unacceptable: do you agree or not?