The tentwallah and the fat boy
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The tentwallah and the fat boy

Given that the BJP and the RSS make a public fetish of being clean organisations with no tolerance for wheeling and dealing or corruption, you would imagine that LK Advani and his mentors in Nagpur would have sent Mr Mittal packing at once. In fact, they have done no such thing. They are still dilly-dallying over how best to mollify Arun Jaitley, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Mar 22, 2009 09:00 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Two of last week’s events offer some indication of how badly India’s politicians cope with the legacies of dynasty, patronage, wheeling and dealing, and communalism. By some coincidence, both relate to the BJP. But my guess is that they could have happened in any party.

<b1>The first is the tussle between Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley over the party post offered to one Sudhanshu Mittal. If you are not a BJP watcher, you will probably not recognise Mr Mittal’s name. If, on the other hand, you do know the party well, then the chances are that your first reaction will be to exclaim, “Oh God! Not him again!”

Mr Mittal runs a flourishing tentwallah business in Delhi (hence his frequent claim “I am proud to be a tentwallah”; why should he imagine that we think it is something to be ashamed of?) and came to prominence as one of the late Pramod Mahajan’s right hand men.

On the positive side, there is his role in helping Pramod Mahajan set up the communications apparatus and war room from which the BJP launched its campaign of unsolicited calls at the election five years ago. On the negative side, there is a suggestion that because of this campaign of nuisance calls, Mr Mittal may actually have played a small but significant role in the BJP’s defeat last time.

But that’s not why he is controversial. His critics see him as a fixer, as Pramod Mahajan’s bagman even, and argue that he has been mixed up in too many scandals. It has been suggested that his family received favours from the Ambanis in return for the help Pramod Mahajan gave Reliance Telecom. And he has been questioned by the police over allegations that he misled investigators on the circumstances leading to Rahul Mahajan and Vivek Moitra’s overdose.

Rajnath Singh knows all this. He cannot be unaware of Mr Mittal’s colourful reputation. Nevertheless, he has allowed him entry into his camp and come to rely increasingly on the Sudhanshu Mittal-style of fixing things.

Arun Jaitley and others argue that Sudhanshu Mittal is the unacceptable face of the BJP, a sort of bargain-basement Amar Singh. They say that the party has only just got over the embarrassment of Pramod Mahajan’s murder and the scandals that came tumbling out. Why go back to a past that is best forgotten?

Given that the BJP and the RSS make a public fetish of being clean organisations with no tolerance for wheeling and dealing or corruption, you would imagine that L.K. Advani and his mentors in Nagpur would have sent Mr Mittal packing at once.

In fact, they have done no such thing. They are still dilly-dallying over how best to mollify Arun Jaitley.

Why should this be so? Well, simply because Pramod Mahajan is dead it does not follow that his legacy is also forgotten.

The BJP needs fixers, fund collectors, deal-makers and negotiators, no matter how unsavoury some people may find them.

That is the reality of Indian politics. No matter how much L.K. Advani rails against corruption and immorality in India, there will always be Sudhanshu Mittal winking in the background.

The second significant event of last week is the controversy over Varun Gandhi’s speeches in his constituency. I need to be careful here because the Junior Gandhi has tried to have it both ways. The CDs of his allegedly communal speeches are doctored, he says on the one hand. On the other, he blusters “What is wrong with standing up for my faith?”

But even Varun Gandhi seems to concede that he did say many things that Muslims have found offensive. (I’m not sure which of these remarks he admits to, but here they are: threatening to cut off the hand of people who attack Hindus; saying that Muslims have scary names; claiming that his rival in the election looked like Osama bin Laden; using an abusive term for Muslims; suggesting that Muslims go off to Pakistan, etc., etc.)

There are many interesting phenomena at work here. First of all, is Varun Gandhi a Hindu communalist? He does say he is standing up for his faith. The problem with that is that his mother is a Sikh and his father was not only half Parsi but never professed any great faith in Hinduism during his life. So, if he is a Hindu communalist, then he is one by adoption.
Who adopted him? That’s the second phenomenon. Clearly, Varun is trying to appeal to the hardliners in the Sangh Parivar. So, I guess you could say that the BJP adopted him. But why should the BJP be so willing to accept a strange, awkward, podgy boy with no discernable political skills and an immature streak?

Which takes us to dynasty. As much as the BJP may complain about dynasty, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, etc., the truth is the only reason Varun Gandhi has been welcomed into the Sangh Parivar is because of his surname. If he had been called Tiwari or Tripathi (you will note that I am deliberately choosing the sort of Hindu name that will not scare poor Varun) he wouldn’t have got the time of day.

And there you have it. No matter how much nonsense our parties spout about merit, the truth is that they are all suckers for dynasty. If you have the right surname, then any party (except perhaps the Left) will be glad to help you rise to a level of undeserved prominence.

A third and final phenomenon: the BJP dissociated itself from Varun Gandhi’s remarks. But it did not withdraw his ticket. Can you really dissociate yourself from remarks made by an official candidate who is standing on your platform? You can, if you sack him. But you can’t have it both ways.

Why has the BJP been reluctant to withdraw its blessings and why has it stopped at mere dissociation? Surely, this sort of thing should be roundly condemned — especially as Mr Advani is now seeking to emerge as a moderate leader and the BJP’s own Muslims are so angry about Varun’s insults.

The reason for that goes beyond dynasty. It strikes at the heart of the BJP’s dilemma. It wants to be a Hindu party with a moderate face. But push it to the wall and force it to choose one identity, it will pick aggressive Hindutva over moderation every time.

To expel Varun or to withdraw his ticket would be seen as anti-Hindu by the party’s hardliners. And so, the best the BJP can come up with is a weasel-like ‘dissociation’.

As I said before, it’s coincidental that both events occurred in the BJP. But, no matter what the party, every time India’s politicians are confronted with corruption, cronyism, dynasty, irresponsibility and hatred, they refuse to stand up for morality.

Is it any wonder then that Indians have so little respect for politicians?

First Published: Mar 21, 2009 21:54 IST