The story of Varun Gandhi joining the Congress seems more fictional than factual

We heard about it first in 2016, but he’s still with the BJP in 2018.

WrittenBy:Rahul Kotiyal
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The year was 2014. The nation was breathlessly following the Lok Sabha elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party had fielded Narendra Modi for the post of Prime Minister and he was busy with electoral rallies, one after the other, across the country. After holding several rallies in Bihar, Modi moved to Uttar Pradesh where a huge rally was organised in Ambedkar Nagar.

Before reaching Ambedkar Nagar, Modi’s plane halted at Amhat airstrip for about an hour. This area falls in the Sultanpur district from where Varun Gandhi was contesting the Lok Sabha elections on the BJP’s ticket. Gandhi was present in Sultanpur on that day. But despite receiving the information about Modi’s arrival, he did not go meet him at Amhat and kept himself busy with his election campaign.

A BJP worker from Sultanpur district says, on condition of anonymity, “Narendra Modi would have definitely felt offended by Varun Gandhi’s move. During those elections, every BJP candidate wanted Narendra Modi to visit his Lok Sabha constituency. Modi himself went to Varun Gandhi’s constituency but Gandhi did not even consider meeting him. Perhaps this was the foundation of what would be the bad days for Varun Gandhi in the party.”

The BJP worker says Modi’s contribution to the BJP’s huge victory can’t be denied. “But the fact that he is very arrogant is not hidden by anyone. He doesn’t consider anyone ahead of himself in the party. He even cornered veterans and senior leaders of the party. So how could he digest Varun Gandhi’s effrontery? Many people may find this to be a small issue but this is how Narendra Modi’s personality is. The truth is in front of everyone. Varun’s stature in the party has gone down since then.”

In 2013, Varun Gandhi was made the National General Secretary of the BJP—the first person in the party’s history to reach this position at such a young age. But the next year itself, when Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister, the first thing he did was to appoint his right hand, Amit Shah, as the President of the party. As soon as Shah took over, he removed Gandhi from the post of General Secretary.

After this, it seemed like it was all downhill for Gandhi in the BJP. At one point, he was touted as the chief ministerial candidate prior to Uttar Pradesh elections. But then the party didn’t even deem it important to include his name in the first list of “star campaigners” for elections.

From Hindutva poster boy to serious politician

Varun nahi ye andhi hai, doosra Sanjay Gandhi hai (This is not Varun, it is a storm, a second Sanjay Gandhi).”

Varun Gandhi’s political journey started with this fierce slogan in 2009. He contested his first election from Pilibhit parliamentary constituency, where his speeches targeted Muslims to such an extent that it drew clear communal lines. As a result, Gandhi faced a few cases against him; the National Security Act was enforced and he was jailed. But this communal polarisation worked to his advantage, and he easily won this election.

In many ways, Gandhi’s journey in politics took shape in 2004 with the efforts of BJP leader Pramod Mahajan. Mahajan would praise Gandhi in his speeches and, while comparing him to Rahul Gandhi, would state that Varun would prove to be a better politician. At that time, Varun had started giving speeches at election meetings but was too young to contest, so he waited till 2009.

Interestingly, though Varun entered politics with an image of Hindutva’s new “poster boy”, he didn’t retain it for too long. On the contrary, he was found writing and speaking about serious economic and social issues, trying to establish his image as an academic intellectual—something which he continues to do till today.

A BJP worker close to Varun points out: “Varun Gandhi has deliberately broken his image of the Hindu Samrat. He is very ambitious and he wants an important place in national politics. He knows his national acceptance will be weak with a fanatical image. That is why, after winning the election, he shed his stereotypical image and started writing and speaking on serious economic and social issues.”

The period before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections saw Gandhi in a strong position. He had become the youngest BJP National General Secretary and hoped to get bigger responsibilities in the party. This was a time before the declaration of Modi as the prime ministerial candidate. Discussions were underway, but Gandhi had been advocating for Rajnath Singh instead. Modi was aware of this.

