Senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar on Thursday apologised for using the word "neech" (low) for Prime Minister Narendra Modi but maintained that he had not referred to him as "low-born".
"I never meant low-born. There is a difference in English language between words 'low' and ‘'low-born'. But in Hindi if low means low-born, then I tender apology," he told reporters after his remarks in the morning triggered a political storm.
It was not only the BJP that criticised the statement. Even Congresss vice president Rahul Gandhi called for an apology.
Asked about Rahul Gandhi's tweet that he did not appreciate Aiyar's words to address the Prime Minister, Aiyar said he could talk about it only after meeting Gandhi.
As Aiyar's remarks that Modi was a "neech aadmi" (low man) in the context of his criticism of the Congress vis-a-vis B.R. Ambedkar snowballed, the Prime Minister referred to it in an election meeting in Surat and attacked the Congress leader, saying he called him a "neech jaati" (low caste).
"They can call me 'neech jaati'. Yes, I am from the poor section of society and will spend every moment of my life to work for the poor, Dalits, tribals and backward classes. That is my culture. They can keep their language, we will do our work," Modi told an election rally in Gujarat.
Modi said Aiyar came from a good family, has a number of university degrees, was a diplomat for a number of years and remained a Minister in the Manmohan Singh government, but was resorting to such insults. "This is an insult to Gujarat. Not just to Gujarat but to the entire nation."
He said Aiyar was speaking out of the "Mughlai mindset" that "sees everyone as 'neech'".
"They called us donkeys, neech, gandi naali ke keede...the people of Gujarat will give a befitting reply to such derogatory language. The Congress leaders are speaking in a language that is not acceptable in democracy.
"We have seen enough insults from them. They insulted me when I was the Chief Minister. They called me 'maut ka saudagar' and wanted to jail me. But our value system is strong. We have nothing to say to such elements. Our answer will come through the ballot box.
"I appeal to all BJP activists not to retort. But answer them on December 9 and 14 (voting days). My people should not lower their standards. We will teach them a lesson. Voting results would mean what low caste means when everyone votes for the BJP. You have lost your mental balance. I am not upset because I work for the people."
As the row became an embarrassment for the Congress, Rahul Gandhi took to Twitter to disapprove of Aiyar's language.
"The BJP and the Prime Minister routinely use filthy language to attack the Congress party. The Congress has a different culture and heritage. I do not appreciate the tone and language used by Mani Shankar Aiyar to address the Prime Minister. Both the Congress and I expect him to apologize for what he said," Gandhi said.
Reporters got around to Aiyar at a function in Delhi's WWF Auditorium Hall and asked him about Modi's attack and Gandhi's suggestion to him to apologize.
"Yes, I used the word 'neech'. Now, I am not a Hindi speaker and I translate from English to Hindi. So I used 'low person', I translated 'low' in my mind. If it happened to mean something else. I apologize. 'Neech' as I understand is a direct translation of 'low'.
"I never meant 'low born'. In English there's a clear distinction between 'low' and 'low born'. It is very possible that in Hindi -- which is not my natural language and which I learned after much effort -- I translated 'low' as 'neech'. But if neech also means 'low born' then I apologize that I used a word which can be interpreted in many ways, and in the way Modiji is interpreting it, I have nothing to do with that.
"I don't think he is low born but his language is very, I'll say in English, is very low language. Why would he use such a low language for the Congress on such an occasion. Whatever I say they want to misinterpret. As far as I am concerned the bulk of my remarks dealt with Modi's very, very nasty remarks about the Congress, particularly with Gandhi's relationship with Ambedkar."
Wading into the controversy, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said Aiyar's "neech" remark displayed a mindset that only one elite family can be a ruler and the rest are only the "neech".
"The Congress Party has challenged the weaker and backward sections of India by calling the Prime Minister as 'neech' . The strength of India's democracy will be displayed when a person of humble background politically defeats the dynasty and its representatives," he said in tweets.
Jaitley later told reporters that it was part of a Congress strategy to belittle the Prime Minister every day and then say "I will retract".
"If you are unsure of the language or facts, then you are unfit to be in politics," he said.