Varun Gandhi – politics of “hate” from politician of tomorrow?
Call him what you will, Varun Gandhi is grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons in an episode that could embarrass his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party at the start of a general election campaign.
The great-grandson of India’s founding father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was allegedly caught out making inflammatory comments against Muslims at a recent rally.
Local TV news channels are daily replaying clips in which he is alleged to have said the hands of those who threatened Hindus should be cut off, and going on to make crude comparisons between a rival Muslim candidate and Osama bin Laden.
India’s election commission will now monitor every speech Gandhi makes in the run up to the polls. To add insult to injury, Gandhi has since been accused of dishing out money to voters in his Pilibhit constituency in Uttar Pradesh state.
But the man himself stood defiant and said video clips of his speech had been doctored for political gain.
“That is a conspiracy, that is not my voice, those are not my words,” he said, but refused to name the likely conspirators.
The political lives of Gandhi and his cousin Rahul make for lip-smacking contrasts. Rahul’s mother, Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born head of the Congress party whom many see as wielding the real power in government, has long groomed her son to be a future prime minister.
Congress leaders openly say Rahul’s rise to the top is a matter of when not if. Varun, who faces a criminal investigation into his alleged comments, presents his party with a fiery alternative to Rahul, but enjoys precious few benefits from his famous name.
Unlike most of the Nehru-Gandhi line, Varun joined the BJP. His mother fell out with slain former prime minister Indira Gandhi and drifted towards Congress’ main rival at the end of the nineties.
In the dynasty vs dynasty game, Congress promotes Rahul as the natural heir to his father Rajiv Gandhi, the country’s youngest ever prime minister who governed when a young India began its rise on the global stage.
In contrast, the BJP wants to position Varun as the only Gandhi who can uphold the ideals that Indira stood for, especially toughness on internal security and military prestige.
The BJP has in the past been accused of stoking tensions between Hindus and Muslims to pander to its large Hindu vote base. Comparisons between Varun Gandhi and Narendra Modi are inevitable.
Some have not forgiven the Chief Minister of Gujarat, regarded as one of the BJP’s most capable politicians, for what they saw as his quiet complicity in communal riots in his state in 2002 that left more than 2000 people, mostly Muslims, dead.
“Another Modi is rising. There is no necessary to apology, he told real situation,” reads one reader’s comment on an article on Gandhi in the Economic Times newspaper.
“Varun is among the few bold younger politicians taking the bull by the horns. The majority (Hindus) must have at least an equal say in their own country. But we are ruled by minorities with an Italian to boot,” said another.
Another thing Gandhi said this week in the midst of the row caught my eye. “I am a Gandhi, a Hindu and an Indian in equal measure,” he was quoted as saying.
Where had I heard such words before? The charismatic young Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, a friend of Rahul’s, delivered a barnstorming speech in parliament last year in defence of secularism.
“I am a Muslim and I am an Indian, and I see no distinction between the two.”
Whereas Abdullah’s speech was widely praised and became an instant YouTube hit, the question is what the future now holds for Gandhi’s fledgling political career.