Master Faustus?

Varun Gandhi has been arrested for his vitriolic hate speech. What changed him from a solitary reader into a frothing demagogue? The story of a Gandhi scion torn between the ghost of Nehru and Sanjay Gandhi

April 11, 2009 in People
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Varun Gandhi. Photo: Vijay Pandey

SOMETIMES, COLOURS can be the metaphor. As waves of noisy advocates in official black wash over a lone figure in red in a crowded courtroom in a mofussil town in India, the battle unfurling in the room stretches across the length of the country, triggering bitter debate. The figure in red has cataylsed both great offence and great heat. Great disgust and great approval. The tumult is greater because the man — almost a boy — stands at the cusp of redefining the greatest political dynasty of the modern world.

The French writer André Malraux once asked Jawaharlal Nehru what had been his greatest difficulty since Independence. Nehru replied: “Creating a just State by just means.” Then he added, “Perhaps, too, creating a secular State in a religious country.” Sixty years later, in a crushing irony, his great-grandson has become infamous proof of how difficult both those projects continue to be.

Over the last month, like a morality tale bearing cautionary lessons for humankind, 29-year old Varun Gandhi has found himself catapulted from soul-destroying anonymity to a heady but ambiguous notoriety. Around the middle of March, secret footage of his campaign speeches in western Uttar Pradesh erupted on national television, shocking the nation with its toxic vitriol and communal aggression. Dressed in black kurta and a riverine red tika — almost like a prop in a stage play — Gandhi was seen threatening and berating Muslims in the coarsest language. Among other things, he exhorted Hindus to unite and not allow “mini-Pakistans” to mushroom in their midst; swore to chop off the hands of those who harmed Hindus; promised to forcibly sterilise Muslims if he was voted to power; and demonised the community with mock references to “Mazarullah and Karimullah” — supposedly terrifying names that was symbolic of them.

Even in a country routinely pummeled by base rhetoric, this was a new low. Still, someone else might have got away with it. But a Gandhi? The nation’s collective memory recoiled. The opprobrium piled up in viral leaps. Varun Venomous Gandhi. Varun Communal Gandhi. Varun Poison Gandhi, chorused the media. What’s got into him, wondered everyone. Why was the scion betraying his illustrious legacy?

Irony is one of the big, ill-starred themes of Varun Gandhi’s life. The generic disgust flowing his way is more than well deserved, but is its particular intensity? In a curious twist, is he being reviled for betraying a legacy he has never possessed? In fact, was its absence the bitter leitmotif that has driven him to his Faustian compact?

Three generations at the helm of the biggest democracy in the world. As the great-grandson of Nehru, the grandson of Mrs Gandhi, and as Sanjay Gandhi’s son, Varun could be forgiven for being born with a sense of manifest destiny, a sense that he was a chapter of history waiting to be turned. After all, his father Sanjay was the chosen one, the son who was a distillate of the mother’s iron gene. Rajiv, his uncle, was the reluctant branch.

But Varun was four months old when his strong-headed father died in a plane crash, and two years old and burning with fever when his mother, Maneka wheeled him out of history after a bitter public spat with her mother-in-law, arguably the most powerful woman the subcontinent has ever seen. Ever since, cut off from his patrimony — like Karna, the forgotten brother smouldering with a latent sense of injury — the thwarted shoot has been waiting to leaf.

After storming out, or as other versions have it, being thrown out of the Prime Minister’s house, Maneka — by all accounts a congenitally fractious, arrogant, abrasive woman — moved with her infant son from Golf Club Road to Jor Bagh to Maharani Bagh, finally to live in a house Sanjay had bought for her. It could not have been an easy time for the 27-year old. Estranged from her husband’s family, she linked back into her own. But that was no primeval cocoon. “Their family always seemed on the verge of coming apart, their relationships were always in crisis, there was a constant sense of being on edge,” remembers one close friend. Maneka’s father was found mysteriously dead in a field, riddled with bullets; her brother disappeared one day and never came back. Her mother, Amteshwar Anand, was one of four children born to Sir Dattar Singh, a widely respected man, famous for his initiatives in animal husbandry. But the siblings got embroiled in bitter property disputes that have trailed their way into the next generation. Family fissures, one could say, have been one of the embedded themes of Varun Gandhi’s life.

In a curious twist of irony, is Varun Gandhi being reviled for betraying a legacy he never possessed?

