Some praise and a lot of controversy.
What a sad commentary it is on both dynastic politics and political discourse. In the midst of the foulest election campaign this country has witnessed, a young BJP MP, Varun Gandhi, said a few good words about his estranged cousin, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, about the work the latter has done in his constituency, Amethi, and all hell broke loose within Varun’s own party. Its leaders and cadre were probably enraged even more than they otherwise might have been because Rahul lost no time to proclaim that what “Varun has said is correct”.
Consequently, Varun, who has changed his constituency from Pilibhit to Sultanpur, only 34 miles from Amethi, had to issue a hurried statement to the effect that he had endorsed neither the Congress nor his cousin’s candidature. All he had done was reply to a question on the basis of what he had heard about the “self-help programme” in Amethi but hadn’t seen. However, this was of no help to him. On the contrary, in the eyes of his critics, this accentuated his “offence”.
To comprehend this state of affairs, it would be better to start the story from the beginning. Varun is the son of Sanjay and Maneka Gandhi. Sanjay, as is well known, was Indira Gandhi’s younger son and first preference as her political heir and successor. He wielded great power, not only before and during the Emergency, but also, indeed more so, after her spectacular return to power in January 1980. Unfortunately, he died on June 23 of the same year in the crash of a plane he was flying himself.
Varun was then just three months old. He has, therefore, no personal knowledge of the virulence of the struggle between his mother, who thought that she was the rightful inheritor of Sanjay’s position, and his formidable grandmother, who saw to it that her elder and apolitical son, Rajiv Gandhi, was drafted into politics to take Sanjay’s place. To say that since then relations between Maneka Gandhi and her sister-in-law, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, have been very strained would be the understatement of the century.
Under the circumstances, it was no surprise that Maneka Gandhi became a member of the BJP-led NDA government. It was only in 2004, when the Congress returned to power under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, that Maneka Gandhi joined the BJP, together with her son. The BJP leadership was happy to welcome him because it was useful to have a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi clan in its ranks. This should also explain why he is the youngest general secretary of the saffron party.
At one stage in his political career, Varun made a regrettable hate speech, for which the then UP government took legal action against him. But thereafter he has been very careful and has expressed himself within civilised parameters in his speeches as well as writings.
To the extent that his election speeches have been reported in newspapers, they have done him credit. He hasn’t used improper language against anyone. He has surely denounced caste and identity politics, but in language no one can object to. Even more significantly, he has never said a critical word about his tai (father’s elder brother’s wife) and bhai (what all Indians call their male cousins). He also told his audiences in Sultanpur that he would not visit Amethi until after the elections.
Ironically, in the current milieu, this is something that displeases the hardliners in the BJP, who are even angrier that their candidate from Sultanpur hardly says anything in praise of the party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. Remarkably, Varun also received a rebuke from his mother. She told him to speak from his “head, not heart”. Also, that he must not speak about anything he hasn’t seen for himself. Is there a hint here that he has no personal notion of the acute bitterness of the division in the Gandhi family?
The raucous shouting over an innocuous remark also underscores the disunity and division that has troubled India from time immemorial and continues to be the bane of modern Indian politics. Dynasties are as susceptible to splits as political parties. Those of the 145 MPs who had come to power in 1989 under V.P. Singh’s leadership and are still alive are divided into more than a score of parties and splinter groups. Several Congress candidates, duly given a party ticket, have gleefully walked over to the BJP. The Congress can boast that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s niece has joined it. As for what’s happening to the clan in Tamil Nadu that M. Karunanidhi had kept together for more than 50 years, the less said the better.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator