Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday challenged the Congress to make someone from outside the Gandhi family its chief for at least five years if it respected democracy, as he returned the Congress' barb that a 'chaiwala' could rise to power only because of democratic systems established by Pandit Jawahal Lal Nehru.
In an apparent attack on Gandhis, Modi also said that the family whose "four generations ruled the country" cannot fathom how can the son of a poor mother could sit on the "rajgaddi" (throne).
Addressing a poll rally Ambikapur in Surguja district for the second phase of Chhattisgarh assembly elections scheduled for November 20, Modi also hit back at the Congress for questioning demonetisation, saying the move "still rankles" them as the money "stashed under beds and in sacks" was taken away in a single stroke.
While the BJP has been ruling Chhattisgarh for 15 continuous years, the Congress was in power in the state only for three years after the state was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000.
Traditionally, the two national parties have had a direct fight in this state, although a third force as emerged this time in form of an alliance between the parties of former Congress chief minister Ajit Jogi and of Dalit leader Mayawati.
Modi asked Congress to give account of what the four generations of the (Gandhi) family did for the nation before asking for an account of his government's four-and-half years' rule.
"Four generations of the Congress ruled the counry, but they have nothing to tell the people. We are everyday giving an account of what we have done in the last four years," he said.
"They (Congress leaders) are saying it was due to a great person, due to Pandit Nehru, that a 'chaiwala' (tea seller) became the prime minister," Modi said.
"If you so much respect the democracy, do a small thing. If you claim that because of your principles, your faith in democracy, the Constitution and Pandit Nehru, Modi, a chaiwala, could become the PM, appoint someone good from outside the (Gandhi) family as the Congress president for just five years," he said.
"If this happens, I will accept that Nehru ji created such a democratic system because of which anyone, (even) a dedicated Congressman outside the family could become the Congress chief," he said.
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor had said that it was due to the institutional structures created by Nehru that even a "chaiwala" could become India's prime minister. His party colleague Mallikarjun Kharge had also said earlier that a "chaiwala" could become the prime minister as the Congress preserved democracy.
Sitaram Kesri had served as the Congress president in the 1990s, but his tenure from September 1996 to March 1998 was less than five years.
Rahul Gandhi is currently president of the Congress party, while the post was held by his mother Sonia Gandhi before that. A Congress president mostly gets a three-year term, though there have been exceptions.
Continuing his barbs at the Gandhi family, Modi said the "contract of democracy" in the country was not given to one family, but they felt the Britishers had named India after it.
"They still keep crying that how could a chaiwala sit (on the PM's chair). How could he? They still cannot fathom how come the son of a poor mother could sit on the throne" he said.
Stating that such people cannot understand difficulties faced by the poor, but a chaiwala can, he said the credit for making a 'chaiwala' the prime minister goes to 125 crore Indians and not to Modi or the BJP.
The PM also took on Rahul Gandhi for attacking him over demonetisation, saying only one "family" is "crying" over the note-ban exercise.
"No one from those sitting here (in the rally) is crying over demonetisation, but only one family is crying. Their (Gandhis) associates lost their illegally earned money filled in bags, hidden inside their bed and pillow after demonetisation," the prime minister said.
Modi also said Chhattisgarh was created peacefully during the tenure of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in contrast to violence during agitations for bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh under the Congress rule.
He said the BJP is the only unbiased party and it is guided by the mantra of 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas', while the Congress kept the country in dark with lies that are ingrained in their minds.
He also hailed the high voter turnout in the first phase of polling held in the state on November 12 for 18 seats, which covered Maoist-affected constituencies, saying the people of Bastar gave a strong response to Naxals by registering record voting percentage in the first phase.
Despite threats given by Naxals to chop off fingers of those who will vote, tribals came out in large numbers to vote, he said.
Modi urged voters of the remaining 72 assembly seats to show the same enthusiasm in the second phase on November 20. Counting of votes for both phases would be held on December 11.
