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Pankaj Vohra, Hindustan Times
March 22, 2009
In what appears to be an unfortunate and misleading campaign, a section of media has already declared Varun Feroze Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s youngest grandchild, guilty of making hate speeches in the Pilibhit area of Uttar Pradesh without allowing him a chance to defend himself. If Varun has indeed said what is being attributed to him, he will naturally attract criminal charges under the existing penal code. But, like any other citizen, he has every right to defend himself. The prosecution will have to establish without any doubt that he incited communal hatred while addressing an audience. A CD believed to contain the recording of the said speech has already been declared as “doctored’’ by the young man who is seeking to contest and win his maiden election to the Lok Sabha in 2009 from a constituency earlier represented by his mother Maneka Gandhi.

There are several dimensions to the Varun episode if one looks at it objectively. First and foremost is his ambition of getting into politics like the rest of his illustrious family. Since he bears the most popular surname in Indian politics, he is naturally bound to attract more public attention than others. Second, he has to live with the perceptions, wrong or right, people have about his father, Sanjay, a man far ahead of his times. Issues like the small family norm, literacy, ecology and discipline he raised are valid even today. Therefore, the sanctimonious attitude of many in the media have led to them visiting the so-called `sins’ of the father upon the son.

Sanjay Gandhi, irrespective of perceptions, had a very shrewd political brain. No one can deny that he helped his mother come back to power at the Centre in 1980. Had he lived, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that he would have been Prime Minister. But his life came to a premature and tragic end with the crash of his Pitts 2 aircraft on June 23, 1980. Varun was just three months old.

Coming back to Varun, he is, of course, the “other’’ Gandhi. The Nehru Gandhi legacy is, by all accounts, now with his aunt, Sonia Gandhi and cousin, Rahul Gandhi who control the Congress, the party his father, uncle, grandmother and great grandfather had once nurtured. So from a purely political perspective, he has to carve out a political identity for himself.

In doing so, he cannot be seen as using the same political idiom as his cousin uses since he has chosen to be in a different political party espousing a different ideology. If he uses the same idiom, he will be a clone like Suman Kalyanpur is till today remembered as the poor man’s Lata Mangeshkar. He has to pursue a different political path. This is not to suggest that he should spread hatred towards other communities. But like many in the BJP, he too wants to play the Hindu card and wear his identity on his sleeve. His real aim is to distinguish himself and not necessarily propagate a licence to kill.

Fourth, the controversy has helped him come to the centre stage of politics. Until the polls are over, he will get as much attention as any other leader involved in the campaign. This has worried many of the BJP’s second rung leaders who fear that Varun could supersede them in the hierarchy. Now that a change has taken place in the RSS and hardliner Mohan Bhagwat, a stickler for ideology, is in command; Varun could well enjoy a meteoric rise. The RSS will want Indira Gandhi’s grandson on its side.

Last, another dimension which needs to be examined by legal experts is whether the Election Commission was empowered to serve him a notice under section 125 of the Representation of People’s Act even before the President has notified the elections. Knowledgeable sources believe that the role of the EC can come into play only after the President notifies the polls on March 23. Even the order for the removal of the Andhra DGP by the EC was questionable. In both cases, it would seem that the EC has overstepped its limits. In this context, it is important to note that Varun Feroze is neither an office-bearer nor technically the official candidate of the BJP as yet. He will be a candidate after he files his nomination. It is only then that the jurisdiction of the EC can kick in. There are some who have been speculating on the fact that despite his candidacy being announced, his nomination could be rejected during scrutiny. He can no doubt be charged under 153 (a) of the IPC. But, as of now, the EC has no jurisdiction over him.

One can understand why a worried and confused BJP reacted the way it did. But what about Varun’s lawyers? They should take on the EC. To condemn a young man seeking a political future without according him a chance to defend himself goes against our democratic traditions. Between us.