For all that, everyone who knew Varun as a boy remembers a quiet, solitary child — polite, affectionate — prone to read more than socialise. (His mother apparently made him read Nehru’s autobiography, Discovery of India, when he was eight, grooming his loss.) Sent to boarding school at Rishi Valley for a few years, Varun was apparently asked to leave in Class VIII for “irresponsible behaviour”. His peers remember him being “a nice guy, but a bit maladjusted”. Back in Delhi though, he seems to have settled down. Mrs Prabhu, former principal of the British School, remembers his stint there as “smooth”. “He was intelligent and stood out in his class. He showed a potential for leadership because he always put forward his views in an interesting way,” says she. After school, Varun went to England for a few years, returning with a passion for history, a mediocre book of poetry, The Other Side of Silence, and masters’ degrees from the London School of Economics and SOAS, London University — both now shamefully exposed as lies. Varun, it appears, was never enrolled full time in LSE, and withdrew from his M(Phil) course at SOAS.

So what transformed the solitary reader into the frothing demagogue of Pilibhit?

THE WILL to power can be a corrosive hunger. Shot with a sense of thwarted destiny, it is a ravenous force. While Varun had been living out his unremarkable youth — the family’s politically dominant wing losing frisson, shrinking to irrelevance — ironically, his cousins Rahul and Priyanka, children of the reluctant Rajiv and doubly reluctant Sonia, had been moving centre stage, feted, cajoled, pleaded into making their political debuts. The smart of that — the blighting sense of loss — has apparently become Varun’s overriding DNA.

In a poignant side strand, the cousins, it appears, have not always been estranged. In 2004, when Varun returned to India, he apparently flew back on the same British Airways flight as Rahul and went straight to 10, Janpath to spend the night. “Their doors were never closed to him,” says a friend. “He stood closest to Priyanka at her wedding. Later, they even offered him the Sultanpur seat. But Varun felt he could not stab his mother in the back. She had had a very difficult life, he told us, I could not put politics before my mother, I have to be with her.” Trapped in a choiceless universe — unable to claim his family tree, unable to live without its shade — he drifted into the BJP, not out of conviction, but expedience.

But personal riptides are themes for biography. In the public realm, the key thing to understand is that Varun’s eruption in Pilibhit is not a betrayal of inheritance; it is the first lap in his attempt to seize it. Varun is — and sees himself — as a legatee of Sanjay Gandhi, not Nehru. He is the family’s darker gene — made more opaque by thwarted ambition. He is the autumnal face of his grandmother, the unconstitutional face of his father. Sanjay Gandhi — grandson of one of the most luminous men in history — could morph into a goon because of his deep disregard for propriety. Varun seems a part of the same blueprint. A dangerous mix of deluded ‘vision’ latched at the hip with impatience for public opinion and democratic procedure. In an intractable country, despotism and the cynical short-term manoeuvre are often a big temptation. There is every sign that these are temptations Varun will easily succumb to.

Pritish Nandy, close to Maneka and Varun for years and an apologist, confirms, “Varun is like his father — impetuous, impatient to get on with it. He wants to play a significant role. He wants to make a breakthrough. I would like to believe this was a short-term tactical gesture, a convenient route in this point of history.”

Soon after the tapes emerged, at the height of the controversy, TEHELKA spoke to a source very close to Varun — so close as to be no more than a ventriloquist for Varun himself. The conversation offered fascinating insights. “Please don’t write of this as some metamorphosis of Varun,” said the ventriloquist. “Varun understands what he is doing, he wants to model himself on his father. Solutions to problems in our country don’t have to be messy. People say Sanjay was too severe and strong, but he had a cult status that Rajiv could never acquire. People on the ground say, Agar Sanjay aaj hota, toh desh ka yeh haal nahi hota.Everybody struggles with demons. Varun is struggling with the same demons his father did — should he be a politically correct good boy and be ineffectual, or should he dare to speak the truth, take the flak, and get things done?”

