This is Varun Gandhi country, make no mistake about it. The son of Maneka Gandhi and the late Sanjay Gandhi, fighting from Pilibhit on a Bharatiya Janata Party ticket in the coming elections, has not uttered one word in public ever since the Mayawati government slapped the National Security Act on him on March 28, and moved him a few hundred kms away to Etah jail soon after.
But having poisoned the waters with his alleged hate speeches against the Muslim community just over a month ago, Varun's absence speaks louder than a thousand campaign strategies being crafted by a nervous opposition. Short of a miracle, party workers associated with all the three other main candidates -- Hafiz Riaz Ahmed of the Samajwadi party, Budh Sen Verma of the Bahujan Samaj Party, and V M Singh of the Congress -- acknowledge that on May 13, Pilibhit will likely fall to Varun Gandhi.
Last Friday, as Hindus celebrated the birth of their god Ram all over the country, several traders in Pilibhit openly exulted about the prospect of a new Hindu messiah who would "avenge injustices meted out to Hindus."
In the sleepy bazaar, slowly waking from its afternoon siesta as well as from the unprecedented national and international attention in recent days, a small group of businessmen were collecting donations from shop to shop for the puja to be held later in the evening. One of them, Sharad Saxena, told this reporter: "Varun Gandhi had said nothing wrong in his speeches. At last there is a Hindu leader who is ready to stand up for us."
It is this creeping polarisation that has the combined opposition deeply worried. Zakir Beig, a supporter of Samajwadi Party candidate Riaz Ahmed, pointed out that before the Varun Gandhi speeches, Ahmed would have surely won Pilibhit. A jeweller in the town bazaar, Vishwanath, concurred with the assessment. Elsewhere, Munne Mian, a sweeper with the town municipality, pointed out that the threat of a communal riot had been averted by Mayawati's swift imposition of the NSA, but that the danger of Pilibhit being a tinderbox had not yet passed."Varun Gandhi spoke in this way against Muslims because he and his mother knew that the Hindu vote was going to be divided between the three Hindu candidates contesting from the BSP, the Congress and himself. Only the SP had fielded a Muslim candidate. Both mother and son are determined that Varun should win Pilibhit with more votes than Rahul Gandhi in Amethi," said Zakir Beig.
Conversely, he pointed out, there are three Muslim MLAs in the Pilibhit Lok Sabha constituency. Varun and his mother may have felt that the Muslim vote would consolidate in favour of the SP candidate, "so Varun needed to do something to split that consolidated Muslim vote," Beig added.
In this growing polarisation, the non-BJP party workers are veering around to the view that if Varun Gandhi has to be given a decent fight, they will have to plan their strategy carefully. Should the BSP candidate, with an immovable Dalit vote of about 2.5 lakh people (out of 13 lakh people in the constituency) be made to stand against Varun, in the hope that the young Gandhi will not be able to sway the core BSP constituency? Or should the SP candidate, with his immeasurable reputation for decency in the area, be persuaded to stand as an informal 'joint' candidate against Varun?
This, then, is the measure of Varun Gandhi these days, just over a month before Pilibhit goes to the polls on May 13, in the last phase of the election. In a state where the SP and the BSP were unanimously considered to be the main contenders -- with the Congress and the BJP lagging far behind -- the young Gandhi has galvanised at least one part of the landscape in favour of his party.
The question is, will the religious communalisation remain or will it be trumped by caste factors? Suddenly, the election in this part of Uttar Pradesh has the national pulse racing. Over the next few weeks, Pilibhit will surely remain in the eye of the storm.
Image: Varun Gandhi arrives at the court in Pilibhit on March 28. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters