Zen of Politics

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The Nehru-Gandhi scion is out of the orbit of the politics of dynasty and he is working his way around it to forge some way of his own and on his own

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore)

Varun Gandhi, son of Sanjay and Maneka Gandhi, is acutely aware that he has no entitlement that his cousins Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra have. He is also fiercely proud of his father. “He was a man ahead of his times,” he says walking around the room, waving his hands, and points out that the Delhi’s satellite cities – NOIDA and Gurugram – were his ideas, as he went around with Uttar Pradesh and Haryana chief ministers at the time, Narayan Dutt Tiwari and Bansi Lal.

But he stops short. He knows that it would be futile to make much of the point. The Sanjay Gandhi legacy is lost to him and he has to work out his own destiny. There has been no re-evaluation of Sanjay Gandhi, and he is still seen as the arch-villain of the Emergency. Congress party has taken the Rajiv Gandhi turn and Sanjay Gandhi is an abandoned chapter. Many of Sanjay Gandhi’s associates like Kamal Nath are still part of the humming party machinery.

Yet, there is the sense of the political inheritance which can be traced back to Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, and that he is indeed on a privileged perch that allows him to do politics his own way. “I am left-of-centre in my political thinking in a right-of-centre party (Bharatiya Janata Party),” he admits.

Metamorphosis

“I am a different man now,” he says. He traces it back to the death of his child in 2011 – he was married in 2010 – and that death had transformed his life. “It made me think. I internalised the pain. When my child died it made me immune to fear. I realised that fear arises from a desire to dominate.’ And he discovers the antidote to loss and pain to be love, compassion. And sensitivity. He says he has arrived at “a place of stillness”, indicating an internal journey which seems to be partly spiritual as he quotes Ramana Maharshi with quiet intensity.

He says that in the last nine years he has not drawn his monthly salary due to him as Member of Parliament (MP). He has written to the Lok Sabha speaker about this, and he says that he gives the salary every month to a needy person, and sometimes including a poor journalist. He identifies the person to whom the salary is to be given every month. And he says that he had written a letter to more than 200 MPs whose assets were more than Rs 20 crore that they should not draw their salaries. He says he got no response from any of them.

He is looking for ways to do politics his own way. He is an avid and compulsive reader. He has just read the 1992 novel, ‘Ishmael’ by Daniel Quinn, where there is an advertisement for a serious pupil, and when the protagonist reaches the empty office he finds that the teacher is a gorilla, and the subtitle of the award-winning novel is ‘An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit’. He writes a column that is syndicated in 18 newspapers in Indian languages apart from writing in the English language ones. And he confesses that he gathers ideas from his constant interaction with people and conversations with them. The idea is to move towards a politics of ideas, which is both a natural thing because in the contemporary world problems need solutions and there is a need to think over the problems to get at the answers. If Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha asked what he could do, he replied ‘I can think, I can wait, I can fast’, Varun Gandhi’s evolving political credo seems to be ‘I can read, I can write and I can listen’.

Educated Politics

The rule-breaking norm of this Gandhi comes from his desire to deal with politics in an educated and educative manner, and it would seem an oxymoron because on the face of it no one thinks of doing politics through ideas. Somewhere at the back of his mind, there is a vague memory of Jawaharlal Nehru being a man of ideas, and he knows that Indira Gandhi did not look at politics exactly through the prism of ideas. Though no one would associate Sanjay Gandhi as a man of ideas, Varun Gandhi is quite clear in his mind that his father thought of problems and looked for answers/solutions, and it meant that he was journeying through a process of ideation. The struggle for the 38-year-old – he is quite aware of his youth and that time is on his side and therefore he can bide his time – is to find a refined way of doing politics because at this stage he is not willing to turn his back on his education and his educated sensibility – he also feels that he cannot escape his poetic sensibility and sensitivity – and take a plunge into the regular way of politics – populism accompanied by loud and crude rhetoric. That speech that got him into trouble about chopping off the hands that threatened Hindu is not him and he sees no place for virulence of any kind. He traces the transformation to the experience of the death of his child.

