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Is Varun Gandhi a victim of surname politics?

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Gunja Kapoor
Gunja Kapoor
Gunja Kapoor is a policy analyst based in New Delhi. She tweets at @gunjakapoor

It is strange, that BJP punishes Varun Gandhi for his association with Nehru Gandhi dynasty, and not his mother.

Varun Gandhi joined Bhartiya Janta Party with his mother, Union Minister Maneka Gandhi under the able leadership of Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004. Twelve years hence, he has contested and won two Lok Sabha elections, served as the youngest General Secretary of BJP, written best sellers, been embroiled in controversies, reprimanded by the Modi Shah camp, side stepped by his party on multiple important occasions, and often fielded tough questions related to his surname. While the BJP leadership refuses to comment on its organisational mechanics, Varun Gandhi supporters feel the young leader has been denied his due share of 3Rs i.e. Responsibilities, Recognition, and Rewards.

In 2014, when Varun Gandhi was asked to demit from the post of BJP General Secretary, party secretary Siddharth Nath Singh had stated that the outgoing General Secretary would be assigned new roles and responsibilities as deemed by the party. Since then, political corridors in the election bound state have been rife with discussions on what the future holds for the young politician. Come Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha elections ’17, all rumours were put to rest, when the party decided to contest a yet another faceless election followed by the ‘Varunless’ first list of star campaigners. To prevent the rumour mills from chocking the air, BJP did announce Varun Gandhi as a star campaigner in the second list; however, he has unequivocally stayed away from the state elections. During my interactions with certain local people in Varun’s home ground, I gathered that not only was Varun Gandhi’s face missing from the campaign posters, even Varun Gandhi’s supporters were denied due share in the party. (In an ETV survey for BJP’s CM face in UP, Varun Gandhi got 51% votes, Rajnath Sigh trailed at 28%, while Yogi Adityanath fell far at 5%; Smriti Irani: 1%)

Things were never easy in BJP for the young Nehru Gandhi descendant for obvious reasons. His association with the family was always held against him. While Maneka Gandhi never hesitated to tell it all, her son never advocated kindred attacks on public stage. Despite his 2009 electoral performance where his victory margin was higher than all the family members in the state, repeated denouncement of Rahul Gandhi’s remarks, successful implementation of projects on ground, the party had admonished him rather severely for his controversial speech in 2009 at Pilibhit. Contents of the speech were perverse with plausible ramifications. Albeit Varun has challenged the veracity of the video, the party has taken an unforgiving stance.

  2009 2014
Varun Gandhi – Votes 4,19,539 4,10,348
% of Total Votes 50.09 42.51
Constituency Pilibhit Sultanpur

This was not the first time a BJP party member was making contentious remarks in public. However, the party reproached him with relatively harsher far reach consequences for two reasons; first for exemplary purposes to prevent any future callousness by party members and second, to walk the talk against nepotism.

Varun Gandhi supporters in Sultanpur laud him for personally monitoring projects on ground level and establishing a personal connect with his constituency, even in the absence of a forthcoming election.

On the other hand, political strategists point out three reasons, where the genesis of his issues with BJP could lie.

Firstly, Varun Gandhi comes across as a self-assured young politician. This appeals to his voters, but simultaneously intimidates his colleagues. In 2011, when he became the first active politician to declare his support for Anna Hazare’s movement, he came across as a leader who had a mind of his own to his supporters; was an act of perfidy and impudent behaviour as per the party cadre. The masses appreciate him for being an independent thinker; the party censure him for being too independent. It must be noted, that in this tussle, the party is consciously containing a winnable candidate.

Secondly, in a party that has historically been driven by karyakarthas who rise up the ranks based on their work, the party sees it unfair to promote a young lad who is less than fifteen years old in the party. For an organisation that leaves no opportunity to accuse other parties of being slaves of dynasty, it is appropriate that it does not fall prey to “maa beta” trap. Alert, this justification is no more acceptable though, with several family members being awarded tickets in the state that matters. Unfortunately, Varun Gandhi will have to work equally hard to prove his loyalty, and doubly hard to prove his allegiance despite of his surname.

Thirdly, Varun Gandhi did not meet BJP cadre’s expectations. He was expected to take on the Gandhis of Congress in public forum, campaign against them in elections, and strip their dignity using bitter vocabulary. It was only a matter of time, before one expected the two cousins to spew venom and wash their dirty linen in public. Varun Gandhi has categorically denied any campaigns in Amethi and Raebareli. He has also refused to discuss his family in the media, transgressing all party expectations. Clearly, there is little advantage BJP to promote the self-determined politician.

If the institutional undercurrents continue to be punitive, and Varun Gandhi sees his party penalising him for being a Nehru Gandhi descendant, for opting out of hate politics, it only makes political sense for him to head for a ghar waapsi. Twelve years in the party, and with little going for him, one would be surprised if Varun Gandhi endures the step treatment and suffer in the annals of Modi Shah theatrical.

Either ways, it is advantage Varun!

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Gunja Kapoor
Gunja Kapoor
Gunja Kapoor is a policy analyst based in New Delhi. She tweets at @gunjakapoor
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