Congress leader Shashi Tharoor on Sunday stirred up a controversy by referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “scorpion sitting on a shivling”.

Speaking at the Bangalore Literature Festival on Sunday morning, Tharoor said Modi’s “personality cult” has not sat very well with many people in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, according to ANI.

“There’s an extraordinarily striking metaphor” with which an RSS member expresses the organisation’s frustration with its “inability to curb Modi”, Tharoor claimed. He then cited an RSS functionary as saying: “Modi is like a scorpion sitting on a Shivling, you cannot remove him with your hand and you cannot hit it with a chappal either”.

Tharoor was referring to a profile on Modi published in The Caravan in 2012, titled “The Emperor Uncrowned”. Journalist Vinod Jose wrote in the article: “Shortly before I left Gujarat, one RSS leader described his own feelings in a bitter sigh: ‘Shivling mein bichhu baitha hai. Na usko haath se utaar sakte ho, na uskojoota maar sakte ho.’ A scorpion is sitting on Shivling, the holy phallus of Lord Shiva. It can neither be removed by hand nor slapped with a shoe.”

“If you think about it, it is a very profound understanding of the relationship [between RSS and Modi],” Tharoor said. “If you remove a scorpion with your hand, you will get stung very badly. But if you hit a Shivling with a slipper, you undermine all the sacred tenets of the faith you all know that the scorpion is sitting on.”

“So, ultimately, you live with it, with seething frustration,” he added. “That may well be a very interesting clue to the complex dynamics that exists between the Hindutva movement and the Moditva expression of it.” The Congress MP from Kerala was in Bengaluru to speak on his book The Paradoxical Prime Minister: Narendra Modi and his India.

Tharoor told PTI on Sunday that Modi could have succeeded as the prime minister as his diagnoses were often right but his way of dealing with the ailments was poor.

“If PM Modi had chosen to curb the illiberal elements in his support base and genuinely concentrated on economic development, genuinely concentrated on transforming the lives of Indians, and on ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’, he could have been a success because his diagnosis was very often right,” Tharoor said. “Here is a man of great eloquence who is silent when Dalits are flogged, Muslims are killed, cow lynchings happen.”

BJP criticises Rahul Gandhi

Barely hours after a video of the event went viral on social media, Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad sought an apology from the Congress.

“While Rahul Gandhi claims himself to be a Shiv bhakt, one of his small leaders has almost abused the sanctity of shivling and Lord Mahadev by referring to chappal attack through named sources,” Prasad said, according to ANI. “Rahul Gandhi, you claim yourself be to a Shiv Bhakt, please reply to this very horrific denunciation of Lord Mahadev by giving apology to what Tharoor has done.”

BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain said: “He [Tharoor] has crossed all the levels, his comments are unacceptable, what kind of a language he is using. Another Congress MLA says he [Modi] is a mosquito. Congress leaders are using foul language against the prime minister”, according to News18.

Union Minister Gajraj Singh claimed Tharoor was able to make such a statement because this was India and not Pakistan. Tharoor would have been silenced if he said such things in Pakistan, he claimed. “Tharoor has not insulted the prime minister, he has insulted crores of Hindus and Shiv devotees,” he told ANI. “I will only say this: Congress is now crossing a line.”