When Modi’s name was finally put forward, he did a series of electoral rallies, attracting large crowds. At this time, Gandhi made a statement about one such rally, saying, “Modiji’s rally was successful but only about 50,000 people attended it.” The BJP, however, had claimed over two lakh people were at this particular rally and as a result of Gandhi’s statement, the party took a lot of heat.

Then came Modi’s Sultanpur visit and Gandhi’s decision not to meet him, widening the rift. Perhaps Gandhi never realised the kind of success the BJP would achieve under Modi before the 2014 elections—a miscalculation for which he suffered. It began with his removal from the post of National General Secretary after which his every effort to strengthen his position in the BJP went in vain.

The biggest example of this was during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. Before these elections, a meeting of the BJP National Executive was held in Allahabad. During this meeting, thousands of posters were seen from the Sangam of Allahabad to all the other cities, demanding that Varun Gandhi be declared the future chief minister. These posters were allegedly planted by the “Varun Gandhi Youth Brigade”. Gandhi was considered to be included in the race for chief minister and many surveys declared his popularity.

Newspaper articles also appeared, praising Gandhi, emphasising that he worked for the poor, built houses, repaid farmers’ loans himself, and so on. It’s believed that Gandhi’s team was responsible for getting these pieces published—or, in other words, they were sponsored stories.

So, as Gandhi was cruising ahead in the race to become chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, he was suddenly ousted—after one of his alleged sex tapes surfaced. At the same time, he was accused of leaking confidential information related to defence to an arms dealer. With that, his dream of becoming chief minister was shattered. The BJP went on to exclude him from their “star campaigners” list and also banned him from doing election campaigns outside his constituency.

Gandhi now knew he was now completely on the margins in the BJP. His responsibilities have faded now that Modi-Shah hold command. But an interesting change crept into his political career—newspapers and websites published stories wondering “Will Varun Gandhi join the Congress?”.

Gandhi never denied the “news”; instead, he occasionally indirectly indicated that these possibilities were strengthened—whether it was his refusal to campaign against Rahul Gandhi, or his praise for Rahul Gandhi’s work in the latter’s parliamentary constituency of Amethi, or his criticism of the BJP’s own policies. Varun has managed this “news” of his joining the Congress with great finesse, owing to which this question often comes up, even today.

The curious case of Swati Chaturvedi

A senior BJP leader says the news of Varun Gandhi joining the Congress has his approval so that the BJP realises the loss it may incur with his departure and that, in turn, would strengthen his position within the party. The BJP leader’s statement is an assessment made in his personal capacity but it may not be very far-fetched.

Consider, for example, the stories written by Swati Chaturvedi, an independent journalist. In recent years, Chaturvedi has consistently written pieces on Gandhi’s positive image on various media platforms.

Before the Uttar Pradesh elections, in June 2016, Chaturvedi wrote an article in DailyO, where she mentioned possible BJP chief ministers—including Varun Gandhi: “When Varun Gandhi joined the kinder, gentler BJP of Vajpayee and Advani, much was made of the Gandhi brand. Unfortunately, Modi and Shah only have a visceral antipathy to the name.”

When Varun Gandhi was battling the alleged sex tape scandal, Chaturvedi wrote in Scoopwhoop—almost giving him a clean chit—on how the BJP was not helping Varun Gandhi during this crisis.

When the BJP kept Gandhi’s name off the “star campaigner” list, Chaturvedi wrote an article in February 2017, in which she said the BJP’s decision is likely to create a “large revolt” in the party and how this “could give both Modi and Shah sleepless nights”. However, this revolt and the “sleepless nights” never came, though Varun Gandhi’s position in the BJP continued to deteriorate.

Then came the period of stories on the possibilities of Gandhi joining the Congress. In June 2016, Chaturvedi wrote a piece questioning where Gandhi would head. She wrote that Gandhi could join the Congress, but these possibilities were very low at the moment.

In April 2017, Chaturvedi wrote that there are strong possibilities of Varun Gandhi joining the Congress. She explained how Varun Gandhi had reinvented himself, how he was constantly meeting students from all over the country, how many books he’d written, how he writes columns in many newspapers, and compared him to Atal Bihari Vajpayee “who was often called the right person in the wrong party”. Chaturvedi wrote that Varun was in touch with his “two older cousins” and it was quite possible that he would join the Congress in the coming times.

