Furore over Congress MP’s remark on Rashtrapati

Updated on Jul 29, 2022 12:25 AM IST

The row began on Wednesdayafternoon when Chowdhury was speaking to reporters while sitting in a protest alongside Congresslawmakers who were suspended for alleged misconduct.

Chowdhury later said that he would apologise personally to the President but not to the BJP. (Hindustan Times)
Chowdhury later said that he would apologise personally to the President but not to the BJP. (Hindustan Times)

A controversial remark by Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury on President Droupadi Murmu sparked a storm in Parliament on Thursday, with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members disrupting proceedings in both Houses and demanding an apology for the “sexist insult”.

The row began on Wednesdayafternoon when Chowdhury was speaking to reporters while sitting in a protest alongside Congresslawmakers who were suspended for alleged misconduct. In his answers to a Hindi news channel, Chowdhury repeatedly referred to the President as “Rashtrapatni” instead of the Hindi word for president, Rashtrapati, prompting the reporter to tell him that this was improper.

Chowdhury later said that he misspoke because he is not a native Hindi speaker but the BJP said the comment was a deliberate sexist reference to India’s first tribal woman president, pointing out that he appeared to use the word deliberately, not once but twice.

The BJP raised the issue in Parliament and outside, underlining that this was not a one-off instance of disrespect towards the President by the Congress and that disparaging remarks were made against Murmu by party leaders soon after her nomination for the top constitutional position.

Both Houses of Parliament were disrupted and adjourned multiple times as the government and Opposition sparred over the issue.

“Any(one with) common-sense... with a common understanding knows that Rashtrapati is a gender-agnostic word representing the leader of the country…Therefore, I think it is not the slip of the tongue. It was a deliberate sexist insult,” said Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the Rajya Sabha.

The Congress defended it as a slip of tongue, and leader of the Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge said the matter could not be raised in the Rajya Sabha as the comment was made outside the House. Chowdhury later said that he would apologise personally to the President but not to the BJP.

“I inadvertently used the word ‘rashtrapatni’ just once and it was a slip of the tongue. I never meant any disrespect to the President,” he told reporters outside Parliament.

“I am a Bengali and not used to Hindi. I made a mistake, I agree.” The Congress leader said he has sought time from the President for Saturday and will apologise to her if she has been offended by his inadvertent comments “but not to these pakhandis (hypocrites)”, referring to the BJP.

Some ruling party members are “deliberately trying to make a mountain out of a molehill”, Chowdhury alleged.

Political temperatures ran high in the Lok Sabha, which witnessed a heated exchange between Union minister Smriti Irani and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi after the House was adjourned.

In her speech, Irani attacked Gandhi. “You sanctioned the humiliation of Shrimati Droupadi Murmu. You sanctioned the humiliation of the tribal legacy of this country. Sonia Gandhi sanctioned the humiliation of a woman in the highest constitutional post… a poor woman who has ascended to the highest office in this country,” she said.

BJP lawmakers also staged a protest near Gate Number 1 of Parliament, demanding an apology from the Congress leadership.

Congress leader Gaurav Gogoi said that Sonia Gandhi was subjected to “shameful behaviour” by the BJP MPs. “The party which raises slogans in the name of women, today they have shown how they have humiliated another woman (Sonia Gandhi). Our leader was humble and polite. If BJP thinks such small behaviour is going to affect her, it is their mistake,” Gogoi said.

Congress leaders Mallikarjun Kharge and Jairam Ramesh met Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla demanding action against Irani.

In the Rajya Sabha, Sitharaman lashed out at Congress members. “It was a deliberate insult against a person who comes from a tribal background, who is a self-made woman, who, coming from a backward region of the country, has served as an MLA, has served successfully as a minister, has been a very good Governor, and now the entire country is rejoicing in her selection as the Rashtrapati... At this time, for the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha to call her ‘Rashtrapatni’ is an insult to the country’s President,” she said.

Rajya Sabha floor leader Piyush Goyal also criticised the Congress and said, “Does the Congress want to see the President’s office through the prism of caste and religion... he (Chowdhury) said that deliberately and repeated it twice. Is this a small incident?”

Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge said the MP concerned is a member of the Lok Sabha and the issue cannot be raised in the Rajya Sabha.

The BJP also fielded three Union ministers — junior health minister Bharti Pawar, shipping minister Sarbanand Sonowal, and law minister Kiren Rijiju — to address the media on the issue. Speaking outside Parliament, Sonowal said, “The comment of Congress on the President of India is an insult to tribal women, tribals, and the country’s people who believe in democracy. They (Congress) should apologise to the people.”

Rijiju referred to a comment made by Congress leader Ajoy Kumar when Murmu was nominated by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) for the presidential election. “...On the same day a Congress spokesperson said that the selection of BJP presidential candidate represents the very evil philosophy of India. Even after that, statements kept coming one after the other.”

Chowdhury initially asserted that there was no question of apologising as he has “mistakenly said ‘Rashtrapatni’ and the ruling party was deliberately trying to make “mountain out of a molehill”. He later said he has sought an appointment from the President to tender his apology in person.

“The issue is being blown out of proportion... I do not have the remotest intention of humiliating the highest chair of our country,” Chowdhury said.

The face-off is likely to further disrupt business in the ongoing monsoon session, which has been marred by repeated disruptions and protests. The Opposition accused the government of trying to sidestep debating issues such as price rise while the government accused opposition parties of insulting the House. The suspension of 27 Opposition members — 23 from the Upper House and four from the Lower House — has further vitiated ties.The three suspended on Thursday were Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Sandeep Kumar Pathak and Sushil Kumar Gupta and independent member Ajit Kumar Bhuyan.

Referring to the Chowdhury row that threatens to disrupt both Houses on Friday as well, a senior BJP leader said the Opposition has had disrupting Parliament since the beginning of the session, but the BJP will not let the party “insult” the President’s office.

“There was a meeting to discuss the party’s strategy, which was attended by union ministers Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, Pralhad Joshi, Piyush Goyal and V Muraleedharan this morning… it was decided that this insult by the Congress will not be tolerated,” the leader added, requesting anonymity.

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