- Mayawati has repeatedly attacked Congress in election season
- Rahul Gandhi says he respects her contribution to nation
- Says their fight is political and he will defend Congress ideology
Despite the frequent brickbats from Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati amid the ongoing election season, Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Saturday told NDTV that he "respected her contribution to the country" and considered her "a national symbol".
"Mayawati is a national symbol. She may not be from our party, she is from the BSP. But she has given a message to the country. I respect her, love her. Sure we have a political fight and we fight for the ideology of the Congress... (but) I respect her contribution to the country," Mr Gandhi said in an interview.
Mayawati, an influential leader of the Dalit community in Uttar Pradesh, has mounted several attacks on the Congress in the run up to the elections and continues to do so, going so far at one point to call the party "a snake" that is as bad as the BJP.
Just today, she criticised the Congress government in Rajasthan over the gang-rape of a Dalit woman on April 26, saying, "[They] suppressed this incident till the end of election in Rajasthan to preserve their political benefits and threatened the family of the victim to keep quiet about it."
"We want the Supreme Court to act against the Congress, the police and the state administration and punish them as strictly as possible," she added.
But earlier this month, she had countered Prime Minister Narendra Modi's remark that the Congress and her rival-turned-ally Samajwadi Party were using her in Uttar Pradesh, with a strong message of unity.
The Congress, which had been kept out of the Uttar Pradesh alliance, mainly because of her reservations, will get every alliance vote in Amethi and Raebareli, she said. The alliance is not contesting the two Congress strongholds - now with Congress chief Rahul Gandhi and his mother and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi - which went to polls on May 6.
Mayawati had earlier been furious with the Congress after a candidate from her party had switched sides in Madhya Pradesh, threatening to pull support from the Kamal Nath government, which has a wafer-thin majority.
The alliance between Samajwadi Party led by Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati in the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh - which sends the largest number of lawmakers to parliament - is seen as a challenge to the BJP, which won 71 of the state's 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. The Congress's solo run in the game - after being denied entry in the alliance team - is seen to dent the chances of the opposition coalition by splitting the anti-BJP vote.