According to this ventriloquist, in Varun’s view, Nehru counts as a weak man; his father and grandmother, Mrs G, history’s real doers. The time for moral idealism, he believes, is over; morality must now be coupled with an appetite for some saber-rattling. “Varun is against violence, do you really believe he would lead a sickle army against anyone? His speeches in Pilibhit were merely a kind of deterrent message. Mahatma Gandhi muscled Subhash Chandra Bose out of the Congress presidency. Wasn’t that a kind of moral bullying too? The world has changed, we have become a frightened people. Varun wanted to give that fear voice, soothe it. Throwing the Constitution at the people was not going to calm them. He does not wish to be like his effete Page 3 peers — the young poster-boy politicians who just smile and make no dent on the public discourse. What has his cousin Rahul achieved in Uttar Pradesh? What have the pacifists Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar achieved? Varun is proud that he is the only young politician to have catalysed a nationwide debate.”

The figure in red. Artist of great offence and great heat, great disgust and great approval. In 2004, when Varun first returned to India, the Nehruvian gene seemed more dominant. Speaking at a BJP campaign rally in Malegaon, Maharashtra, he refused the usual gladiatorial bouts. “A lot of people have told me to say this government (the Congress-NCP combine) has done nothing. But I won’t do that. This kind of accusation and counter-accusation does not help anyone. Only the public suffers. I want to usher a different kind of politics.”

What bent that noble intention? One of the more complex taunts thrown up by Varun’s confessional friend — the ventriloquist — is the challenge of India’s ground realities. “All this criticism against him is just armchair stuff,” says the voice. “It’s very easy to sit in the cities in privileged cocoons and call others villains. People are essentially cruel. This world of journalists and politicians — this whole incestuous Delhi durbar — is just a fictitious world. Go 50km out of Delhi and the reality of India will hit you. You need a different language to deal with this reality.”

Varun, it appears, was transformed by his exposure to ground-level UP politics. “I won’t say it frightened him, but it changed him,” says his disembodied doppelganger. “The only reality there is religion, caste, and unconstitutional control. Mulayam Singh’s entire politics, for instance, runs on managing the police force. Painting pretty pictures of nationhood is an urban luxury, the conserve of those who head large party organisations. For the rest, there is only business to conduct with the crooks and knaves on the ground.”

Varun’s eruption in Pilibhit is not a betrayal of inheritance; it is the first lap in his attempt to seize it

But the measure of a man lies in the choices he makes when faced by a dilemma. Varun has always held a precarious position within the BJP. Though Atal Behari Vajpayee — and even LK Advani in some measure — have been well-wishers, others in the BJP have viewed him with visceral dislike. “He is just a 3-day television phenomenon,” says one scornful BJP insider, close to Narendra Modi, “a pathological liar who does not even believe in the BJP’s ideology. You cannot even compare him to Yogi Adityanath [a virulently strident BJP leader in UP] because men like the Yogi come from a tradition of hardline Hindutva. This joker is just milking the situation, reveling in his notoriety. Tomorrow, if he was speaking in an urban constituency, he would change his tune.”

IT IS true, when Varun was proposed as a possible candidate for the Vidisha ticket — a Muslim-dominated constituency in Madhya Pradesh — he began to emphasise his first name Feroze (though that is a legacy of his Parsi father). The ticket, however, was denied him at the last minute. Over the years, in fact, he has variously been offered the position of national secretary and presidentship of the UP state unit. Each time he has been stymied by the second rank. Clearly Varun was getting desperate for his big play.

Ironically, in the sort of curious twists that have dogged his life, when his turn came to stand for election in Pilibhit, a constituency of 13 lakh voters that has sent his mother to Parliament four times, the demography had shifted to his disadvantage. Delimitation moved Powaya — their pocket vote segment — to the Shahjahanpur constituency; Varun inherited Baheri — a trickier mix of Hindus and Muslims. In what, for him, might have been an equally unnerving development, three out of five seats in the previous assembly election were won by Muslims, though they constitute only 30 percent of the local population. Suddenly, becoming an MP from Pilibhit did not look like a cakewalk.

There are three key challengers to Varun in Pilibhit. Riyaz Ahmed from the SP, Budh Sen Verma from the BSP, and VM Singh from the Congress. VM Singh — in one of those recurring fissures in Varun’s life — is his maternal uncle, Maneka’s first cousin, and now their most dogged opponent. (In fact, even Naveen Chawla, Chief Election Commissioner, stern critic of Varun and one of the men who advised the BJP not to field him as a candidate given his unconstitutional vitriol, was one of Sanjay Gandhi’s key men during the Emergency.) But to return to the story: Singh, a mild man of considerable property, first came to Pilibhit as Maneka’s assistant. Property disputes, Maneka’s alleged corruptions and foul mouth estranged him from her. According to him, he first began to grow apart from her when he realised she took hefty commissions from her MP fund, meant for local development. Later, when she was Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, he persevered till there was a CBI enquiry against her for diverting Rs 50 lakh from the Maulana Azad Educational Foundation to an NGO, the Gandhi Rural Trust, run by her sister Ambika Shukla. By all accounts — and cutting across party lines — Singh is a widely respected man in the area. Unlike other local leaders, among other things, he has lobbied right up to the Supreme Court to get better prices for sugarcane farmers; he intervened in the infamous Keshavpur rape case, where cops raped two minor Sikh girls all night, and had the case shifted to Delhi; and has been defending farmers against an unfair land acquisition in the area for a paramilitary battalion.

