A speech he made during his debut electoral campaign in April this year stirred a hornet's nest. Recordings of the controversial speech showed Varun Gandhi (29) as saying that he would cut off the hand that is raised against Hindus. The Election Commission of India took exception to the speech and asked the BJP to withdraw him. The UP government arrested him under the National Securities Act and Gandhi spent 20 days in jail. He won the Lok Sabha elections from Pilibhit, with a majority of 2.8 lakh votes.In this first interview after the entire controversy, Gandhi explains his speech, his politics and personal life. Excerpts from an interview with Varghese K George.
Q1) One of the speeches that you made during the election campaign had created a huge controversy. You were shown as saying that if anyone raises a hand against the Hindus that hand would be chopped off. How do you explain that speech?
Ans) What you refer to as the speech as shown on TV is bits and pieces taken from a couple of places. It is an edited cut and paste job but the essence of what I am shown as saying is that I will protect and defend Hindus against harm in language that is clearly intended to be figurative rather than literal. The sentiment has been hyped and twisted out of context to appear communal. Look at it in perspective. Pilibhit belongs to the Rohikhand district stretching along India's border with Nepal, which has long been misused to funnel fake currency into India, and supply arms and explosives to terrorists. Cows are regularly smuggled across the border to be slaughtered with the administration loath to take any action. Over the last one and a half years, the situation has been aggravated by several instances of discrimination by the local authorities.
A young chaat seller, Sonu Kashyap, the only son of a widowed mother, who chased a gang of miscreants that left without paying, was beaten to death and flung into a well in full public view. The case registered by the police ascribed the killing simply to 'five unidentified Muslim youths'. When former BJP legislator and Minister, Ram Saran Verma ji led a protest, he was promptly arrested and detained under NSA. Sonu's murderers remain free and the police had filed a Case Closed report in Court. Last Holi, a temple statue was vandalized. Again it was not the perpetrators but the protestors who were arrested. When a shop was robbed and the Vyapar Mandal went to report it, the police sought to register counter complaints of dacoity against its Hindu members. Flood relief was distributed unevenly; Hindu quota shop owners were having their licenses arbitrarily cancelled. I wanted to restore the confidence of an anxious, fearful community. What was said at small Karyakarta gatherings was in the context of a specific prevailing local situation, it was certainly not election grandstanding. It was a simple, spontaneous reaction upon seeing such blatant injustice. And it was accepted as such. Till today, there not been any communal violence in the constituency. My election was entirely peaceful and the result demonstrates that I received votes from every community.
Q) The controversy has created a particular image for you. If people see you as anti-Muslim, does it disturb you?
Yes, because it is a completely misplaced view. Not only did more than half the Muslims of my constituency vote for me this time, but my mother in the adjoining constituency has won for the sixth time from a region with a significant Muslim population. But more than this, what disturbs me is our rising levels of intolerance. Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. One of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism. What has been lost is our sense of common purpose- our sense of higher purpose. And that's what we have to rebuild. I'm not anti any community or faith and certainly not in favour of sectarian violence. What I oppose is terrorism and intimidation be it of Hindus or any other Indian. I have been disappointed by the lack of a strong, decisive and timely response to the escalating attacks we have faced all around the country. We need to better protect our people from wanton, unprovoked aggression.
Q) What's your political philosophy? How would you like people to see you?
I am the product of a modern, liberal education and my outlook reflects that. I see myself as part of a new India with the self-confidence to respect all that is good and great about our own country and traditions and not short-sightedly sacrifice them to foolishly ape other cultures. I respect the virtues of courage and patriotism, charity and tolerance. I believe that the safety and strength of a democracy lies in the quality of its people. An intelligent, independent, virtuous people will choose competent and faithful representatives. I regard awareness among the people as the best means of preserving our liberties.
We have not attained an ideal condition. Not all of our people are happy and prosperous; not all of them are virtuous and law-abiding, but we need to chart a path forward that reflects modern Indian aspirations. All divisions- geographical, political and religious- can join in this common sentiment. How corruption or terrorism should be curbed is not so important as that a plan should be adopted and acquiesced in. A united determination to do something is worth more than divided counsels upon the method of doing it.
