Congress's Rahul Gandhi became the first leader of the party today to openly criticize senior colleague Kamal Nath for his "item" remark on Imarti Devi, a BJP candidate for the by-elections in Madhya Pradesh. The comment has generated huge controversy ahead of the by-polls, with both the state's ruling BJP and the woman candidate appealing to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi for expulsion of the former Chief Minister.
Amid the tumult over the issue, Mr Gandhi told reporters today: "Kamal Nath ji is from my party but personally, I don't like the type of language that he used... I don't appreciate it, regardless of who he is. It is unfortunate".
#WATCH Kamal Nath ji is from my party but personally, I don't like the type of language that he used...I don't appreciate it, regardless of who he is. It is unfortunate: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on the former Madhya Pradesh CM's "item" remark pic.twitter.com/VT149EjHu0— ANI (@ANI) October 20, 2020
Kamal Nath refused to apologise, saying "It is Rahul Gandhi's opinion".
"I have already clarified the context in which I made that statement... Why should I apologise when I did not intend to insult anyone? If anyone felt insulted, I have already expressed regret," Mr Nath told reporters.
On Sunday, while campaigning in Dabra, Mr Nath had targeted Imarti Devi, saying the Congress candidate Suresh Raje was a "simple person" unlike his opponent who is an "item".
"Why should I take the name (of the opposing candidate)? You all know that person better than me. What an item," Mr Nath said as the crowd responded with cheers and chanted her name.
Mr Nath has not apologized for the comment so far. Instead, he tried to explain it away yesterday as an ordinary term, used as he could not remember the BJP candidate's name.
"I said something, it wasn't to insult anyone," Mr Nath said. "I just didn't remember the (person's) name... this list (in his hand) says item no.1, item no.2. Is this an insult?" he said.
Imarti Devi had been a minister in Kamal Nath's 15-month government before it collapsed in March this year. She was also among the 22 MLAs who walked out of the party with Jyotiraditya Scindia, leading to the collapse.
Yesterday, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan -- the arch-rival of Kamal Nath -- held a silent protest and wrote to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi about the issue, demanding action.
Imarti Devi had also appealed to the Congress chief, asking if she would have condoned the statement had it been made about her daughter.
"I want to appeal to Sonia Gandhi, who is also a mother, not to keep such people in her party. Will she tolerate it if anybody said something like this about her daughter? If such words are used for women, how can any woman move forward?" she had told news agency ANI.
It was not her fault that she was a Dalit coming from a poor family, she added.