Between these three men — and the maze of intrigue and counter-intrigue every election brings — Varun realised that the Hindu vote, which counts for about eight and a half lakh of the 13, was hopelessly divided. He decided the only strategy was to cleave the vote along religious rather than caste lines: the cynical short-term manoeuvre. Varun, though, insists this was not the case.

Since the controversy first came frothing up like lava, Varun has insisted parts of the tapes have been doctored — “spliced in 17 places.” However — in a kind of canny game play, aware that he has tapped into a powerful subterranean pulse — he has also publicly stood by some parts of his speech. “I was speaking for my samaj,” he told the media, “it’s a sad day for India when speaking up for Hindus is seen as being communal.”

“There was real and palpable fear on the ground,” he told TEHELKA more expansively, willing to have this quoted in what was otherwise a long, off-therecord conversation. “Maybe some of my language was too harsh, but there had been 3 rapes in one month and some local Muslim leaders had been terrorising people. I am only 29, I was angry and disturbed by what I was hearing. I was speaking a language of deterrence, not offence. I understand why people are so shocked by what I said. They are seeing it through a wide angle, but I was talking in a small, purely local context. You have to stop looking at this through a wide angle. You have to go to the ground and see the reality there.”

Varun was transformed by his exposure to ground-level up Politics.‘it changed him’, says a source

Varun refuses to understand why bad rhetoric should be equated with bad action. The opacity of the power hungry? “There was never any communal incident during my mother’s tenure, and there has been no communal unrest after my speech, so how can you say I was inciting violence?” says he — unselfconsciously giving the lie to his assertion that Hindus in Pilibhit were gripped by inordinate fears that needed inordinate balms.

ESCHEW THE wide angle though, explore Ground Zero. Pilibhit, fifty kilometers from Bareilly, is a serene, fertile land. If you wander through its dusty, rut-ridden villages you will be struck by two things. One, eighteen years of voting Maneka Gandhi to the Lok Sabha has not brought any visible development to the area, but the Gandhi name is still a charmed talisman, forgiven all its failings. Two, Pilibhit is an unusually harmonious place. In village after village — Chandoi, Bhikaripur, Koori, Nakul, Barkhera (where Varun gave his most strident speech), Hindus and Muslims live in close proximity, cheek by jowl, swearing brotherhood and comity. No probing yields any stories of communal disquiet. The occasional friction, yes. The occasional sugarcane cart hijacked by a miscreant; an occasional run-in with some cocky youngster. Some stories of police partiality to Muslim wrong-doers.

But the only story of any gravity involves Anees Ahmed, the BSP MLA in Bisalpur. A few months earlier, Ahmed’s men had murdered Sonu, a small chaatwallah at a mela over a dispute of a few rupees. When the BJP leader Ram Saran Verma tried to take up the issue, the Mayawati government sent him to jail under the National Security Act (NSA). He is still languishing in jail. Varun would have been right to raise this incident as an election issue, but did it merit his verbal nuclear deterrence against the whole community?

Suddenly, as the police struggled with the crowd, a sort of Bollywood tableau materialised. A green car appeared in slow dissolve with Varun towering in its skylight, dressed in red kurta and flaming red tika, hands folded in greeting. The archetypal politician on a victory lap. The mood now shifted to real hysteria; the mob swallowed him up. Moments later, remarkably calm, he emerged from the car and fought his way into the court. The police beat back the flood. Some tributaries still flowed through. Only the media was left outside.

