On being Varun Gandhi’s parents
I knew Varun’s father, Sanjay Gandhi, better than I know Varun. I also know his mother Maneka. She and I have shared a love hate relationship depending on what I wrote or did not. Even that ended some ten years ago, after I wrote a piece on Varun in Hindustan Times. I don’t think Maneka is on talking terms with me anymore.
This time I don’t blame her. Every mother is sensitive about her kid and Maneka, as a mother, is no exception.
I was in Pilibhit to cover Maneka’s election. Varun was campaigning for her then. Expectedly, the media was barred from being anywhere near Varun Gandhi: “He just does not want the press around. But for you I will try” Maneka told me. She did and organized that I accompany him for campaigning. Initially, Varun was wary of me. But it took one sentence for him to thaw: “I knew your father and as a reporter covered him” He smiled: “I know… my mother told me”.
All through the six hours that I spent with Varun, I could not help but compare him to his dad. Looks? Quite a bit. Manner? Yes and no. Ill bred: Not really. Short on patience? Completely.
However, what struck me about Varun was his ability to guage the political pulse of the people gearing up for elections. He knew every constituency, every district and every pocket of influence like the back of his hand; he had the caste combinations well worked out and he had the nuts and bolts in place. It was not only about doing his homework well but also more about the gut feeling and instinct which Varun’s political assessments reflected. He spoke like any mature well-versed politician who had braved the heat and dust of Indian politics. Varun had then only set out but he knew much more than many MPs, MLAs put together.
What he did not know was how to conduct himself. Like some boys his age, he was brash. He would ridicule local leaders. Of the half a dozen meetings that I attended, Varun asked a party functionary to shut up: “Chup be” he said before taking the mike.
In the piece that I wrote, I said it all: about how bright he was for his age and cautioned against his aggression getting the better of him.
Varun’s aggression, I think, comes from his father. Like his impatience. And the bad language from his mother who is known to have a first rate abuse vocabulary: choicest words in Hindi and Punjabi.
Sanjay Gandhi was both impatient than aggressive. He restricted his speeches to four sentences and usually wound up in less than two minutes. His interviews, if ever he gave them to the media, were still shorter: “Ask” he would often tell me and even before I could frame my question, he would be in his car ready to drive off. I don’t recall ever talking to Sanjay, and I did quite often, across the table.
Even the most controversial interview which I did, shortly after the judgment in the controversial kissa Kursi ka case, was conducted near the gates of 12 Willingdon Crescent: the house allotted to Mrs Indira Gandhi after she lost power. Flanked by former Information and Broadcasting Minister, the flamboyant Vidya Charan Shukla, Sanjay Gandhi was on record making adverse remarks on the judiciary following his conviction for destroying the prints of the film, which focused on Mrs Gandhi’s lust for power. After the interview was published, Sanjay called to check if I was in trouble or needed legal help. R.K.Anand, then an upcoming lawyer and later a Congress MP, was dispatched to my house to tell me that he was only a phone call away.
Sanjay was known to have a charmed circle of friends. Totally committed. When part of his bandwagon got elected to Parliament, they had more nuisance value than commitment. Often they would stall proceedings and not let the House function. What they would speak, when they would speak and Sanjay Gandhi choreographed all how much they would say. They had been stationed in Parliament to counter any attack on Sanjay or Mrs Gandhi. Leading the shouting brigade were Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ramchandra Rath, Jagdish Tytler and Kamalnath: now leaders in their own right.
Ambica Soni and Ruksana Sultan were the two women who were considered Sanjay Gandhi’s eyes and ears. As Youth Congress President, Soni often shared the platform with Sanjay and heaped praise on him. Ruksana, whose identity was later reduced to being film star Amrita Singh’s mother, claimed that she and Sanjay were “ice cream buddies” whatever that may mean. She wielded immense power during the Emergency. Ruksana had an enviable collection of jewellery. Many pieces, she told me, were family heirlooms but I suspect they belonged to the jewellers in the Walled city, who she traumatized during the Emergency.
Sanjay Gandhi died on my birthday: June 23. I remember waiting, with hundreds and thousands of others at the Willingdon Hospital (now Ram Manohar Lohia) while a team of doctors “stitched” up whatever little was left of his body. Mrs Gandhi stood outside the room all by herself: silent and stoic. She left the hospital twice that morning, without aides. We reporters watched her from the other side of the cordon. When Sanjay’s body was wheeled out, a tear rolled down her cheek. Maneka’s face was ashen.
Stories of differences between Mrs Gandhi and Maneka surfaced even before the mourning period was over. For those of us stationed at Mrs Gandhi’s official residence at 1 Akbar Road, the strain was visible. Had it not been for Varun, things would have come to a head much before they actually did. Mrs Gandhi doted on Varun: then not even a year old: “I will” she seemed to promise her dead son “give him what Life denied you”.
But Maneka chose to walk out hurling charges at Mrs Gandhi, confident that Varun would prove to be her Achilles Heel. On that Maneka was not off the mark; what she grossly miscalculated was that Mrs Gandhi could be emotionally blackmailed into anointing Maneka as her political heir. Short of that Mrs Gandhi was willing to go to any length to keep the family together. After Mrs Gandhi’s death, Sonia Gandhi tried to get Varun back into the family fold, but Maneka wanted to extract her pound of flesh.
So if anyone is to be blamed for the way Varun has turned out, it is Destiny and his mother in that order. Yes, he is an unlucky child: he lost his father before he turned one; his mother bartered his future to pursue her career in politics. Had she taken a backseat, Varun may have either inherited Mrs Gandhi’s political legacy or at best shared it with his cousins, Rahul and Priyanka. But now he is pitched against them: projected as a lout who has failed the family. He has been thrown in jail for his hate speech. And today, he is in the news for the wrong reasons: like his father always was….