Varun Gandhi: Modi's other Gandhi problem

Maneka Gandhi is understandably thrilled to bits these days about her son. First, his hate speech charges have been dismissed by the courts. Now he has been made general secretary of the BJP – at 33, the youngest ever for a national party.

“I am very happy. I hope he will carry out his responsibilities with love and wisdom,” the fond mother told India Today.

Or perhaps it was just maternal wishful thinking since Feroze Varun Gandhi has built himself a reputation that has not been known for either.

The BJP obviously thinks it’s gotten a twofer in the freshly-exonerated Varun – the much coveted youth connect and some Gandhi stardust. Despite all the outrage about dynasty, Gandhi vs Gandhi is still good political melodrama and as their back-to-back performances during the Lokpal debates proved, Rahul Gandhi is a poor second to his younger cousin when it comes to passion and fire in the belly.

But sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for. At a time when Narendra Modi is trying to leave behind old baggage and reinvent himself as the messiah of development, young Varun comes with exactly the kind of hot-headed rhetoric Modi could do without. As someone who scores as India’s Number One youth icon, Modi doesn’t need Varun for youth connect. Why would a Narendra Modi even want to get into arguments about whether comments about chopping off hands of those who harmed Hindus were “doctored” or not? At that time, the BJP had said Varun's statements “did not reflect BJP’s traditional culture”.

Varun Gandhi taken on his more visible cousin in the next elections? AFP

Varun Gandhi taken on his more visible cousin in the next elections? AFP

At a time when Modi’s handlers are gleefully welcoming a Modi-Rahul comparison in 2014, why would they want the renegade Gandhi inserted into the mix to complicate their script? There’s already talk that in 2014, Varun Gandhi will run, not from Pilibhit but from Sultanpur which shares its border with Amethi represented by Rahul Gandhi. Television crews must be straining at the bit at the prospect of the cousins coming that close to shadow boxing. Until now Varun has been polite about “Rahul ji.”

“I wish him well,” he told NDTV. “But what I wish for him, I will communicate to him directly.”

The novelty of a real Sultanpur vs Amethi melodrama could easily overshadow the now tired Rahul vs Modi face-off which has largely been theoretical since both sides play coy about their ultimate ambitions.

The other problem with Varun Gandhi is that, all said and done, he’s a Gandhi. With Varun by his side, it becomes a little harder for Narendra Modi to rail about the evils of dynasty. Varun might have won handily in Pilibhit, but no one can argue that his famous last name played no role in his becoming an MP in his twenties.

Those shoved aside for his newest ascent bitterly see the shadow of his famous surname there as well.

“Whoever has the surname Gandhi is bound to get prominence,” said Vinod Katiyar, the BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh who was dropped as vice president. Later he tied himself up in knots trying to clarify what he meant. “I’d only said the Gandhi name is powerful and like Rahul Gandhi, Varun could also be powerful with Gandhi as his surname.”

Varun might have joined the BJP but he cannot shrug off the family legacy nor does he seem interested to. Even the BJP brings it up.Former district BJP chief of Sultanpur, Dr Mahendra Pratap Singh told Mid-Day Varun Gandhi could surely win from Sultanpur if he chose to run from there. “He’s a very popular leader, and he emotionally connects with Sultanpur because his father (Sanjay Gandhi) had worked in this area.”

It’s never been clear, even to his party, how much of Varun Gandhi’s politics is genuine and how much comes from a Karna complex. As Shoma Chaudhury wrote in a long profile in Tehelka in 2009 – “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. 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.”

Sanjay Gandhi is his inheritance.Though he was a baby when Sanjay Gandhi died, his mother has drummed it into him. In 24 Akbar Road, Rasheed Kidwai quotes Maneka’s stirring defence of Sanjay and the Emergency years:

There were no power failures, no strikes or lockouts, citizens went without fear of being mugged, robbed or raped, everything was available at reasonable prices, the slums had been cleaned, the stench of open sewers abolished and instead , clean, wholesome and cheap housing complexes raised in the suburbs, the arid desert of sand and rock turned into lush green, parks and woodland. These were only some of things that Sanjay did for his city.

Surely neither the BJP nor Narendra Modi want to find themselves in a situation where they have to grin and bear it while the party’s “symbol of youth expectation” spouts extempore about the golden side of the Emergency.

The ghost of Sanjay Gandhi should worry the BJP as it embraces his son closer. As one of Varun’s closest confidantes tells Shoma Chaudhury, “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?

That description of Sanjay Gandhi should give the BJP pause. A politician who has a cult following, who wants to be a strong, who sees himself as a Fix-it guy who does not give a damn for political correctness. Ring any bells, anyone? This could get uncomfortable.

LIVE