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Dubious Damaad is Mr Cool of Politics

Robert Vadra’s demeanour is an engaging counterpoint to prime-time noise on news channels amid increasing election heat

Firstpost print Edition

Not since the late MG Ramachandran danced in dream sequences of popular Tamil movies has someone sporting pink trousers influenced Indian politics so much—unless you count Akshay Kumar donning them while interviewing Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The political heavyweight of sorts who dares to wear dashing pink is Robert Vadra, the country’s most famous son-in-law.

Vadra is no MGR. But he does invoke comparisons with the AIADMK founder and former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, at least, for some sartorial similarities.
As the publicly doting husband of Priyanka Gandhi, and thus the cherished damaad of the nation’s supposedly first political family, there is a special place in the minds of Indians for the real estate businessman, born to a brass exporter from Moradabad. But then, hearts are a different issue and votes yet another.

Vadra’s talk of his entering electoral politics, his Facebook posts of dubious merit and the strange mix of attitude and naïveté he displays in them all make him a perfectly relaxing muse amid the summer heat of India’s most keenly contested elections perhaps since the post-Emergency polls of 1977.

In February, as the lady of his life started campaigning for the fortunes of the Indian National Congress in Uttar Pradesh, Vadra wrote “Best wishes to you P…” on social media and appealed to the people of India to “Please keep her safe”. She, in turn, wished him luck as he faced the other side of the political conflict: sleuths of the Enforcement Directorate grilling him on various aspects of alleged misdemeanour linked to corruption and money laundering.

There is nothing in Vadra that suggests he is a fierce politician hotly contesting Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which taunts him on the riches allegedly gained through misuse of his party connections—a charge he denies, of course. Instead, there is something cutely charming about the way he wears the affectations usually seen on Page 3 of colourful supplements of newspapers in a game where the black-and-white realities of Page 1 of the main section matter more. The pink trousers that he sported when he went out to vote in 2014 accompanying his wife are symbolic of his nonchalance. A more desi word might be bindaas.

A political party is not a fancy farmhouse party. But the twain somehow meet in the personality of Vadra. He turned 50 last month, but his youthful style ensures the age does not show.

On April 21, as the nation debated whether Priyanka would enter the contest against Modi for the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency, here is what Vadra wrote on Facebook: “Fitness is my religion. Strong mind strong body… My 10k run deep in the interiors of a village in UP. The simplicity of the people in these different villages, n their ways of living n being, is so rich with affection. They come out n meet n offer fresh milk, tea n water.” The pictures accompanying the post show him in dark shades, a manicured moustache, sleeveless men’s tank tops and a Bluetooth earphone. Do notice the biceps. And in the background are dusty village tracks and cowsheds.

Running in the country versus running in the elections? Trust RV to mix the two.

An April 26 post on Facebook displays a group of rugged villagers holding up large posters of Mr and Mrs Vadra and the odd party flag. “They live by hope n feel I can change their area, by representing them. But I need to learn n understand more n earn my place, by working with them in making smaller changes myself, for them. The larger scale will be at the right time.” Lest we forget that he is serious about politics, there is another post from him in Hindi expressing grief and shock at the Easter Day terrorist carnage in Sri Lanka.

However, the posts are not the measured propaganda of a keen politician. The SMS-style abbreviations and the staccato stream-of-consciousness expressions show no intent to master the English language, though from his mother’s side, the Moradabad man of Punjabi parentage has Scottish blood. Vadra and his wife share some European blood, but I have heard her friends say it was not their genetic similarities but his dance moves that pulled his wife-to-be when she was a teenager.

Mainstream media entities are not exactly tracking this MGR moment for Vadra. With opinion polls this year still tilted in favour of the BJP and Modi, if there is something out there for him, it is a long haul.

There is, of course, a challenging side to Vadra’s association with the famous family, more gruelling perhaps than his cross-country runs. When Rahul Gandhi was recently asked about him, the Congress president spoke of everyone being equal before the law, be it Vadra, accused of irregularities, or Modi, in the Rafale deal. Vadra was quick to point out that he had “deposed with the Enforcement Directorate 11 times for almost 8 to 10 hours a day. Receiving notices for the last five years from most departments have supplied all documents”.

These statistics may become badges of honour for being a dutiful husband if the Congress finds itself near the seat of power. As of now, the accusations against him are serious: acquiring land meant for poor villagers at cheap rates, a money laundering case involving the purchase of a posh London flat and kickbacks in a UPA-era petroleum deal. In the jargon of international corruption-busters, he is a ‘politically exposed person’ (PEP)—someone who may not have held public office but one susceptible to being involved in corruption by virtue of a ‘prominent position of influence’, including the status of a spouse or partner.

Politics is such that one man’s wrongdoing is another’s victimhood. Vadra’s loyalty to the Congress party and his wife (not necessarily in that order) may yet prove to be a virtue as he has definitely taken significant amounts of heat. There’s more sweat there than perhaps in his gym workouts.

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