Varun Gandhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate for the Pilibhit Lok Sabha seat, just can’t seem to escape controversy.
Gandhi, out on bail after spending almost three weeks in prison for alleged anti-Muslim hate speeches he delivered in March, was at the centre of another furore at the weekend after the UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported that he favoured his father’s population control policies.
The paper’s South Asia editor Dean Nelson, who interviewed Gandhi for the story, clarified on Sunday that Gandhi didn’t advocate the forced sterilizations of the kind that took place in the 1975-77 Emergency rule. That drive was blamed on Gandhi’s late father, Sanjay Gandhi.
Rather, the young Gandhi favours a softer approach of positive incentives such as financial benefits for those who choose to have smaller families, PTI quoted Nelson as saying.
That clarification may prevent the controversy from assuming bigger dimensions, but Varun Gandhi has made news for all the wrong reasons in this general election.
Gandhi was arrested on 28 March and kept in jail for 20 days for his alleged hate speeches targeting the Muslims earlier in the same month. He was booked under the National Security Act and for disturbing public order.
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He has his supporters, though, in Pilibhit, the constituency in Uttar Pradesh that his mother Maneka Gandhi represented in the Lok Sabha five times. The 1.3 million strong electorate of Pilibhit, where Gandhi faces Virinder Mohan Singh of the Congress party and Ganga Charan Rajput of the state’s ruling Bahujan Samaj Party, will vote on 13 May in the final phase of polling.
Madhuri Mishra, a homemaker in Pilibhit town, believes that Gandhi said nothing wrong against the Muslim community and had been targeted by political rivals. "He just said that he would take up a legal battle if somebody harms the Hindus. What’s wrong in it?" she asks.
But political rivals as well as analysts say his allegedly inflammatory speeches were calculated to divide the electorate along communal lines and were part of the BJP’s campaign strategy.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s politburo member Sitaram Yechury said, "the big mobilization in Pilibhit, the forcing of confrontations with the police, rousing passions by rabble-rousing…are clearly BJP’s campaign strategy."
"Communal polarization is part of their (the BJP’s) vote consolidating mechanism," he said.
Bidyut Chakrabarty, a political science professor at Delhi University, agreed with that observation. What the BJP basically needed, said Chakrabarty, was a mascot of fiery Hindutva whom it could keep at a convenient arm’s length—close, but not too close. Gandhi had duly obliged with his rhetoric, he said.
BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad hit back at the critics of Gandhi and the BJP. "The abuse of the National Security Act on Varun Gandhi with vote bank considerations and aimed at dividing the masses has back-fired on the very parties who did it," he said. "Frustrated with this, parties like the Congress are now accusing the BJP of communal politics."
Mint reported last month that Gandhi’s allegedly inflammatory speeches may help the BJP to some degree in the Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh. "There could be a return of core Hindu votes, which have shifted to various parties in the past, to the BJP," said G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a psephologist and a member of the BJP’s national council. "There is some kind of consolidation, though it is not heavy."
Uttar Pradesh is home to 166 million people, making it the most populous state in the country, and it elects the most number of Lok Sabha members—80.
But will Gandhi, personally, benefit from these controversies?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, says that his future in politics will depend on the performance of the BJP.
"If BJP’s tide rises, he will play left of the penalty... Politics is not made of one incident," Mehta said.
Gandhi joined the BJP in 2004. He and his mother have been estranged from the rest of the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has led the Congress party since the time of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the great grandfather of Varun Gandhi. His father was killed in a plane crash months after he was born; his mother had a public spat with his grandmother, Indira Gandhi.
His great-grand aunt Nayantara Sahgal, Nehru’s niece, said in published remarks after the controversy erupted over his alleged anti-Muslim hate speeches that Varun Gandhi hadn’t inherited the family’s legacy or its values.
"The difference between Varun and his cousins, Rahul and Priyanka (children of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi), is that while they were nurtured on the family’s secular ideals, he was simply not there," Sahgal said. "He may have kept up with his cousins and his aunt, Sonia, but having not been brought up within the family, he lost out on his family inheritance, both the ideology and the training," Sahgal said in remarks published by Outlook magazine in its 30 March issue.
At a glance
• Born on 13 March 1980
• Joined the BJP in February 2004
• One can spot at least half a dozen dogs in and around his house
• An alumnus of Rishi Valley School, Andhra Pradesh; studied law and economics at the London School of Economics
• Writes poetry; his book ‘The Otherness of Self’, a collection of poems, was published in 2000. Illustrations were by leading artists such as Anjolie Ela Menon, Manjit Bawa and Manu Parekh
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