“I am liberal, secular, centrist,” says Varun, who avoids any mention of Modi or BJP
Hindu Hriday Samrat — the darling of the Hindus — is about to arrive, the announcer repeatedly assures a gathering of around 200 people in Pratappur village, as the sweltering afternoon heat tested their commitment to the Bharatiya Janata Party and its candidate Varun Gandhi.
“You are strictly warned not to make videos of his speech. The security guards may take away your mobile phone if you do,” the young boy who is managing the show, tells them. In 2009, videos of a communally provocative speech attributed to Mr. Gandhi had put him in the dock, but the courts cleared him of the charges recently. However, this afternoon — rather, this season — Mr. Gandhi is not out to satisfy his Hindu constituency and saying anything that would tickle the hungry media. His eyes are set on a larger political project — of repackaging himself as a centrist liberal.
“Forget this Hindu versus Muslim, backward caste versus forward caste politics,” he tells the crowd that appeared a bit confused after all the anticipation that had been built. “For 500 years it has been like that. We must move on,” he says, further confusing Ramji Pradhan, a man in his 20s who had a few minutes earlier listed the castes that were expected to support Mr. Gandhi. “We need development. When you give your votes, demand in return a road or a school or a vocational training project. I am here to make politics hopeful,” Mr. Gandhi declares, in a matter of fact tone. “A campaign should be understated,” he would say later to me. There is no mention of Narendra Modi, or the BJP. After the speech that lasted for barely five minutes, people clap. “Are you with me on this journey? You know the symbol to press?” he asks and the crowd answers cheerily. “Yes, Lotus.”
“Yes, it is more difficult than talking of caste and religion, but not impossible. I want a centrist, secular, liberal politics to be pronounced in my views,” he says, as we travel to the next meeting. “Political exigencies cannot drive my core, my core must drive my politics,” he says. “Yes, I mention Modiji and the BJP, depending on where the speech is. Urban youths connect to Mr. Modi,” he explains.
The legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family still evokes fond memories among the public in Sultanpur, as also in nearby Rae Bareli and Amethi, a region 120 km south-east of Lucknow. Therefore, more than relying on the BJP’s organisational muscle, Mr. Gandhi draws on that legacy, albeit in a subtle fashion. “The sugar mill that my father started 30 years ago is in ruins today,” he says, as the crowd cheers, “Varun Nahin Aandhi Hein, Doosra Sanjay Gandhi Hein” (Varun is a storm, he is the second Sanjay Gandhi). At another place, he says, the family in which he has been born in is a matter of fate and luck. “I want children born in lesser families to aspire and achieve great things.” The BJP has done badly in the Sultanpur constituency in recent elections, scoring as few as 44,000 votes in 2009.
Mr. Gandhi, who shifted from Pilibhit where he won in 2009, is in a four-cornered contest of the BJP, the SP, the BSP and the Congress in Sultanpur. Sitting MP and erstwhile king of Amethi Sanjay Singh’s wife Amita is the Congress candidate this time. The royal family reportedly has an uneasy relationship with the Congress chief’s family, and, Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka have not campaigned in Sultanpur.
Ms. Priyanka Gandhi is intensively campaigning in Amethi next door where Mr. Rahul Gandhi is a candidate. On the other hand, Mr. Varun has declared that he has nothing to do with the BJP campaign in Amethi against Mr. Rahul.
While the cousins maintain a certain ambiguous distance between them, a BJP victory in Sultanpur, even if it were of cousin Mr. Varun, would not reflect well on the image of Rahul and Priyanka — the reason why Ms. Gandhi had stated earlier on in the campaign that it was “an ideological war, and not a family tea party.” Mr. Varun is claiming a share in Nehru-Gandhi legacy in this election by choosing to contest from Sultanpur, though he does not want to get confrontational with his cousins.
But Mr. Varun’s aim is to fill the leadership vacuum that the BJP confronts in Uttar Pradesh despite a spurt of new life for the party in this election.
Mr. Varun is trying to ease himself into the role of a future chief minister of the State, where Assembly elections are due in 2017.
Therefore, while Mr. Varun Gandhi ignores the title of Hindu Hriday Samrat, there is another slogan that he is comfortable with. “U.P. ka CM kaisa ho, Varun Gandhi jaisa ho,” — U.P. CM should be like Varun Gandhi — is a slogan raised at every meeting that he addresses. In response, he says.
“What I am saying about politics of hope is now for Sultanpur. But if I get an opportunity, I will seek to expand it across U.P.,” he says.