Sultanpur, March 13: Fighting his first general election five years ago, Varun Gandhi had told a rally in Pilibhit he would “cut off the hand” that dared attack Hindus.
Now, campaigning village to village in his new constituency of Sultanpur, the Pilibhit MP seems to be striving to live down the image of a hothead those intemperate remarks had given him.
Varun, who turned 34 today, has been telling voters he is in search of a “new kind of politics beyond caste and religion”.
Last evening, the man billed as the BJP’s answer to the Congress’s first family emphatically ruled out any war of sound bites against cousin Rahul Gandhi, contesting from neighbouring Amethi, once represented by Varun’s father Sanjay Gandhi.
“I will never say a word against Rahul Gandhi. That is not my politics. I have made it clear to the party (BJP),” Varun told journalists at his camp office here.
“I will campaign everywhere else but neither in Amethi nor in Rae Bareli (the constituency of aunt Sonia Gandhi).”
Asked by The Telegraph whether he felt uncomfortable when Rahul came under attack from the Opposition, he said: “Yes, I do feel uncomfortable.”
He added: “I feel politics is not about personality clashes. It is about what you can do for the people.”
After Varun’s Pilibhit speech in March 2009, the police registered a case on the Election Commission’s instructions, which led to the young politician courting arrest and spending 18 days in custody.
Eventually he swept to a huge win but many in his party privately claimed that his remarks had polarised the state’s Muslim voters towards the Congress.
Varun was at it again less than a year later, telling a rally in Shikarpur, western Uttar Pradesh, that he would stop cow slaughter even if “our hands are chopped” and contrasting the area’s “dilapidated” temples with the “gleaming” mosque minarets.
Yesterday, he didn’t refer to those strident remarks — he has been acquitted in the Pilibhit case for lack of evidence —but seemed to be tacitly acknowledging a mistake.
“I was never a firebrand. It is not a good thing to be one. Fire only destroys. In life, only relations help,” he said.
In none of his meetings has he been talking about Narendra Modi, who has been drawing huge crowds to his rallies in the state.
“I don’t take any names during my campaigns,” Varun, a BJP general secretary, explained.
Farmer Vijayendra Shukla, 71, a former Sanjay Gandhi loyalist who has left his days as a Congress worker behind, was watching Varun closely at his rally at Jaisinghpur village yesterday.
“We had heard of a different Varun. To us, he comes across as a sober, sensitive young man,” he said.
He nodded approvingly as Varun said: “I have come here as your son and brother. Don’t vote in the name of caste or religion. I want to build a relationship with you for development of the area.”
Varun hit the campaign trail on Tuesday, addressed 17 meetings on Wednesday and was electioneering on Thursday — his birthday — as well.
He has been driving down to the remotest villages with local BJP workers, a couple of whom had once been Congress activists loyal to his father.
Yesterday, he began his first meeting at Mishrauk at 10am and called it a day at Kurebhan, 20km from Sultanpur town, at 5pm.
Sultanpur and Amethi are contiguous, with their district headquarters just 34km apart. Varun’s arrival has reminded many here of a time three decades ago when his mother Maneka Gandhi had been pitted as an Opposition-backed Independent against Rahul’s father Rajiv Gandhi.
That 1984 contest — the only direct poll battle between members of the family — came four years after Sanjay’s death in an air crash in June 1980, when Varun was just three months old.
Sanjay had contested from Amethi in 1977 and lost, before winning the seat in January 1980. After his death, Rajiv won the 1981 by-election. In 1984, he bagged 83.7 per cent of the votes, trouncing Maneka.
Maneka, BJP member of Parliament from Aonla, will this time contest from Varun’s current seat of Pilibhit.
“Pilibhit was a second home to me. Sultanpur too appears to have been responding to me well. I was getting cheers at every meeting. People here are emotional and I want to build long-term relations,” Varun told the journalists.
He is pitted against the Congress’s Amita Singh — wife of sitting MP Sanjay Singh, a former Sanjay Gandhi loyalist who has been nominated for a Rajya Sabha seat from Assam — and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Pawan Pandey.
In 2009, BJP candidate Surya Bhan Singh polled just 44,425 votes and ended up fourth. But Varun is unfazed. “My surveys say I will win with a handsome margin,” he said.
His office in Sultanpur, which votes on May 7, is being managed by some 50 professionals, including a few former journalists.
Sanjay Gandhi had chosen Sultanpur to open his first election office, in 1976, although he was planning to contest from Amethi, old-timers said. Amethi was then part of Sultanpur district.