The row led to a purportedly bitter exchange between Gandhi and Union minister Smriti Irani inside the House, prompting BJP to claim that its members felt threatened by Gandhi and Congress countering that their party chief was heckled. Chowdhury’s reference to Murmu, India’s first tribal President, as “rashtrapatni” on a Hindi TV channel on Wednesday set the tone with the BJP members up on their feet and demanding an apology as soon as the Lok Sabha had assembled for the day.
BJP’s women members, who occupied the front rows, led the protest. “The Congress leader has disrespected the President. Congress cannot tolerate that PM Narendra Modi made a poor tribal woman the President.. Soniaji sanctioned humiliation of a woman in the highest constitutional post,” Irani said.
When Congress chief Sonia Gandhi approached the treasury benches and enquired from BJP MP Rama Devi why they were dragging her into the issue over Congress MP Adhir Chowdhury’s ‘Rrashtrapatni’ gaffe, Union minister Smriti Irani stepped in and was seen gesturing towards Gandhi while protesting against Chowdhury’s remark. Gandhi too was seen gesturing towards the minister and speaking angrily.
According to accounts, Rama Devi responded to Gandhi by saying that the apology was demanded of her because she had appointed Chowdhury leader of the Congress group in the Lok Sabha. Soon, Irani stepped in to say that she could help the Congress chief better because it was she who had levelled the allegation against Gandhi.
Gandhi is said to have angrily responded to Irani. “I don’t want to talk to you,” she said, according to accounts.
Soon, Jyotsna Mahant (Congress), Supriya Sule (NCP) and Aparupa Poddar, Mahua Moitra and Mala Roy (all TMC) were seen escorting Gandhi away from the treasury benches.
However, the confrontation continued, with the purported exchanges between Gandhi, Irani and Rama Devi fuelling it further. Congress member Mahant, who was just behind Gandhi, accused Irani of insulting the Congress chief.
“When Soniaji went to the other side, Iraniji came and started talking to her by pointing her finger and in an insulting tone. Gandhi is our leader, elder to us in age… She deserves respect,” she told the media later.
Addressing reporters on Parliament premises, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman accused Gandhi of speaking in a “threatening tone” with BJP members. She said, “Some of our Lok Sabha MPs felt threatened when Gandhi came up to our senior leader Rama Devi to find out what was happening, during which one of our members approached her and she ( Gandhi) said ‘You don’t talk to me’.”
Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh said Irani behaved inappropriately with Gandhi and used derogatory words.
In the Rajya Sabha, Sitharaman slammed Adhir’s comment, calling it a “sexist insult” as she demanded an apology.
Leader of the House Piyush Goyal said it was an insult to the country’s women, tribals and the House. “Is Congress trying to drag the President into casteist politics?” he asked and demanded an apology.
The finance minister said “Rashtrapati” is a gender-agnostic word, representing the leader of the country. “Therefore, I think it is not a slip of the tongue. It was a deliberate sexist insult,” she said.
Though the row had the Lok Sabha as its epicentre, it had loud reverberations also in the Rajya Sabha despite leader of the opposition Mallikarjun Kharge’s attempt to pre-empt a discussion on the ground that Chowdhury, being a Lok Sabha MP, could not be criticised in the Upper House. The protest was waved aside by deputy chairman Harivansh Narayan Singh, who reminded him that the remark was not made on the floor of the Lok Sabha but outside.
Later, BJP fielded six of its tribal leaders – Union ministers Kiren Rijiju, Sarbananda Sonowal and Bharati Pawar besides Rameshwar Teli, Jaskaur Meena and Hina Gavit – to attack Congress over the issue. They said Sonia Gandhi should apologise as Chowdhury had insulted the tribal community as well as women.
“What he said was not a mistake. He said it deliberately and with stress,” Rijiju said. He said this was not the first time that Congress had “insulted” Droupadi Murmu as he cited another leader, Ajoy Kumar, as having said that “she represented evil philosophy of India” soon after her candidature was announced.