Q) Do you see this election as a tuning point in your political career? Would you have liked it to be any different?
Naturally, since this is my first election. I would have hoped for it to be less controversial and I certainly could have done without going to jail, but finally I cannot complain about the result. My constituency registered the highest voter turnout in the state to elect me with one of the highest margins of victory in India. I have a great deal to be thankful for and owe a huge debt of gratitude to the people of Pilibhit for standing by me. The focus of my campaign was progress, and that's what I hope to deliver.
Q) The case, arrest and jail -- all this may have been a discovery for you. What did you learn about people from this experience?
My family, my party and a huge number of Indians from here and abroad stood by me. The spontaneous groundswell of support as was evident at the time of my surrender, release and at all my subsequent rallies shows that people connected with what they perceived I stood for. I am told there was a huge upsurge of support on the Internet too. One of the most touching gestures came from my fellow prisoners who when I was denied a mattress to sleep on, offered to pool together their blankets to make a bed for me. The morning after I arrived at Etah jail, I heard the inmates rattling their bars and raising loud slogans in my support. I immediately felt less desolate.
Q) What did you do in jail?There's no use dwelling on the harsh living conditions, after all jail is not supposed to be a picnic and believe me, it was not. But it is remarkable what the mind and body can get used to. I spent my time there catching up on my reading, taking long walks, getting to know the peculiar circumstances of other inmates whose stories I intend to write soon, and introspecting. The highlight of each day was my mother's visit which she would make at great cost to her own health driving three hours there and three hours back after a grueling campaign from village to village. Once she arrived with 16 peach tree saplings, which we planted, on the premises. I feel truly bad about the burden my mother had to bear- handling both constituencies in the face of a hostile government and a vicious character assassination campaign. I am proud of her courage and dignity.
Q) Your mother wanted you to be politics?
Not at all, she herself is a most reluctant politician, and was forced into it by very tragic circumstances. Left to herself, she is a hugely creative person. With regard to politics, it is I who strongly believe that India's young people- those who will decide its future destiny- have a special interest in maintaining the national honor. We cannot stand on the outside and complain about the system, we have to work from within to change it. It is important to create a positive attitude towards politics so that more educated and honorable young people are encouraged to join the process. This is why when people ask me about politics, I am very categorical that I have joined of my own accord and am here for the long haul. You could call me a poet by inclination and a politician by choice.
Q) Some leaders of the BJP have accused you of polarizing Muslims against the party. Do you think that the BJP has targeted you unfairly?
The only targeting that happened was in the press. No such thing happened at the National Executive meeting of the party. Quite the contrary, in fact. At the first meeting of its MPs, the Party President said the party was proud of the huge victory margin of its youngest MP. Similarly, the UP State President pointed out that the party won in the majority of the places where I campaigned. He wished that I had been there for the duration of the whole election rather than spending 3 weeks of it in illegal detention. It would be funny, if it wasn't so dangerous to see how facts can be misreported. We had a perfectly positive, cordial and constructive meeting inside, and yet when we come out we are told how we were all 'bickering, attacking, defending' and so on. Just a case of wishful thinking by others.
Another misbelief is that we lost because the Muslims coalesced against the party. The Muslim vote in this election was its lowest ever so clearly there was no great impetus spurring the community to vote one way or another.
Q) Besides Politics, what else do you like to do?
Apart from reading, I enjoy films, music and modern Indian art. I work out every day which is very relaxing. I play board games like scrabble and chess. I am a big foodie, vegetarian of course. Rajma chawal with kurkuri bhindi is my all time favourite khana.
Q) What are your future personal plans? Is marriage on the cards?
I have been in a committed relationship for the last few years so marriage would seem to be the next logical step. But to coin a phrase, it's for man to propose and the lady to dispose! In any case, I have decided for now that rather than make plans, I will just work hard and ready myself for whatever destiny may have in store.