Varun Gandhi's rise and Hindu nationalism
By Swapan Dasgupta
When India's opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, announced the 37 members of its new organizational team earlier this month the spotlight immediately fell on one man: Varun Gandhi, the 30-year-old grandson of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had been appointed as one of the BJP's 15 secretaries. Indian media feverishly speculated that the BJP was pitting Varun Gandhi against his 39-year-old cousin Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent of the ruling Congress Party.
The thrill of a possible Gandhi versus Gandhi dogfight is understandable. Despite pious invocations of republicanism, Indian voters are besotted by the glamor of dynastic politics. And within the cluster of democratic dynasties jostling for people's affections, the Nehru-Gandhis are unquestionably number one.
Unfortunately for Varun Gandhi, a first-term MP who courted notoriety for his anti-Muslim statements during his 2009 election campaign, his desire to emerge as the alternative, pro-Hindu Gandhi isn't fully shared within the BJP. Since 2005, Varun Gandhi has lobbied the BJP leadership to be appointed general secretary, an exalted position just below the president in the party hierarchy. It would have put him on par with Rahul Gandhi, who too is a general secretary of the Congress Party. Now, five years later, the BJP has given Varun Gandhi a measure of organizational responsibility but not the position of authority he sought.
Varun Gandhi's biggest promoters are some of the older leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu volunteer organization that sees itself as the BJP's ideological fountainhead. He appears to have charmed many of these reclusive bachelors with his earnestness, preying on their sublimated awe of the Gandhis. His apparent commitment to India's Hindu regeneration has endeared him to the RSS, which sees Hindutva (loosely translated as "Hindu-ness") as the way forward.
This February, at a public meeting in the small town of Shikarpur, Varun Gandhi made a tangential criticism of the BJP's focus on bread and butter issues. "Price rise is an issue alright," he said, "but we should not forget what our party was formed for. We should not compromise on our self-respect. If we don't fight for our self-respect, the Ganga (the sacred river of Hindus), Gau-Mata (the mother cow), our temples and the youth, then everything else will fall apart." Coming from a Gandhi, the RSS loved it.
Varun Gandhi's second source of strength comes from the Hindu disquiet in localities confronted by growing Muslim assertiveness. His muscular, come-on-if-you-dare approach earned him a short stint in prison during the 2009 election campaign for an anti-Muslim speech. (Varun Gandhi says his remarks on Muslims were distorted, and the matter is currently still before the courts.) However that same campaign won him a very handsome majority in his constituency of Pilibhit, in Uttar Pradesh. Varun Gandhi's alleged threat to decapitate the hands of those who molested Hindu women shocked liberal India and even derailed his party's campaign strategy nationally. But in the process he endeared himself to angry Hindus smarting at the BJP's shift away from militant Hindutva.
Since his election to Parliament, Varun Gandhi has kept below the radar, focusing on humdrum constituency work. Yet he hasn't lost sight of his supporters, including large numbers of angry youth who are attracted by his machismo. In the same speech at Shikarpur, he held out a menacing promise: "I will ensure that no cow slaughter takes place here and if you hear of any such case, you can call me any time and I will be there. We will get our hands cut off but won't let any cow be slaughtered."
The political styles of Varun and Rahul Gandhi are as sharply different as the approaches of their respective fathers. Varun's father Sanjay Gandhi, who died in a plane crash in 1980, was brash, confrontational and intuitively political. Rahul's father Rajiv Gandhi was courteous, somewhat self-effacing and largely nonpolitical. Today, Varun has emerged as an aloof demagogue while Rahul is still unwilling to take forthright stands on issues. Varun's rhetoric is decisively political, whereas Rahul's appeal still rests on nebulous concepts like youth power.
The biggest difference is their target audience. It is clear that Varun sees a benefit in endearing himself to Indians who nurture a strong sense of grievance. Rahul, on the other hand, is tapping into the aspirational and modernist impulses of Indian youth.
Backed by the full weight of his party, Rahul has a head start over his cousin, who is still viewed warily by the BJP. But Varun will try to use his recent elevation to position himself as an alternative. India has a lot riding on the results of this family drama.