Master Faustus?

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Varun Gandhi. Photo: Vijay Pandey

SOMETIMES, COLOURS can be the metaphor. As waves of noisy advocates in official black wash over a lone figure in red in a crowded courtroom in a mofussil town in India, the battle unfurling in the room stretches across the length of the country, triggering bitter debate. The figure in red has cataylsed both great offence and great heat. Great disgust and great approval. The tumult is greater because the man — almost a boy — stands at the cusp of redefining the greatest political dynasty of the modern world.

The French writer André Malraux once asked Jawaharlal Nehru what had been his greatest difficulty since Independence. Nehru replied: “Creating a just State by just means.” Then he added, “Perhaps, too, creating a secular State in a religious country.” Sixty years later, in a crushing irony, his great-grandson has become infamous proof of how difficult both those projects continue to be.

Over the last month, like a morality tale bearing cautionary lessons for humankind, 29-year old Varun Gandhi has found himself catapulted from soul-destroying anonymity to a heady but ambiguous notoriety. Around the middle of March, secret footage of his campaign speeches in western Uttar Pradesh erupted on national television, shocking the nation with its toxic vitriol and communal aggression. Dressed in black kurta and a riverine red tika — almost like a prop in a stage play — Gandhi was seen threatening and berating Muslims in the coarsest language. Among other things, he exhorted Hindus to unite and not allow “mini-Pakistans” to mushroom in their midst; swore to chop off the hands of those who harmed Hindus; promised to forcibly sterilise Muslims if he was voted to power; and demonised the community with mock references to “Mazarullah and Karimullah” — supposedly terrifying names that was symbolic of them.

Even in a country routinely pummeled by base rhetoric, this was a new low. Still, someone else might have got away with it. But a Gandhi? The nation’s collective memory recoiled. The opprobrium piled up in viral leaps. Varun Venomous Gandhi. Varun Communal Gandhi. Varun Poison Gandhi, chorused the media. What’s got into him, wondered everyone. Why was the scion betraying his illustrious legacy?

Irony is one of the big, ill-starred themes of Varun Gandhi’s life. The generic disgust flowing his way is more than well deserved, but is its particular intensity? In a curious twist, is he being reviled for betraying a legacy he has never possessed? In fact, was its absence the bitter leitmotif that has driven him to his Faustian compact?

Three generations at the helm of the biggest democracy in the world. As the great-grandson of Nehru, the grandson of Mrs Gandhi, and as Sanjay Gandhi’s son, Varun could be forgiven for being born with a sense of manifest destiny, a sense that he was a chapter of history waiting to be turned. After all, his father Sanjay was the chosen one, the son who was a distillate of the mother’s iron gene. Rajiv, his uncle, was the reluctant branch.

But Varun was four months old when his strong-headed father died in a plane crash, and two years old and burning with fever when his mother, Maneka wheeled him out of history after a bitter public spat with her mother-in-law, arguably the most powerful woman the subcontinent has ever seen. Ever since, cut off from his patrimony — like Karna, the forgotten brother smouldering with a latent sense of injury — the thwarted shoot has been waiting to leaf.

After storming out, or as other versions have it, being thrown out of the Prime Minister’s house, Maneka — by all accounts a congenitally fractious, arrogant, abrasive woman — moved with her infant son from Golf Club Road to Jor Bagh to Maharani Bagh, finally to live in a house Sanjay had bought for her. It could not have been an easy time for the 27-year old. Estranged from her husband’s family, she linked back into her own. But that was no primeval cocoon. “Their family always seemed on the verge of coming apart, their relationships were always in crisis, there was a constant sense of being on edge,” remembers one close friend. Maneka’s father was found mysteriously dead in a field, riddled with bullets; her brother disappeared one day and never came back. Her mother, Amteshwar Anand, was one of four children born to Sir Dattar Singh, a widely respected man, famous for his initiatives in animal husbandry. But the siblings got embroiled in bitter property disputes that have trailed their way into the next generation. Family fissures, one could say, have been one of the embedded themes of Varun Gandhi’s life.

In a curious twist of irony, is Varun Gandhi being reviled for betraying a legacy he never possessed?

For all that, everyone who knew Varun as a boy remembers a quiet, solitary child — polite, affectionate — prone to read more than socialise. (His mother apparently made him read Nehru’s autobiography, Discovery of India, when he was eight, grooming his loss.) Sent to boarding school at Rishi Valley for a few years, Varun was apparently asked to leave in Class VIII for “irresponsible behaviour”. His peers remember him being “a nice guy, but a bit maladjusted”. Back in Delhi though, he seems to have settled down. Mrs Prabhu, former principal of the British School, remembers his stint there as “smooth”. “He was intelligent and stood out in his class. He showed a potential for leadership because he always put forward his views in an interesting way,” says she. After school, Varun went to England for a few years, returning with a passion for history, a mediocre book of poetry, The Other Side of Silence, and masters’ degrees from the London School of Economics and SOAS, London University — both now shamefully exposed as lies. Varun, it appears, was never enrolled full time in LSE, and withdrew from his M(Phil) course at SOAS.

So what transformed the solitary reader into the frothing demagogue of Pilibhit?

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Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka, a weekly newsmagazine widely respected for its investigative and public interest journalism. Earlier she had worked with The Pioneer, India Today, and Outlook. In 2000, she left Outlook to join Tarun Tejpal, and was among the team that started Tehelka.com. When Tehelka was forced to close down by the government after its seminal story on defence corruption, she was one of four people who stayed on to fight and articulate Tehelka‘s vision and relaunch it as a national weekly.

Shoma has written extensively on several areas of conflict in India – people vs State; the Maoist insurgency, the Muslim question, and issues of capitalist development and land grab. She has won several awards, including the Ramnath Goenka Award and the Chameli Devi Award for the most outstanding woman journalist in 2009. In 2011, Newsweek (USA) picked her as one of 150 power women who “shake the world”. In May 2012, she also won the Mumbai Press Club Award for best political reporting. She lives in Delhi and has two sons.