The cousins, it appears, have not always been estranged. Returning to India, Varun went first to 10, Janpath

About an hour later, amidst screaming supporters, Varun was sent to jail, booked under Section 295 (A), 505 (ii), 153 (A) and 188 of the Indian Penal Code. The first three charges — all pertaining to promoting enemity between people on the basis of religion — were non-bailable. As was the charge under Section 125 of the Representation of People’s Act. As Varun was led away, all hell broke loose. His supporters tried to storm the jail. The police fired to contain the crowd, 25 were badly injured. Speaking to the media later in the evening, his mother Maneka floated a pernicious seed. The man who had first opened fire on the crowd, she said, was Pervez Aslam, a Muslim police officer. “See how ‘these people’ think?” crooned local BJP leaders.

AFTER VARUN leaves, the courtyard explodes into excited debate. The same conversations spiral endlessly through the countryside. There are still sufficient Hindus critical of Varun’s speech, but there is a definite shift in the wind. Pilibhit will vote on Hindu-Muslim lines this election. “Varun is with the public, so the public is with him,” says Har Prasad, a farmer from Nakul village. This is a locality that had voted the Muslim SP candidate to power in the previous assembly election. “Nobody before knew whether Pilibhit was peeli (yellow) or kaali (black),” says Raj Kumar, a sweetshop man in Chandoi village. “At least Varun Gandhi has put us on the map, isn’t it Shabir bhai?” he says congenially to a Muslim worker in his shop — displaying an old communal ease, a remembrance of things past. “You never know with these Muslims, they might start bombing us,” says Dambar Singh, a cycle repair man in Barkhera. Ask him if he has ever felt oppressed by his Muslim neighbours before. “No,” he replies, “but Varun Gandhi has brought what we feel in our hearts out on our lips.”

Back at the court, as the circus around him unfolded, briefly — briefly — Varun Gandhi seemed to be ruing his unholy bargain. Scaling a wall had gained this reporter exclusive entry into the court. As advocates fell on top of each other in excitement, and Chief Magistrate Bipin Kumar looked on with helpless resignation, a sudden window presented itself for exclusive conversation. Varun was sitting alone in a chair, having begged his admirers to move away a yard. (Notoriety can be sweaty business.) He had a mildly bewildered air — the air of a man watching a gentler, known world recede, as a newer one beckoned.

“Are you overwhelmed by all this?” I asked.

“Yes, a little,” he replied. “I was brought up in a very different environment.”

“If you could unravel it all, would you?”

“If I could, I would undo it all. I don’t want 250 million people — Muslims — to think I am basing my career options on opposing or vilifying them. I am not communal.”

“Why haven’t you said this to the media in your statements?” I countered.

“Nobody asked me,” he said. And then the equivocation: “I stand by the things I said in my speech, but I was reacting to a local situation. I was not voicing my views about a community in general.”

Worlds tussle within him: the ghost of Sanjay and the ghost of Nehru.

“You spoke an awful language and seem quite happy riding its wave,” I say.

“I have not stepped out of my house for eight days. I have not gone from studio to studio giving interviews, he counters. Does that look like someone riding a wave? I’ve been deeply hurt by all of this, deeply hurt.”

“But what about your derogatory references to Mazurullah and Karimullah?”

“I was referring to two specific Muslim leaders, not the community,” he says, without batting an eyelid. “Two brothers in Puranpur and Amariya.” The glib self-delusion of the dissimulator. No such brothers exist. The ghost of Sanjay has won: expedience rules the day. Outside the crowds are roaring for him. His first lap has begun.

Worlds tussle within Varun: the ghost of Sanjay and the ghost of Nehru. The ghost of Sanjay wins

Since that morning in Pilibhit, Varun continues in jail. The Uttar Pradesh state government has now invoked the NSA against him. He plans to challenge its order in the Supreme Court. There are rumours that Chota Shakeel — the don from Karachi — had ordered a hit on him. With each passing day, as his notoriety grows, he is becoming a bigger Hindutva hero. The BJP — always masters of expedience — have refused to disown him, though they continue to disassociate themselves from the content of his speech. But the religious parivar have rallied around him in full force. Once out of jail, Varun plans to have a band of 100 voluntary workers in each district of Uttar Pradesh to amplify his vision. Keeping a dignified silence, his cousin, Rahul, is embarked on a similar mission of rejuvenation with a more secular goal.

What was your most difficult task since Independence, André Malraux had asked Nehru. To create a secular state in a religious country, he had replied. Sixty years later, two of his great-grandsons are continuing the argument. Deeply symbolic of India’s own cleft impulses.

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