Mani Shankar Aiyar
In picture: Mani Shankar Aiyar.Twitter

Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar was on Thursday, December 7, suspended from the primary membership of the party, mere hours after he called Prime Minister Narendra Modi a "neech kisam ka aadmi" — a lowly person or a bad person, an allusion some believed referred to a poorer section of society or a lower caste.

His statement immediately gave rise to speculations that he had dealt yet another blow to the Congress' efforts to win the upcoming Gujarat Assembly elections.

He had, soon after the statements, tried to clarify that he was not a Hindi-speaker, and had translated his remarks after thinking them in English. He had also said he was a "freelance" member of the Congress, because he did not hold any post within the party.

Modi has already reacted to the comments, saying that voters in Gujarat would give a "fitting reply" to this insult.

The battle for Gujarat has been a heated one, with both Modi and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi — the latter is party president in all but not named by now — trading barbs and delivering high-pitched rhetoric.

The BJP, which has been in power in Gujarat for 22 years, wants to retain it by overcoming the anti-incumbency factor. The Congress, on the other hand, wants to hand the saffron party a defeat in Modi's home state.

However, Aiyar's latest comments may undermine the Congress' efforts, because the BJP is sure to latch on to them and milk them to paint the Congress in a bad light. It has already done this after a Youth Congress magazine tried to play up Modi's background as a tea-seller.

What Aiyar said

Aiyar was on Thursday quoted by news agency ANI as saying about Modi: "Ye aadmi bahut neech kisam ka aadmi hai, is mein koi sabhyata nahi hai, aur aise mauke par is kisam ki gandi rajniti karne ki kya avashyakta hai?"

Translation: "This man is a very base kind of individual. He has no civility in him. What is the need of such dirty politics at a time like this?"

Watch the video of his comments here:

Widespread outrage

Modi was quick to retaliate. Speaking at an election rally in Gujarat, he said: "Congress leaders are speaking in a language that is not acceptable in a democracy. One Congress leader, who has studied in the best institutions, served as a diplomat, and was a minister in the Central cabinet, said Modi is 'neech.' This is insulting. This is nothing but a Mughalai mindset."

He added: "What all have they called us: donkeys, 'neech', 'gandi naali ke keede'. The people of Gujarat will give a fitting answer to such deplorable language."

Even Rahul Gandhi — who Aiyar appeared to be defending — spoke out against the remarks. Although he claimed the BJP also uses filthy language against the Congress often, he went on to clarify: "I do not appreciate the tone and language used by Mani Shankar Aiyer to address the prime minister. Both the Congress and I expect him to apologise for what he said."

Aiyar was soon forced to respond to the allegations. He chose to begin with: "I am a freelance Congressi. I hold no post in the party, so I can reply to the prime minister in his language."

However, he went on to add: "I meant low level when I said 'neech'. I think in English when I speak in Hindi as Hindi is not my mother tongue. So if it has some other meaning then I apologise."

Modi's earlier barbs

Aiyar's comments came after Modi, while inaugurating the Dr Ambedkar International Centre in Delhi on Thursday, accused the Congress of trying to appropriate the Dalit icon's legacy for political gain.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
In picture: Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the ceremony to dedicate Dr Ambedkar International Centre to the nation at 15 Janpath in New Delhi on December 7, 2017.Press Information Bureau

The prime minister said: "Baba Saheb Ambedkar's contribution to nation-building is very important. There had been attempts to undermine his role, but such attempts were unsuccessful."

He added: "Attempts to erase Baba Saheb Ambedkar's role failed. He has been more influential in the minds of people — much more than the family for which all this was done."

Modi also said: "Iss sarkar mein yojnaon mein deri ko aapradhik laparvahi mana jata hai. Iss Centre ko banane ka nirnaye 1992 mein liya gaya tha, lekin 23 saal tak kuch nahi hua. Jo rajnaetik dal Babasaheb ka naam leke vote maangte hain, unhe to shayad ye pata bhi nahin hoga."

Translation: "The current [Central] government considers delay in implementation of schemes criminal negligence. The decision to build this Centre [the Dr Ambedkar International Centre that was being inaugurated] was taken in 1992, but nothing happened for 23 years. Even political parties that ask for votes in Ambedkar's name may not know this."