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Sanjay Gandhi is reborn in the BJP

April 06, 2009 16:31 IST
There are two ways of looking at Feroze Varun Gandhi's outpouring of communal venom against Muslims in Pilibhit where he is contesting the Lok Sabha elections on a Bharatiya Janata Party ticket.

The first is to view him as a deeply insecure personality, obsessed with getting attention by whatever means, and prone to angular, anti-social and contrarian behaviour. On this view, he was bound to make trouble in Pilibhit simply because that's his psychological makeup.

There are good reasons for exploring this angle. Varun grew up in fraught circumstances and with the acute awareness that his father Sanjay was much-feared and --despised for his gross human rights violations and forced sterilisation of Muslims during the Emergency (1975 to 1977). His mother was bitterly estranged from Indira Gandhi's family.

Young Varun managed to do what very, very few children who attend the prestigious Rishi Valley school in Andhra Pradesh ever succeed in doing. He got expelled from that exceptionally liberal and tolerant institution, which doesn't put a premium on discipline.

A former teacher from another school where he studied in Delhi recalls Varun as a bright but difficult boy, "with a huge chip on his shoulder about his cousins Rahul and Priyanka", and "forever eager to prove he's superior" because he's the son of Sanjay and Maneka.

Varun Gandhi is also given to wildly boastful claims. He swore before the Allahabad high court that he studied at the London School of Economics and holds a master's degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. But this claim is refuted by both institutions. He was never admitted to LSE, only enrolled in its external distance-learning programme. And he quit SOAS before completing his degree. (Indian Express, March 30)

Varun Gandhi, who had never before aired anti-Muslim views, stunned everyone by his 'chop them up... sterilise them' war-cry. He has instantly become a hero for rabid Muslim-haters in the Sangh Parivar, including the BJP.

The second view is that Varun Gandhi is a shrewd, calculating politician, whose ideology was shaped by his intense dislike of the Congress party, shared with his mother. His discovery that his great-grandfather defined the core values and vision of the Congress impelled him to reject the Nehruvian paradigm, comprising the four pillars of democracy, secularism, socialism and nonalignment. He has long been ideologically inclined towards Hindutva and illiberal right-wing ideas. For him, these are a foil against the Congress and 'the other Gandhis' -- Rahul and Priyanka.

He probably also calculated that vile anti-Muslim rhetoric would help polarise opinion along communal lines in Pilibhit, which has a large population of Muslims and Sikhs. If this doesn't help in the election, he could claim martyrdom as a Hindu nationalist.

Above all, he knew that the best shortcut to prominence within the BJP doesn't pass through the terrain of moderation, but through extremist territory. It's far easier to fit into the far-right niche within the BJP expanded by Narendra Modi than to compete hard for space within the crowded centre-right marketplace where the bulk of the party's leaders vie with one another for political mileage.

A Westernised, English-speaking young man in a Fabindia kurta would face no challenge if he tries to enter the hardline niche -- especially if he talks like a lumpenised Hindu chauvinist fanatic, and pleases those in the Sangh Parivar who admire uncouth behaviour and relish crude macho-militarist abuse.

The hate speech script rehearsed since early March wasn't written by the BJP or RSS. It was drafted by Varun Gandhi in the knowledge that the BJP wouldn't be able to disown it; nor would it deny him the Pilibhit ticket. After all, what he said about Muslims is exactly what many in the Sangh Parivar think, but dare not say in public. They admire Gandhi's speeches, but hypocritically claim that the CD recording them was doctored. The BJP's statements dissociating itself from his pronouncements lack sincerity.

The BJP rejected the Election Commission's advice to deny a ticket to Gandhi; it participated in the sordid arrest-courting drama. Its UP chief Kalraj Mishra attended it amidst raucous chants of Jai Shri Ram and stone-throwing.

L K Advani has invited ridicule by comparing Varun to Jayaprakash Narayan. Varun frankly depicts himself as a reincarnation of his father's post-Emergency period persona. The slogan in Pilibhit is: 'Varun nahin yeh andhi hain, doosra Sanjay Gandhi hai. (This isn't Varun, but a hurricane; it's Sanjay Gandhi reborn.)'

Like Sanjay, he has brazenly defied the law, torn civility and political decency to shreds, and used goon power to challenge the government.

When Sanjay was legally charged for his excesses, he responded with a mailed fist. He defied court summons and asked his supporters to whip up hysteria and unleash violence. Sanjay made it a point to adopt a 'in-your-face' posture, offend public morality, and spread fear and loathing. After he was held guilty of destroying a film (Kissa Kursi Ka) which criticised the Emergency, his Youth Congress supporters unleashed merry hell in Delhi. The day's headlines read: 'Free-for-all at Sanjay's court appearance.'

Varun Gandhi has emulated his father's smash-and-grab methods in violating the Representation of the People Act and various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including 153A, which concerns inciting enmity against particular communities/classes. He would have instigated even more violence had he not been detained under the National Security Act, 1980 by the Mayawati government.

It's simply indisputable that he had to be stopped from running his incendiary campaign, calculated to intimidate the minorities and create fear. Regrettably, he couldn't have been debarred from the election by the Election Commission despite strong evidence that he was in breach of the RPA and the Model Code of Conduct.

According to most legal interpretations, the Commission cannot disqualify a candidate until after a court holds him/her guilty. It doesn't stand to reason that we must watch helplessly while a candidate wreaks communal havoc and poisons the political climate. But our system has failed to plug this huge loophole.

Varun Gandhi now stands booked under the draconian NSA, which allows detention for up to a year without bail, subject to approval by an advisory board. The case must be referred to the board within three weeks and decided within another seven weeks. If the detention is approved, Gandhi won't be able to campaign although he can contest the election.

This makes up for the flaw in the RPA, but at the risk of committing an excess and without reforming the election law. The NSA is a much-abused law. It's meant to be used with great caution, but often isn't. It has been routinely applied in numerous states to make preventive arrests of hardened criminals and inciters of communal violence, and used even against agitations. Its objective is defined in blanket terms as preventing a person from acting 'in any manner prejudicial to the security of the state or... to the maintenance of public order...'

Incitement to communal violence falls within this category. The UP government can claim that it patiently filed two FIRs and tried to stop Gandhi's provocative campaign, but he proved recklessly intransigent. Granted, Mayawati probably had a political motive too: countering the Samajwadi Party's charge that she's soft on the BJP. But Varun Gandhi's political agenda is much more vile.

The NSA has been used by many governments, including BJP-led ones, for acts that don't remotely threaten public order. It was used by the BJP in Rajasthan in 2007 against Gujjar pro-reservation agitators. Last December, a BSP MLA was detained under it in UP for killing an engineer. In the 1990s, the BJP used it in UP to detain uncooperative traders. Few people protested then. Yet, the BJP hypocritically calls Varun Gandhi's detention 'political vendetta.'

The BJP has stooped to a new low in endorsing his toxic campaign. Many people had some sympathy for the BJP because it opposed the Emergency. But with its celebration of the Sanjay Gandhi cult, it has forfeited that sympathy and further lost credibility.

Varun Gandhi has only made explicit the virulent anti-Muslim bias that marked Sanjay Gandhi's authoritarian smash-and-grab politics. That may endear him to the BJP, but it has caused revulsion among the larger public, which could impact the election.

Praful Bidwai