In 2017, a news item was published in India Today, reiterating the possibility of Gandhi joining the Congress. A similar piece appeared in Outlook.

It’s been a year since then, and nothing the stories predicted have come to pass. Just as it seemed this “news” about Gandhi and the Congress was tapering off, on November 25, 2018, Swati Chaturvedi wrote a piece for Gulf News with the blurb “So will it be the expected homecoming to the Congress?”. Varun Gandhi has been speaking to journalists in the context of his new book A Rural Manifesto—which Chaturvedi’s piece mentions—but the focus of her piece was more his personal life, especially the death of his newborn daughter in 2012 (Chaturvedi says it happened in 2011).

Titled The loss that changed Varun Gandhi’s life and politics, Chaturvedi writes, “Gandhi took a two-month break, barely speaking to anyone and rethought his entire life and choices, say people close to him.” She says Gandhi, called Feroze by close friends, might have identified with his grandmother who also lost a child. “He chose to let go of fear, the friend said, when I asked what had changed. ‘When you lose a child, what can the loss of a party post or an election mean?’”

Chaturvedi adds later: “In the Modi era, with his visceral hatred of the Gandhi name, Feroze was completely sidelined … But since the Modi government is famously anti-intellectual, he has so far escaped censure, perhaps with no one in the BJP reading his columns.”

Chaturvedi writes: “…the one thing you can safely predict is that this Gandhi is going to remain in politics, but will not be contesting the upcoming election on a BJP ticket. So will it be the expected home coming to the Congress?”

So, as she did in 2016 and 2017, Chaturvedi returns to the question of Gandhi joining the Congress in 2018. But what is the probability of the possibilities about which Chaturvedi had written for the last two or three years? A senior BJP leader says, “Varun Gandhi can go and join the Congress, but will the Congress accept him?”

The BJP leader says, “The problem which Varun Gandhi is facing in the BJP will be the same problem in the Congress too. The problem is his ambition. He will not be joining the Congress just to be a Member of Parliament. He is an MP in the BJP also. He won’t be given big responsibilities in the Congress too, because then he will become a challenge for Rahul Gandhi. Varun Gandhi has abilities and everyone knows it. If he gets an opportunity, he can also make senior BJP leaders a minor. It is clear from his behaviour that he can’t stay tied. In such a situation, why will the Congress accept him in the party?”

A senior leader of the Uttar Pradesh Congress unit reiterates this point. He says, “Varun Gandhi’s inclusion in the Congress is beneficial for both him as well as the party because he has appeal and all the qualities to become a successful national leader. But for Rahul Gandhi, this is not at all beneficial. After many years of hard work, Rahul Gandhi has been able to establish himself as a national leader. Why would he like it if Varun Gandhi joined the Congress and became a challenge for him within the party itself? Apart from this, Maneka Gandhi will not agree to Varun Gandhi joining the Congress.” He says Varun Gandhi’s joining will only be possible if Maneka Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi are on board.

Varun Gandhi’s situation in the BJP is not hidden from the public eye. He cannot speak openly about his situation because the BJP argues that Maneka Gandhi is the Union minister and that only a single member of a family can be given a big responsibility. In such a situation, it has become Varun Gandhi’s destiny to live with limited responsibilities. There is no possibility of any kind of change in this situation as long as Modi-Shah are in control.

However, the BJP’s loss in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan might lead to questions about Modi-Shah’s leadership. There’s a small possibility that someone who can weaken their alliance might gain strength, and that person may be Gandhi. But it seems to be a far-fetched dream.

Congress leader Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna once said of Indira Gandhi: “Indiraji is one of those people who first plants a seed and then uproots it and sees that it has not caught the root.” Today, her grandson may have become that same plant—with a party convinced that he’s not holding root.

(Newslaundry reached out to journalist Swati Chaturvedi through emails and messages over two weeks in this regard but received no response.)


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