Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is to continue his tour of Gujarat despite a major controversy over his Hindu credentials which saw the ruling BJP questioning his faith and Prime Minister Narendra Modi giving a history lesson to the Gandhi scion.
A bitter war of words broke out between Congress and BJP after Rahul Gandhi's name was entered in a register for "non-Hindus" during a visit to Somnath temple. Rahul Gandhi had visited the temple to seek Lord Shiva's blessing, but the visit flared into a major row as he was put down as a "non-Hindu" along with Congress president Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel.
Non-Hindus are allowed into the Somnath temple but have to sign a register before doing so. BJP demanded Rahul specify his religious identity while Congress claimed it was a forgery.
Congress also accused the BJP of playing dirty politics and maintained he was a "devout Hindu".
The controversy arose after Rahul Gandhi's media coordinator Manoj Tyagi signed the register meant for non-Hindus, which the Congress claimed was manipulated later by adding the names of Rahul Gandhi and Ahmed Patel.
Moments after his visit, the social media was abuzz with pictures of a register showing the signature of Manoj Tyagi, with names of Gandhi and Patel on the left side.
The BJP went to town with the story that Rahul Gandhi has declared himself to be a non-Hindu.
"The Congress has always tried to project Rahul Gandhi as a Hindu. But the fact is that he is not. Rahul has visited over 20 temples of multiple Hindu deities since October. The Congress has been lying. The entry shows that he is not a Hindu," said Raju Dhruv, BJP spokesperson in Saurashtra region.
Manoj Tyagi issued a statement that he had just signed the register in order to take media personnel inside the temple and not entered Rahul Gandhi or Ahmed Patel's names. "These would have been added later," he said in the statement.
Somnath temple, located on the shores of the Arabian sea on the southernmost part of Gujarat, is revered by Hindus and enshrines the first of 12 'jyotirlings' of Lord Shiva. Through a notice in June 2015 the Shree Somnath Trust (SST) - the institution managing the temple - had made it mandatory for non-Hindus to seek permission of the Trust before entering the main temple.
Former Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel is incumbent chairman of the Trust, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP National president Amit Shah and retired Chief Secretary of Gujarat, P.K. Laheri are its trustees.
The Congress called a press conference at short notice. Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said the BJP was scared of the outcome of the Gujarat Assembly elections and was thus resorting to cheap politics.
"There is only one visitor's book at Somnath Temple that was signed by Congress VP Rahul Gandhi. Any other image being circulated is fabricated," said Surjewala, adding "Desperate times call for desperate measures" - referring to the BJP.
"When the visitor's book was given to him by the temple committee, Rahul Gandhi wrote a message on it with his name (Rahul Gandhi) and address (12, Tughlak Lane, New Delhi). "A very inspiring place" was the message he wrote in the book," he added.
The other register contained a signature by AICC media coordinator Manoj Tyagi, who was asked by some temple officials to sign so that the media-persons accompanying Rahul Gandhi could enter the temple.
Surjewala said, "After Rahul left the temple, by misusing some of our media friends, another fabricated entry was made public. Has the BJP become so cowardly that they are scared of coming out and speaking up."
He alleged that the names of Rahul Gandhi and Ahmed Patel were entered surreptitiously on the left side of the register meant for non-Hindus by someone - suggesting manipulation. "This was a fabricated register. Those names were added later," he said.
Showing the pictures of Gandhi wearing a sacred thread, Surjewala said that Rahul is a "Janayudhari" (devout) Hindu. "Whether it was during the time of his naming or at the time of his sister's wedding..or at the time of his father's cremation, he was seen with the sacred thread."
He urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah not to stoop so low for political gains that "130 crore Indians start hating you".
"Truth will not change because of your conspiratorial tactics," he added.
BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao said in a tweet: "Rahul Gandhi is a non-Hindu and a 'Shiv Bhakht'? Very impressive. No wonder he said earlier people go to temples and tease women."
Quoting an article written in 1998 in New York Times, which said by a certainty that Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka were raised as Roman Catholics, Rao said, "This was never denied. Did Rahul Gandhi convert to Hinduism thereafter? @OfficeOfRG please clarify. It's not a personal issue any longer."
"Rahulji, Why is there so much secrecy and deceit about your and family's religion, foreign travels, educational qualifications, passports/citizenship? Questions are never answered. Even the British monarchy is more transparent. Is RTI only for govts & not for politicians? @OfficeOfRG," he said in another tweet.
Here is Rahul Gandhi's Gujarat schedule for today: -
-11:00 hrs: Corner Meeting at Lathi, District Amreli
-12:15 hrs: Corner Meeting, Near Dhasa Railway Jn, District Botad
-13:30 hrs : Darshan at Gopinathji Mandir, Gadhada, District Botad
-14:15 hrs : Corner Meeting at Open Ground Near Lakshmi Narayan Society, Botad, District Botad
-15:45 hrs : Swagat at Barwala, District Botad
-16:45 hrs : Swagat at Vallabhipur, District Bhavnagar
-18:00 hrs : Public Meeting at Nari Chokdi, Bhavnagar, District Bhavnagar