Congress leader’s ‘Rashtrapatni’ remark sets off Smriti-Sonia storm in House

Deepening the divide in Parliament, already rocked by noisy protests and repeated adjournments, Union Minister Smriti Irani and Congress president Sonia Gandhi faced off Thursday, prompting the BJP and Congress to hurl accusations of “intimidation” and “heckling” at each other in the wake of a remark by Congress leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury regarding President Droupadi Murmu.

After a video clip of Chowdhury referring to Murmu as ‘Rashtrapatni’ did the rounds — he said it was “a slip of tongue” and he would apologise to the President because he “never meant to disrespect” her — the BJP, accused by the Opposition of “throttling democracy” by not allowing any discussion on GST rates and price rise, demanded that Sonia Gandhi, as chief of the Congress, apologise for her colleague’s remark.

While Union Minister Nirmala Sitharaman led the offensive against Sonia inside Rajya Sabha and outside Parliament House, Irani slammed the Congress in Lok Sabha. “Chowdhury’s comments were not a slip of tongue. It was a deliberate sexist insult against the President,” Sitharaman said in a brief statement in Rajya Sabha.

In Lok Sabha, amid protests from BJP women MPs who sought an apology from Chowdhury, Irani said the Congress had been targeting Murmu ever since the BJP-led NDA named her the Presidential candidate.

“The Congress leader has disrespected the President. The Congress could not tolerate that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a poor tribal woman a Presidential candidate. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury’s remark is anti-Adivasi, anti-poor and anti-woman,” she said.

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

There was pandemonium in the House and Speaker Om Birla adjourned proceedings. When the House met at noon, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi said Sonia should apologise. BJP member Rajendra Agarwal, who was in the Chair, adjourned the proceedings within minutes.

As BJP women MPs shouted “Sonia Gandhi maafi mango (apologise)”, the Congress chief walked up to Rama Devi, a senior BJP MP and one of the presiding officers in Lok Sabha. Sonia asked her why her name was being dragged into this. According to the Congress, she also wanted to convey that Chowdhury’s remark was a slip of tongue and that he had already apologised.

Seeing Sonia walk towards the treasury benches, Irani stepped in. Sonia was seen saying something to Irani. Members including BJP’s Nishikant Dubey, Congress MPs Gaurav Gogoi and Vishnu Prakash also walked up.

Later, Jairam Ramesh, Congress general secretary in-charge of communication, said, “Sonia Gandhi was talking to BJP MP Rama Devi. Smriti Irani cornered Sonia and used objectionable language in a very offensive manner. When Sonia politely told her that she was not talking to her and she was talking to another MP, Irani shouted and said ‘you don’t know who I am’. MPs of the Congress and many other parties are witness to this.”

“Can’t an MP talk to a fellow MP? Smriti Irani can put forth her views in a political way. Why did she have to heckle a senior MP and the head of a political party? This is against the dignity of the House and dignity in politics. Political differences will be there, but is such behaviour towards a senior member justified?” he said.

The BJP countered this version. Sitharaman accused Sonia of speaking in a “threatening tone” with BJP members. She said Sonia said “you don’t talk to me”.

Union Minister Piyush Goyal, Leader of the House in Rajya Sabha, accused the Congress of insulting the President. “Today, the entire country is seriously concerned that the President has been insulted and it will not tolerate this,” he told the House amid an uproar.

TMC MP Mahua Moitra, who was present in Lok Sabha when the incident took place, said, “It was orchestrated mayhem and it was disgusting the way they attacked Sonia Gandhi.” She said she, her party colleagues Pratima Mondal and Aparupa Poddar along with NCP’s Supriya Sule formed a circle around Sonia. “Mrs Gandhi, who had her mask on, did not speak impolitely to Irani. She just said she was talking to some other MP (Rama Devi),” she said.

In a Twitter post, Moitra said, “Was in Lok Sabha when 75 year old lady senior leader encircled & heckled pack-wolf style when all she did was walk over & speak (masked) to another senior lady panel chairperson.”

Outside the House, Rama Devi told the media that Sonia sought to know why her name was dragged into the issue. She said she told Sonia that she had selected Chowdhury as the Congress leader in Lok Sabha.

Later, the Congress approached Speaker Om Birla, saying Sonia had been subjected to “outrageous misdemeanor” by BJP MPs. It demanded that the matter be referred to the Privilege Committee of the House.

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In a letter to the Speaker, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and 23 MPs of the Congress drew his attention to what they called an “unsavoury and uncouth” incident in the chamber of Lok Sabha.

“The situation had come to such a pass that Gandhi could have been injured seriously. Finally, it was the female MPs of the Congress and other opposition parties who escorted Gandhi to safety. We seek your intervention in sending the matter to the Privilege Committee as the unruly behaviour of those alleged Members may warrant their suspension from the House,” they said.

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