NEW DELHI: The Congress on Monday accused the government of weakening democracy and crushing the voice of dissent, which it said was the right of every citizen irrespective of who they voted for.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the new farm laws.
He said farmers in Punjab were setting a dangerous precedent by burning effigies of the Prime Minister and asked him to reach out to them and give a "healing touch".
"This happened all over Punjab yesterday. It's sad that Punjab is feeling such anger towards the PM. This is a very dangerous precedent and is bad for our country. PM should reach out, listen and give a healing touch quickly," he tweeted.
Gandhi cited media reports claiming that farmers under the banner of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) in Punjab torched effigies of the PM and business tycoons while protesting against the new farm laws.
Congress spokesperson Gourav Vallabh in a press conference said when people express their disagreement over the government's policies and decisions, it does not mean they are promoting terrorism or are anti-national.
He cited an article by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and alleged that democracy is being weakened and hollowed out when the government books intellectuals for voicing their opinion against the government.
BJP president J P Nadda, responding to Rahul Gandhi's remarks, described the torching of Modi's effigies as a Rahul Gandhi-directed drama and said it was shameful but not unexpected.
"After all, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has never respected the office of the Prime Minister. This was seen in the institutional weakening of the Prime Minister's authority during the UPA years of 2004-2014," he said.
Hitting back at the BJP president, Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala tweeted, "Respected Nadda ji, panic about imminent loss in Bihar election is visible. Your farewell on November 10 is a given. Do not divert. If you want to debate on issues of employment, development, security, education, industry, I am awaiting."
Nadda also lambasted the Congress for its criticism of the Prime Minister, saying the more the opposition party and its leaders "lie" and "hate" Modi, the more people will support him.
"Combination of despondency and shamelessness is dangerous. Congress possesses both. Empty rhetoric of decency and democracy by the Mother is 'complemented' by live demonstrations of politics of hate, anger, lies and aggression by the Son. Double standards galore," he said.
The BJP chief said, "One dynasty's deep personal hatred against a person who was born in poverty and became PM is historic. Equally historic is the love people of India have showered upon PM. More Congress' lies and hate increases, the more people will support PM Modi".
Recalling Emergency, Nadda said the Congress can never pontificate on the freedom of speech and alleged that the party has had a contempt for dissenting voices.
"We saw glimpses of it during the Emergency. Later on, the Rajiv Gandhi government made a brazen attempt to weaken press freedom. A free press rattles Congress," he claimed.
Alleging that the Congress "blessed" Maharashtra government is a "laboratory of usage of brute state power", the BJP chief said troubling opponents and curbing freedom of speech in "trademark Congress style" are visible in the working of the state government.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi earlier hit out at the government alleging that Indian democracy was being hollowed out and the central government was misusing institutions to target political opponents and civil society leaders.
"The world's largest democracy is at the crossroads. That the economy is in deep crisis is clear. But what is less appreciated is that all the pillars of a democratic system of governance are under assault.
"The fundamental right to freedom of expression has been systematically suspended through suppression and intimidation. Dissent is deliberately stifled as 'terrorism' or branded as an 'anti-national activity'," she said in an article.
She also alleged that India's hard-won democracy was being hollowed out.
The Congress chief said citizens do not cease to be citizens when the party they voted for loses an election.
"The Prime Minister repeatedly claims to represent 130 crore Indians. But his government and the ruling party are treating political opponents, dissenters, and those who did not vote for the ruling party as second-class citizens without democratic rights," she said, adding that the people of India are not just an electorate but are the nation and the government exists to serve them, not vilify them.
Vallabh accused the Prime minister, Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP chief Nadda of trying to suppress all voices of dissent and seeking to project them as anti-national.
"Real democracy is to listen to the voice of people and understand what they are saying. Everyone has the right to disagree and voice their opinion, even if they vote or don't vote for you," he said.
"Democracy gives equal rights to everyone, whether he is voting for or against the ruling party. His rights remain the same," Vallabh said.