Here is a politician who is trying to connect his personal experience with the kind of politics he likes to do, and here is someone who thinks that ideas are important in politics. “I am working on a 1,200-page book on the future of the economy of Indian villages, which will be finished at the end of the year, and which I had been working on for more than two years,” he says in an earnest tone. There is earnestness, even a little too much of it, and the cynical observer of the political tribe is likely to suspect it. But Varun Gandhi does not allow the skeptical observer to break the cocoon of positivity that he has built around himself. As a saffron-clad sadhu is ushered in, he tells him, “Swamiji, aap baitth jaaiye. Hum bhojan karenge (Please sit down, we will have lunch)” and he instructs the house-help to make the sadhu sit in the adjacent room and put on the air-conditioner. After they leave the room, he turns around and says that the sadhu is one of the Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in his parliamentary constituency.

Inclusive Politics

He narrates that after he won the election from Sultanpur, he rang up all the other contestants who had lost and told them, “I am an outsider. You belong here and you know the local problems. Let us talk over a cup of coffee about what is to be done.” It is through gestures like these, Varun Gandhi suggests, that he is trying to forge politics of his own kind, which is non-confrontational, non-competitive.

There is an irrepressible restlessness as he explains his idea of being an MP, and recalls Edmund Burke’s famous speech to the voters of Bristol where the famous speech-maker, author and conservative political thinker says that as MP he is not representing just Bristol but the whole country. Varun Gandhi catches on to Burke’s high-minded argument and says that in India the MP is expected to do the work of municipal councillor – and he is quick to add that there is nothing wrong with what is expected of a municipal councillor – but he thinks that as a law-maker he should be engaged with larger issues. He wants to redefine politics and the role of the MP in a more sophisticated way, and he seems to be aware of the pitfalls of turning politics into an intellectual exercise.

Here is a politician who is not comfortable with rules of politics as it is played out now, and he is looking for new rules. He knows that he is not yet in a position to prescribe the new rules and all that he can do is to shape his own political thinking and practice and hope that it would have a wider resonance.

It might be too naïve to accept Varun Gandhi’s profession at face value because all politicians have a smooth way of saying fine things even when they mean nothing. At the same time, it would seem to be unduly cynical not to believe even an iota

of what he says. Even if he does not mean all that he says, here is a person with a troubled family legacy who

is struggling to get to grips with politics a little differently from others if for no other reason than that he has acquired an education, and he wants to leverage his politics through that education.

Strange Politician

Most of the time, politicians of his age and of his education would quietly leave behind the niceties of education as unsuited to doing competitive politics of caste, creed, class, religion and region that is the dominant mode in the country. The dilemma of Varun Gandhi seems to be that by temperament he may not be able to match the best rabble-rousers in the country and therefore he has to find another way of doing politics as well as to make his mark. There is the lurking feeling in him that he is made for better things in politics but he is not sure what that would mean in real terms. Is he meant for a role of leadership? Is he meant for a role of key importance? He does not know.

It has often been said that he would return to the party of his father. He may want to but he knows that no doors are open in the Congress at the moment. Meanwhile, he wants to remain in the BJP with its unmistakable right-wing fervor, but without becoming a right-wing politician. He wants to be an intelligent politician who will navigate his way through the shoals of liberalism and conservatism. He does not protest too much about his liberalism and he does not take a vocal position against distasteful right-wing politics. He makes a virtue of his new-found personal belief-system of love, compassion and non-aggression. That will alienate him among the secularists as well as among the Hindutva folks.

Varun Gandhi seems to feel that he needs ‘politics based on ideas’ to save himself from the calumny of the liberal and the conservative. His neo-spirituality and his near-pacifist political altruism are unlikely to impress either friend or foe. The fact that he does not want to take up cudgels against no one, that he does not see the point of hating and fighting an ideology that he does not agree with, isolates him more than winning him universal approval.

He points out that he was the only member of his party who shared the dais with Anna Hazare during the Jan Lokpal agitation in 2011 because he says he felt that there was need to fight corruption. But he will refrain from moral outrage because he has been lulled by the spiritual quietism that there are no enemies and everyone can be persuaded. There will be times when he will be asked to step out and stand up for issues. Varun Gandhi will find it difficult to hold on to his position of politics as solving of problems and where there are no moral stakes. At the moment his inner certainties are near adamantine. The teasing question is whether he will stand by his convictions and let politics pass by. It looks like he may. And he may not, as well.

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