He said election offers the best opportunity to "punish" those who think it is the right of only one family to rule the country.
"When I had come to Ambikapur during last Lok Sabha elections, people had made a replica of Red Fort for my rally which annoyed a few people in Delhi as they thought it was the right of only one family to speak from Red Fort. They are still angry with you for that and the time has arrived to punish them," Modi said.
'PM became chowkidar of Ambani'
Congress chief Rahul Gandhi Friday said the land acquired for industrialists will be returned to original owners if his party comes to power in Madhya Pradesh and attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi over demonetisation, calling it the "biggest scam".
Addressing rallies in support of his party candidates for the November 28 polls in Madhya Pradesh, where campaigning has reached its crescendo, he said key laws targeted at disadvantaged sections of the society will be implemented in letter and spirit.
Gandhi said the BJP, in power in Madhya Pradesh since 2003, is only working for a few rich people.
He said the land acquired from tribals, farmers and the poor for industrialists during the 15-year BJP rule in Madhya Pradesh will be returned to them by his party when it forms a government after the polls.
Addressing a public rally in Barghat, Seoni district, he said, "After coming to power the Narendra Modi government attacked three laws - tribal rights, land acquisition and PESA (Provisions of the Panchayats - Extension to Scheduled Areas - Act), but we did not allow it to happen."
"We will protect your land after coming to power. Implement these acts in letter and spirit. We will give your land back to you...this is your right, we will make it happen and get the land returned to you," he said.
Gandhi said Modi had asked his party's chief ministers in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Gujarat to stop the implementation of land acquisition law (enacted under the UPA), which allows acquisition only after the consent of landowner and that too after paying four-times the land's cost.
Instead, Modi told his party's chief ministers to "snatch" the land of the poor and hand it over to industrialists, he alleged.
Modi had said he did not want to become the country's prime minister, but its 'chowkidar' (watchman), Gandhi said.
"It was thought that he would become chowkidar of farmers, labourers, youths, mothers, sisters and weaker sections. But, he became a chowkidar of (industrialist) Anil Ambani," he alleged.
Gandhi continued, "Chowkidar remained silent when Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya, Mehul Choksi (all accused of committing financial frauds) escaped from the country after usurping thousands of crores."
The Congress chief said money is being put in the pockets of 15-20 select industrialists.
Addressing a public meeting in tribal-dominated Mandla district, Gandhi termed demonetisation as "the biggest scam" in the history of the country and reiterated that the note-ban exercise was undertaken to benefit a few industrialists.
"Have you seen any big person like Ambani and others in the queue after demonetisation," he asked.
Gandhi attacked Modi over notes ban at another rally in Sagar district and accused him of "robbing the poor of their hard-earned money and given it away to a few rich".
Gandhi said Modi no longer talks about being a "chowkidar (watchman) of the country and of tackling corruption.
Gandhi claimed that Modi "cancelled the Rafale deal of 126 fighter aircraft with Dassault Aviation and HAL at a price of Rs 526 crore per plane" without informing the Indian Air Force and the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar.
"The then French president Francois Hollande has said the Indian government had asked for Anil Ambani to be taken on board for the deal," the Congress chief alleged.
"Modi gave Rs 30,000 crore to Anil Ambani in this deal. This is the chowkidari he has done," Gandhi alleged.
Both the government and Ambani-led Reliance Group have vehemently charges of favouritism and any irregularities in the Rs 58,000-crore Rafale deal.
After the note ban, Modi made honest and hardworking citizens stand in queues outside banks, Gandhi said.
"These days, the prime minister's speeches don't have any mention of (eradicating) corruption, a tall promise that he had made before coming to power," Gandhi claimed.
Madhya Pradesh will have a single phase polling for its 230 assembly seats on November 28 and the counting of votes will take place on December 11.
The BJP is seeking a straight fourth term, while the Congress is hoping to return to power in the state after 15 years.