NEW DELHI – Against the backdrop of a bitterly fought local election, India is witnessing the unusual spectacle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi locked in a bitter verbal duel with his predecessor and accusing the opposition of holding secret meetings with Pakistani officials to impact the vote.
Modi, who swept to power in 2014 national polls, threw the first punch over the weekend when he alluded to "secret meetings" at a dinner at a senior Congress party leader's home to allege that archrival Pakistan was somehow meddling in the ongoing election in his home state of Gujarat. The unsubstantiated claims prompted a sharply worded response from former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a guest at the dinner party and a man known more for awkward silence than angry words.
In a written statement, Singh accused Modi of dealing in "falsehood and canards" because he feared "imminent defeat in Gujarat."
"I reject the innuendos and falsehoods," Singh said, adding that he did not discuss the Gujarat election with anyone else at the Dec. 6 dinner.
Singh even released the dinner party's guest list. Apart from Singh, the list included former army generals, ex-government ministers, journalists, academics, India's former Muslim vice president and diplomats from the Pakistan High Commission.
The western state of Gujarat is Modi's home turf. He ruled it, without any real opposition, for over a decade before he arrived at the national center stage. The election that is underway there is being called the closest fight that Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have faced in two decades.
Even though Modi no longer heads the state, the election has become a referendum of sorts on his popularity and that of his party. He has headlined the party's election campaign over the last month, addressing rallies across the state. Several top federal lawmakers and party functionaries have joined him to rally support for the party.
"He has staked his own personal prestige on Gujarat," said political analyst Neerja Chowdhury. As someone removed from local politics for over three years, there was no need for Modi to make the campaign about himself, he said.
"It's become a personal election for him. Now that it has, there is a lot more at stake," Chowdhury said.
Even by the rough and tumble standards of a chaotic and closely fought Indian election, Modi's words were in sharp deviation from the campaigning style of former prime ministers.
"What is the reason to have such a secret meeting with the Pakistan high commissioner? And while elections are on in Gujarat, what is the reason for this type of secret meeting?" Modi said at an election rally.
At a separate rally, he suggested that Pakistani officials were trying to ensure that a Muslim leader of the Congress party becomes the state's next leader. He offered no proof.
In an editorial Tuesday, The Indian Express newspaper said that Modi's "none-too-veiled innuendo" had "severely let down his constitutional commitment and office."
"To question Manmohan Singh's nationalism and patriotism and to accuse him of hobnobbing with Pakistan to sabotage an election. That is quite a charge to make," Chowdhury said.
In the three years since Modi and his Hindu nationalist party won a massive victory in national elections, rights groups have reported a spike in attacks on minority groups, especially Muslims. Most of the attacks have been linked to fringe Hindu hard-liners. Modi has largely kept silent, with many seeing his silence as tacit support.
His own oratory is powerful and scathing at election rallies, but as prime minister he has so far refrained from making controversial remarks, leaving those to junior party members.
"Whether he wins or loses in Gujarat, he is spreading a poison from which Indian politics will find it hard to recover for quite some time," analyst and commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in a newspaper column Wednesday.
The Gujarat election is being held in two phases. Parts of the state voted on Saturday and the rest of state goes to the polls on Thursday. Results will be announced on Monday.