I am not among the most favoured or even favourite persons on the BJP’s list of journalists. So I was very surprised one day in September 2004 when I got a call from Varun Gandhi’s PR office asking if I would like to travel with him from Bombay to Nagpur via Khandesh and Marathwada in a chopper over the next three days for his Maharashtra Assembly election campaign.
I jumped at the opportunity and it took us three days to travel through Shahada, Nashik, Aurangabad and finally drop anchor at Nagpur. In that three-seater chopper, up in the air, I discovered a side to Indira Gandhi’s youngest grandson that would perhaps now militate with his absolutely obnoxious remarks on Muslims, Sikhs and every other minority in this country.
Varun was only 24 then and very forthcoming. He gave me more insights into the BJP than years of covering the party as a beat reporter had allowed me. And he was full of a curled-nose kind of contempt for most BJP leaders, including L.K. Advani. It was clear that the Gandhi blood was speaking out and even at that age he was brash and brat-ish, though utterly polite and nice to me – playing the savvy host to the hilt.
“Very much Sanjay Gandhi’s son,”’ I thought to myself and asked him what the hell he was doing in the BJP. His answers then shook me up – and up until last week I sympathised with this estranged cousin of Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi and felt very sorry about how he had become a victim of his own circumstances.
As he told me, his mother had run out of money and the BJP was her only option. “But joining the Congress would have ensured you started at the top,” I said. “Yes. But I cannot go anywhere where my mother does not get an honourable entry,” he replied.
So had he written the Congress off forever? “No. I have spoken to Priyanka,” he said. “I have told her I would have joined the Congress soon but if I do it now it would look as though I was deserting the BJP just because it had lost the Lok Sabha elections. Joining the Congress now would mean being seen as someone who always wanted to be on the ruling side.”
“So when will you join the Congress?” I persisted. “Perhaps just before the next parliamentary elections,” he replied, adding that he would have to work out a constituency first with his cousins.
“I know the BJP wants me to take on my aunt, who is a real smart lady, and my cousins. But no way am I going to become a tool in their hands. Family and blood is more important than party any day and I will not say things against them ever.”
So why had he described Sonia Gandhi as a “reader rather than a leader”, I asked. “That’s what Pramod Mahajan asked me to say at a function in Bombay. But that’s as far as I will go.”
Varun then told me he was eyeing Sultanpur for himself – he would not go to Amethi or Rae Bareily held by Rahul and Sonia respectively but it would still have to be a seat associated with the Nehru-Gandhis, and one that Priyanka wouldn’t want in the future. He had to leave alone Pilibhit for his mother but if he could get Sultanpur, they could all make a cosy circle among themselves, he said.
That was quite a daydream but one I knew that Varun Gandhi would not be able to sustain for long. For, at all his speeches throughout that campaign in Maharashtra he was full of his father and grandmother, wanting to do things for the poor as his daadi had done before him and his father had wanted to do before he died. No mandir, no masjid, Savarkar or tiranga (the current issues then) in his speeches.
And this is what his rhetoric was: “Whether you wear the BJP cap or the Congress cap, nothing is done for you. I am sure you are tired of the politics of hatred and divisiveness. We need to completely overhaul the system. My daadi wanted to change things for the poor. We must look for those who’ll do the same.”
Predictably, BJP leaders were furious with Varun Gandhi – when we finally landed in Nagpur there was a large gang of BJP workers waiting to warn him that Messrs Advani and company were not happy. “I don’t care,” said Varun. After he flew back to Delhi, he called me to say, “You know what? I liked what you wrote (that he was evoking Indira Gandhi’s spirit at BJP meetings). But I don’t know why Advaniji and Arun Jaitley had to rap me on the knuckles for that.”
In the five years it took Varun to grow from a boy into a man, I guess he understood what the BJP really wanted out of him – the corruption of the Gandhi bloodline. Paisa vasool!