With a second book of poems and increased visibility as writer, Varun Gandhi exudes an image of the thinking man’s politician and talks about poetry as a road to freedom
It’s a hot Delhi morning when I walk past the security guards at Varun Gandhi’s home but the large sitting room, done up in old-fashioned tones of opulence, is cool and quiet. A brilliant Husain portrait of Mr. Gandhi with his mother hangs on the wall opposite. The man himself soon walks in, in the de facto politico garb of white kurta-churidar . We exchange pleasantries and when I switch the recorder on, he insists on holding it in his hand. I am petrified it might cut off, but he says he needs to hold it because he likes to walk around when talking. And sure enough, there are long patches of the interview he does pacing the room.
Mr. Gandhi has just published his second book of poems. He’s been writing a lot lately, pieces for The Hindu , for instance, and talks of why people still remember Nehru or Gandhi ji . “It’s because they wrote a lot; they left behind volumes that still inspire. I want to bring back this tradition of writing,” he says.
This sense of trying to mould himself into a certain kind of politician — a thinking, principled politician rather than a polemical one — comes through strongly. He uses the word ‘kind-hearted’ repeatedly. Mr. Gandhi loves words — he throws them out challengingly; scholarly mots du jour ; and waits to see if you notice. “I had a semi-didactic upbringing but it was not oppressive,” he says, talking of his mother encouraging him to think outside of ‘things’. “Looking back, my upbringing was designed to free me from the materialism you see in children today….”
I am distracted by the resemblance his speech patterns have to his uncle Rajiv Gandhi — the slow and deliberate address, the moue he makes, that repetition of key words. This is clearly the far more articulate Gandhi scion. Does he remember his grandmother? “I remember her feel; she made me feel safe. I remember the sound of her voice. I remember eating with her, driving with her… accompanying her abroad. She kept me on her lap during meetings.” He says smilingly that senior leaders in Parliament remind him of how they first saw him drooling on his grandmother’s lap. “It gives me a lot of love from both sides of the aisle.” He relates an anecdote about former President K.R. Narayanan, “He said to me ‘I was ambassador to Russia when your grandmother had come once. I was given the duty to go out and buy soft toys for you!’”
These encounters, he says, have informed his political philosophy. “When you grow up knowing such people closely, you cannot have an adversarial view of politics. That’s why I consciously don’t speak ill of any politician or party. I feel politics needs to be about policy and issues.”
Who is the man?
This non-adversarial, poetry-writing man is not the Varun Gandhi I had in my head. I bring up the point tentatively, asking if it’s a deliberate image makeover after that infamous speech. He bristles and shows a flash of the famous Gandhi temper: “Technically, you should not be asking me that question because I have been acquitted by all the courts.” I assure him I am merely asking about a certain public image he might be associated with.
Pacing, he refutes the image, and says, “I have fought from a constituency that is 41 per cent Muslim. I have won with a massive margin. I could not have done that without the votes of minorities.” He reminds me about his mixed family, “I am the last person who can disregard a syncretic view of India. I feel that all Indians recognise and celebrate the plurality of India and reject a singular, monolithic view.”
Words that breathe the essence of his Nehruvian legacy. “Well, socialism, I don’t agree. Over time things must grow and breathe. But if you go to U.P. [Uttar Pradesh] they will tell you how people respond to me. I stand for social and political reform: for large-hearted politics; for kindness; for issue-based and value-based politics.”
The stress on syncretism, the cultural broadness… how does one reconcile this with his membership of the Bharatiya Janata Party? “In life, one cannot look at zero sum situations. I believe that the BJP has afforded me the opportunity to be independent in my world view and has rewarded me meritocratically. Being a person from my family in the BJP can be a disadvantageous situation, right? [But] I wanted to be part of an outfit that would say ‘you have a core strength in U.P., a core intellectual strength; we will give you an opportunity’. I didn’t want an opportunity because I was from a certain family. Second, when I joined, I told the senior leaders, I am not coming to politics to denigrate anyone but to earn my space.”
And, I press, did Hindutva come up? “No philosophy was impressed upon me. I was told I must fashion my own thought process. As for the fringe elements, I don’t subscribe to that. Everybody is aware that to govern in India you need to have a centrist-liberal approach.”
If there’s one thing Mr. Gandhi is proud of, it’s how much he has achieved. “I was MP at 28, National Secretary at 29, General Secretary at 32.” Here’s a man who has found his metier and is enjoying it. He has statistics at his fingertips. “In future, religion will become less [important]. Delivery will be paramount. Look at public wisdom — 72 per cent of MPs and 74 per cent of MLAs are not elected a second time. I am optimistic about the future of Indian politics.”
And he stays involved with the grassroots. In Pilibhit, he started a cooperative that he claims has benefited 40,000 farming families. In Sultanpur (his present constituency), he helps young people write proposals for enterprise loans. “In a year we’ve got 860 loans. Last week, we helped four boys get a Rs. 2 lakh loan for a cycle repair shop.”
The poet-politician
Finally, I ask him the question I had assumed would start our conversation. Why does he write poetry? He laughs, for the first time, and says impishly: “Was it Kafka who called poetry a wholly inappropriate response to the brutishness of the world.” There’s a world of significance hidden here, but we let it pass. He talks of how life creates vast open spaces and delicate fault lines within. “Many of these cannot be explained unless you look at the world metaphysically. I write poetry because it’s my road to freedom and self-knowledge.”
Revealing one’s deepest self in poetry can make one strangely vulnerable. Is he comfortable with that? “The human experience can never be complete without celebrating vulnerability, fragility, pain,” he says, quoting, ‘How many lives walk through us as we wrest control of this climb?’ These, then, are his many lives — poet, politician, analyst…
And has it made him a different kind of politician? “Yes… I always had an eye for the forlorn, the unloved, the underdog. That comes through in my poetry and my politics.” And do philosopher-politicians have ambitions? Does he see himself as Chief Minister? He ignores the question and talks of standing for positive politics and, that word again, for kindness. “I am 35. There’s a long way ahead — I would like to define myself by the journey, which is rich in itself.”
What comes next? “My next book is a sociological book of essays. It seeks to answer one question: “Why has the Indian village ceased to exist as a sustainable model of socio-economic syntax? If we can answer it, it can lead to a new model of development.”
By now, Mr. Gandhi must have paced a few kilometres at least. As he sits down, I ask if he would name a favourite poem from the book. He recites from memory: ‘In my heart/ there is a filigree of death/ It will not let me bleed….’ “The poem,” he says “is about the deeper cycles within… it represents hope.”
For Varun Gandhi, this clearly looks like the beginning of a new cycle.