In the backlanes of Uttar Pradesh, Varun Feroze Gandhi is referred to as the ‘BJP ka Gandhi’. It’s a reference that is indicative of what’s been perhaps the 29-year-old poet-politician’s central dilemma in life so far: the struggle to carve an independent identity for himself outside of the Nehru-Gandhi legacy. His cousin, Rahul, has been bequeathed the keys to the family business. His aunt Sonia is the Supreme Leader of the Indian National Congress. Varun, and his mother, Maneka, have always been the ‘outsiders’, blessed with the surname of India’s most powerful political family but without any of the privileges.
Which is why the ‘other Gandhis’ have been forced to look for other career options. Maneka has found her niche in the world of animal rights activism. Varun too, judging from the content of his speeches in Pilibhit, now appears to have found his feet as the BJP’s new Hindutva posterboy.
When Varun joined the BJP five years ago, it was an important moment for the party. For decades, the BJP has had to live in the political shadow of the Nehru-Gandhi family. While the dynasty was seen as the sophisticated Brahmanical elite of Indian politics, the BJP, and its earlier avatar of the Jan Sangh, was dismissed as a ‘bania’ party of petty traders and sanghis. The entry of professionals — journalists, bureaucrats, armymen — in the 1990s went a long way in ending the isolation and enhancing the acceptability quotient of the saffron outfit.
Varun’s entry ended the ‘untouchability’ of the BJP once and for all. If a London School of Economics-educated member of the Nehru-Gandhi clan could join the BJP, then how could the party be treated as a pariah any longer? The fact that he was the son of Sanjay Gandhi, the face of the abhorrent Emergency, hardly mattered. He was, above all, the great-grandson of Jawaharlal. In fact, within weeks of Varun joining the party, there was a section of the party that was already projecting him as the Generation Next leader of the BJP. He was even almost pushed into contesting elections in 2004 itself, till someone in the party remembered that the young man wasn’t even 25 and, therefore, was ineligible to contest the elections.
The desire to have Varun as a BJP face wasn’t just about ending the monopoly of the Congress over the Gandhi-Nehru family name; it was also designed to defeat the Nehruvian political project. Central to the Nehruvian ideal has always been the belief in a secular State that would protect all religions without any distinction. For the BJP, this model of secularism was based on ‘appeasement’ of minorities and needed to be rejected. The secular-pseudo secular debate has been at the core of the Hindutva ideology and has played a major role in the rise of the BJP in the last two decades. For the Sangh parivar , Nehru was, to use the words of a Sangh ideologue, “the leader of a perfidious operation that led the country to surrender to Islamic separatism”. What better way to hit back at the much-reviled Jawaharlal than to have his great-grandson question the very essence of his legacy?
Which is why Varun’s rhetoric in Pilibhit — the kind which might make even a Bal Thackeray blush — should come as no surprise. Varun was not given special treatment in the BJP so that he would be just another politically-ambitious young man waiting his turn. He was catapulted into the arclights to fulfil a particular role: a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family who had wholeheartedly embraced the Hindutva ideology.
That he chose his mother’s constituency of Pilibhit to make his inflammatory remarks is also not unexpected. With a substantial Muslim population, Pilibhit has a history of communal trouble. In the 1930s, resolutions moved in the Central Legislative Assembly to ban cow slaughter had sparked off violence in the region. If today Varun seeks to revive the cow slaughter issue, it should be seen in a specific historic context: as a well-read young man Varun probably knows that this is just the kind of issue that will have an emotional appeal in the region, and could polarise the electorate in his favour.
And yet, there will still be those who will ask just why Varun chose this moment to take up a potentially divisive campaign when his party leadership has shown the capacity to look beyond its traditional revivalist agenda. The simple answer: he probably thought he could get away with it. Had it not been for an alert and enterprising media, he probably would have got away. After all, hate speeches have been made routinely in this country in recent times, yet no one has been really punished.
The only senior political figure who has been held guilty by the judiciary of hate speech has been Bal Thackeray in 1999, that too 12 years after the original offence was committed. The Shiv Sena big boss was initially deprived of his basic right to vote and contest in elections for a period of six years. But even here the punishment was later commuted to just two years. This, despite the fact that Thackeray has been unapologetic and explicit in his venomous speeches and writings against the minorities for over 40 years now.
Narendra Modi’s Gujarat Gaurav Yatra in 2002 was laced with invective against the minorities. The Election Commission issued warnings and notices, yet could do little else as Modi stormed to victory in the ensuing elections. In 1984, the Congress publicity campaign spread fear and hatred towards the Sikhs, yet it wasn’t banned. Nor did it stop Rajiv Gandhi from becoming prime minister. Whether it be political imams who appeal for votes in the name of Islam, or Hindu leaders who target the minorities, little has been done to actively enforce existing legislation against hate speech.
Perhaps, Varun too will eventually get away, and in all probability, even win his election from Pilibhit. Once the media frenzy settles, it is even possible that Varun will be lionised as a gutsy individual by those who believe that such rhetoric is necessary to put minorities ‘in their place’. Maybe, this is the inevitable price we must pay as a nation for having allowed our politics to degenerate into a snakepit of divide and rule. And yet, if we have any faith in the idea of India as a multi-religious society with a republican Constitution, we must not allow Varun to get away so easily. That’s the least Jawaharlal and our founding fathers would expect of us.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network