Even as a war of words between the BJP and the Congress intensified, Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde on Monday said the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi posed no challenge to the Congress in the forthcoming general elections.

Meanwhile, in an apparent reference to recent controversial statements made by the Gujarat Chief Minister and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Mr. Shinde cautioned political leaders to keep their speeches within the confines of law.

“Narendra Modi is not a challenge to the Congress. The Congress is a big party, a very old party. It has already completed 120 years of existence and it has its own identity,” Mr. Shinde said, when asked if the Gujarat Chief Minister posed a serious challenge to the Congress as was mentioned by Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram.

Refusing to comment further on Mr. Chidambaram’s statement that Mr. Modi was a “challenger”, Mr. Shinde said: “I cannot say about others. I am saying on behalf of myself and my party. The Congress has been facing many challenges over the years; it is nothing new to the party. In 2004, there was a big challenge –India Shining. But people of this country had given a mandate to the Congress and for the last ten years, the party has been in power.”

On controversies over comments made by Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi in their recent political speeches, Mr. Shinde said: “One has to make statements carefully. One should not say things which do not come under the ambit of law.”

He also said Mr. Modi was “talking in air” and “out of context” while levelling charges against the Union government for misusing the CBI or not acting against the Indian Mujahideen.

Separatists’ meet

On the BJP’s charge that the Centre was going soft on Kashmiri separatist leaders and committing a “diplomatic blunder” by allowing them to meet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s adviser Sartaj Aziz on Indian soil, Mr. Shinde said there was nothing new in it as such meetings had taken place even during the BJP-led NDA government.

“They (Kashmiri separatists) have been meeting (Pakistani leaders) since 1999. When their Prime Minister came, they met then, too. They met in October 2000 and in 2001. They again met in 2003 and in March 2004 … Precedent has been set,” Mr. Shinde observed.