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The acid test

india Updated: Mar 20, 2009 23:52 IST
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Five years ago, when Pramod Mahajan first triumphantly inducted a Gandhi gene into the BJP pool, I spent several hours on the campaign trail with the young man who was always destined to be the ‘Other’. The other Gandhi, the one who ended up on the other side of the political divide, the one who even wrote a book of poems titled The Otherness of Self, and the one who may now end up on the other side of the law.

Varun — then not even 25 — and thus unable to contest directly, struck me as slightly self-conscious, precocious for his years and — like his controversial father — impatient and in a hurry. But if you had asked me then whether Varun was a rabid, Muslim-hating, ultra-Hindu, I would have possibly said no. The man being billed today as the ‘junior Modi’(some people mean this as a compliment) had publicly deplored the Gujarat Chief Minister’s personal attacks on Sonia Gandhi and his estranged cousin, Rahul.

But clearly those niceties belong to the past, and another kind of ‘otherness’ has leaped forward to define his present politics. Call it schizophrenia or strategy, the now 29-year old, has clearly decided to play the politics of hate. Whether it was naïveté or calculation that created the rabble-rousing speech in Pilibhit, ever since the controversy has broken, Varun Gandhi has been brash, unapologetic, inconsistent and almost ruthless. And the political irony is glaring. BJP leaders were among those who went to jail to protest Sanjay Gandhi’s brutalities during the Emergency years. Today his son seems to have stepped into the father’s shoes, in the party most opposed to his policies.

What has been most distressing are the obfuscations, denials and half-admissions by both Varun and the BJP. Varun first says the tapes are doctored; then admits to parts of the speech being his own. He doesn’t deny that it was he who said that he would cut the hand that dares lay a finger on Hindus, adding that he is a “Gandhi, a Hindu and an Indian.” The admission of such vitriol should be enough to disgust us all. And all the other unprintable abuse that is on the tapes should be more than enough to make the BJP disown Varun Gandhi and deny him a ticket.

And yet, the BJP is privately embarrassed but publicly confused. Speaking in multiple voices, the party is clearly vacillating between disowning and defending him. The calculators seem to be out to measure whether the outrage is purely limited to urban, liberal angst. In other words, in the communally-sensitive seat of Pilibhit, where more than 70 per cent of the voters are Hindu, the hate speech may well be the shortcut to political victory. It has certainly got him all the attention he hadn’t got for the past five years. For once, he may have got more hits on the internet and more miles in newspapers than his better-known cousins. So what if it is for all the wrong reasons? More than Narendra Modi, Varun Gandhi seems to be the BJP’s Raj Thackeray. Say some godawful things; play to a narrow, parochial constituency, be reviled by most, but emerge as a hero to some — that seems to be the cynical gameplan. And if you get arrested, play the martyr.

There are those who say that “poor Varun” (Ram Jethmalani’s words on a television debate I was moderating) is being singled out because he has a famous last name. And it may even be true that hate speeches are delivered across parties and religious communities. But it’s equally true that the famous last name is his caché in politics. Even in the midst of the controversy he has repeatedly asserted his political legacy. So, if he gets the extra attention because he is a Gandhi, he must face the flak in the knowledge that, by his own description, he is a member of India’s most famous political family, and thus will always be scrutinised more closely than others.

If Varun Gandhi’s case ends up entangled in eternal legal wrangles, and he goes on to contest and perhaps win his election, it will be a defeat for democracy. The Delhi High Court has already accepted his plea for bail and postponed any decision by a week. Such endless delays could mean that the story will soon fade from the headlines till he re-emerges as a complacent and even more vitriolic Member of Parliament. There is something effete about our laws if they don’t allow the Election Commission to disqualify him for his words of hatred. What does it say about our democracy that the only person ever stopped from contesting elections on charges of spreading hatred is Bal Thackeray? And that hasn’t stopped Congress ally Sharad Pawar from openly flirting with him. The Congress may like to grab the high moral ground in this controversy but it should remember that Raj Thackeray’s venom did not stop it either from covertly cavorting with him to weaken the Shiv Sena.

If there is any lesson that we can learn from this sordid episode it is that our moral outrage cannot be selective. Inflammatory, irresponsible rhetoric should have no place in our polity, whether it comes from Hindus or Muslims. Our condemnation has to be principled and equal.

But in the meantime, L.K. Advani — who has tried to re-fashion his party’s campaign this time along the more measured issues of governance, development and security — must show us his mettle. BJP insiders say Advani was furious at Varun’s comments. We would like to see some of that fury. Varun Gandhi must not be allowed to contest elections. Otherwise, our democracy stands sullied.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV.