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The BJP's dilemma over Varun Gandhi

April 01, 2009 15:49 IST

As she invoked the National Security Act on Sunday night to keep Varun Gandhi in Pilibhit jail for a minimum of three months, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati must have been mightily pleased that her 'brahmastra' had hit several targets squarely between their eyes.

To be sure, young Varun spent the night in his 6x8 cell, pacing the floor and drinking home-made coffee -- and perhaps, wondering, if he had bitten off more than he could chew.

But by acting swiftly to uphold the law and the secular principles enshrined in the Constitution, Mayawati was not only taking charge of the Bharatiya Janata Party's dilemma over Varun -- that had stunned the party into inaction since his hate-filled speeches made it to the public domain over the last fortnight -- but also effectively decimating the BJP's chances of leading the National Democratic Alliance back to power in the coming elections.

BJP's prime ministerial candidate LK Advani is said to have, since, personally cleared the party line of attack, that the Varun incarceration was driven by 'political vendetta'. But with nary a whimper escaping the party leadership, some half-hearted sloganeering in favour of Sanjay Gandhi's son by the local Pilibhit lumpen is all that seems to be keeping the party from its date with history. With 2004 AD, that is.

Many agree that Varun Gandhi has done a Narendra Modi on the party, but with neither the political or financial muscle to back him. One Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh source who, on the condition of anonymity, admiringly spoke of Modi's political determination to marry Hindutva with both ordinary and corporate zeal in his home state, pointed to the RSS leadership's growing inclination to distance itself from the Varun Gandhi fiasco. Another BJP leader thought Varun was 'was not very stable' and needed help. A third felt the party should have jumped at the Election Commission's unsolicited advice of not giving the young man a seat, and summarily dumped him.

Certainly, the BJP is in major political distress. The public war between the articulate party spokesman Arun Jaitley and party president Rajnath Singh's henchman Sudhanshu Mittal, in charge of Assam, has not abated. Party insiders call Mittal "Mr Moneybags" and ask why he should be given public stature.

As if the feuding in the headquarters was not enough, reports from Karnataka indicate that the factionalism, between Chief Minster B S Yediyurappa and Bangalore Lok Sabha MP Ananth Kumar, has taken root in the southern state that recently posted such a marvellous victory.

Many, in fact, attribute all these disaffections to the old stand-off between Rajnath Singh and L K Advani, pointing out that the party's horribly confused positions on Varun Gandhi are only an extension of its mixed messages to the electorate. Was it right to demolish the Babri Masjid, as Advani did in 1992, or was it right to praise Jinnah, as he did on a trip to Pakistan in 2005?

Question is, is the BJP an extreme right-wing, 'Hindu' party, as its founders had envisioned it to be, or is it moving towards occupying a centre-right political space, as 'moderates' like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and latterly Advani want it to do?

The party's vastly oscillating positions on Varun Gandhi, at least in private, point to this self-destructive dilemma. An RSS source admitted that "there had been a serious move" within the BJP to drop Varun from the Pilibhit seat when his anti-Muslim speeches first surfaced, but that it was forced to backtrack when it was deluged with pro-Varun mail from within the country and abroad.

On the other hand, he admitted that the country had changed so much in recent years that Varun Gandhi's speeches, however much he has dissociated himself from them, could hugely backfire for the BJP not only in Pilibhit or across the Terai (which has a significant Muslim population), but across the urban, middle-class landscape -- the BJP's core constituency -- that had so benefitted from Dr Manmohan Singh's globalising ways. As for the Ram mandir, well, nothing much had happened to it during NDA rule from 1999-2004, had it?

So when Varun Gandhi copies Modi, who in turn took a leaf out of Advani's 'rath yatra' in the run-up to the Babri Masjid demolition, when over 3000 people were killed in riots that broke out across the country, how can the party discipline him?

Another manifestation of the change that has swept across the RSS/BJP is its middle-class squeamishness, acknowledged privately, that Varun Gandhi "lied" in his petition to the Allahabad high court seeking the quashing of the criminal case against him on March 19. In the petition, Varun stated that he had passed an undergraduate degree in Economics from the London School of Economics and had a masters from London's prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies. Turns out that neither was true.

Clearly, too, the BJP's 'trishanku'-like dilemma is Mayawati's gain. Ok, so Varun voluntarily surrendered to the police and allowed himself to be arrested in Pilibhit. But by slapping the NSA on him, Mayawati has not only clubbed him with casteless terrorists in the pay of Pakistan -- another BJP slur -- she has shown yet again that she is the uncontested queen of UP. Who cares whether the punishment is commensurate or not with the crime, or even that the advisory board, led by a retired or serving high court judge, may strike down the detention.

In the people's court, Varun Gandhi is already guilty. Inside the BJP and the RSS, there is little sympathy for his arrogant ways. Elsewhere, whatever the complex caste combinations being forged by the party across the country for the elections, fact is that Varun Gandhi, like Banquo's ghost in 'Macbeth', horrifies us all because he reminds us of the communal spectre associated with Advani around the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Unlike Banquo, though, Varun Gandhi is alive and well and in jail. It was Mayawati's 'brahmastra' that put him there.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior journalist based in New Delhi

Jyoti Malhotra