Followers of this blog might recall that I am not a fan of Rahul Gandhi, nor of his late father Rajiv. If India has had one young, powerful politician worse than Rajiv, though, it was his brother Sanjay. It now appears there's one young politician more appalling than Rahul: his cousin Varun. I first heard of Varun Gandhi when he published a book of poems titled The Otherness of Self. I leafed through the execrable verse in a bookshop because many of India's top painters had contibuted images to the volume, proving our visual artists are not the rebels they sometimes present themselves as being. When it suits them they pander to politicians as willingly as members of any other group (I recall my shock, around the same time that The Otherness of Self was published, to learn that Sonia Gandhi had been invited to inaugurate an exhibition organised by Sahmat, a trust set up in memory of the communist activist Safdar Hasmhi who in 1989 was beaten to death by Congress hoodlums).
Varun Gandhi, you've probably heard, has been taped spouting vile hate speech at different venues in Pilibhit, the constituency in which he's running for parliament on a BJP ticket. He should have learned better the BJP's method of using sectarian language in ways that do not infringe the law, or at least leave more space for deniability. It's akin to Australian cricketers carefully keeping their language within prescribed limits, so they are rarely pulled up by umpires, though they sledge constantly. There's also the issue of sheer popularity. It ought not to be a factor in judging whether incitement deserves to be punished (the more popular politicians are, the more damaging their provocations will be) but, in practice, Bal Thackeray and Narendra Modi get away with saying things that would be penalised in less powerful leaders. Moreover, even Thackeray and Modi tone down their rhetoric once the strict election code of conduct comes into effect.
Varun Gandhi will claim, of course, that the footage seen on television has been tampered with as part of a conspiracy against him. But this is no sleazy sting, and it's going to be difficult for him to wriggle out of the spot in which he finds himself.
Speaking of sleaze, three decades ago Varun's mother Maneka, who edited Surya Magazine, published photographs of Suresh Ram -- son of the then Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram -- having sex with a woman of his acquaintance. Suresh Ram had taken the pictures himself, and they were stolen from him and copies mailed to dozens of publications. Most news outlets saw no story in images of consensual intercourse between two adults, but Maneka, seeking revenge for Jagjivan Ram's desertion of her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, gave them prominent space in her periodical. The scandal caused by those photographs ended Jagjivan Ram's bid for Prime Ministership, something his enormous and conspicuous accumulation of wealth while in office had failed to do.
Maneka didn't benefit from her activism on behalf of Indira Gandhi; she was estranged from her mother-in-law soon after Sanjay Gandhi died. Since then, it has been three decades of shouting, "we're Gandhis too". It is easy to believe Varun is the son of Sanjay and Maneka; he's inherited their extremism and retained it through years of studying at Rishi Valley School, LSE and SOAS, institutions where attempts must have been made to inculcate a liberal outlook in him.