(UPDATE: Copy updated with Anant Kumar Hegde's apology in Parliament over his comments on Constitution and secularism.)
Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde's suggestion that the word secular, included in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution, can be removed to consolidate the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) vision of a Hindu nation, has stoked the flames of discontent among his political colleagues who have accused the five-time Lok Sabha MP of threatening India's secular nature.
While Opposition leaders in Parliament are determined to stall proceedings till Hegde is taken to task, Samajwadi Party chief and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, said he wouldn't put it past the BJP to try and change the Constitution, the document that lays down the fundamental principles of governance.
"You can expect anything from the BJP," Yadav told HuffPost India over the phone. "They can go to any extent. They have the power to distract people's minds from the main issues. They'll not talk of poverty and unemployment. Their poll plank is caste and community. They won by a hair's margin in Gujarat. Par janta naaraaz hai (the public is angry)," Yadav said.
"My words have been twisted and presented, I never said all this... But if someone was hurt, I apologise to those members," Hegde responded when Speaker Sumitra Mahajan asked him to apologise.
Incidentally, the BJP has also, time and again, accused the SP of indulging in caste politics and minority appeasement.
BJP National President Amit Shah, during a public address in Mudera, accused Yadav's party of dividing UP on the grounds of caste and religion and said "rivers of blood of animals are flowing in the state" — alluding to SP's Muslim support base of voters, many of whom made their living running slaughter houses or working in one.
Yadav is determined that the people "will show BJP its place" in the all-important 2019 general elections. The BJP now rules 19 out of 29 states and Hegde's comments ahead of Karnataka assembly elections in May, 2018, are an indication of the direction the campaign will take despite his party's proclamation that they'll uphold unity and secularism.
During the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, SP pitched its campaign around Yadav's developmental work in the state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, campaigning for BJP, too made development his main rhetoric in a state that has always been divided by caste politics. "If they (BJP) raises caste, so will we, but we want development, not marginalisation," Yadav said.
At a public event in Kukanur of Koppal district of Karnataka, the Union Skill Development and Entrepreneurship Minister said those who call themselves secular are unsure of their parentage, a comment that has infuriated the Opposition. "Claim with pride that they are Muslim, Christian, Lingayat, Brahmin, or a Hindu," the minister had said.
"Some people say the Constitution says secular and you must accept it. We will respect the Constitution, but the Constitution has changed several times and it will change in the future too. We are here to change the Constitution and we'll change it."
"Some people say the Constitution says secular and you must accept it. We will respect the Constitution, but the Constitution has changed several times and it will change in the future too. We are here to change the Constitution and we'll change it," Hegde was quoted as saying by several media outlets.
Hegde isn't new to controversy. In March, 2016, he had linked Islam to terrorism and said: "As long as there is Islam in the world, there will be terrorism. Until we uproot Islam, we can't remove terrorism," a comment that sparked outrage among Muslims. He had allegedly also assaulted doctors at a private hospital in Karnataka, accusing them of neglecting his mother's treatment.
Hegde's party has understandably distanced itself from his comment. Amidst repeated adjournments, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, Vijay Goel, said the government did "not agree with the Minister's (Hegde's) remarks".
Naresh Agarwal from Yadav's party also slammed Hegde for disrespecting BR Ambedkar, Dalit icon and the architect of the Indian Constitution.
In Rajya Sabha, Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad said Hegde "has no right to be a Minister ... he has no right to be a Member of Parliament." CPI leader D. Raja said, "Dr. Ambedkar said, Sir, if at all India becomes a Hindu Rashtra, it would be a calamity for this country."