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- At 4, Maneka saw future ‘leader’ of Sultanpur in son Varun

Varun Gandhi was just four when his mother presented him as a future leader at an election meeting in Sultanpur, goes a story in the constituency he is contesting 30 years on.

“People wept,” claimed an aide of the BJP candidate who proudly announces he is fighting this election on the strength of being a Gandhi.

Maneka Gandhi had brought young Varun to a public meeting she addressed in Kadipur, a small town in Sultanpur that was then a part of the Amethi Lok Sabha constituency, in 1984.

It was four years since the death of her husband Sanjay Gandhi, who was elected Amethi MP in January 1980 and died in a plane crash in June the same year. Varun was born in March 1980.

At the meeting, when the audience asked Maneka who would “lead” them after Sanjay, she gestured towards her son. People were moved to tears, goes the story put out by the BJP here.

The account could not be independently verified. Amethi by then already had a “leader” in Rajiv Gandhi, who was elected its MP in a byelection in 1981. Maneka fought against him in 1984 and lost miserably, winning 11.5 per cent votes to Rajiv’s 83.67 per cent.

But the yarn — true or false — serves the local BJP unit’s purpose of projecting Varun as the “invincible” contender in his “pautrik karmabhoomi” (family seat).

The BJP might condemn the dynastic politics of the Congress and cry itself hoarse against the Nehru-Gandhi family, but in Sultanpur it is using the Gandhi name as its selling point.

“I am Varun Gandhi, that is why I am here before you. Had I been Varun Dixit, Varun Yadav or Varun Kumar, I would have not been here,” Varun had said in Sultanpur last month.

The BJP’s district president, Karuna Shankar Dwivedi, pitches in: “The only point of curiosity and debate is whether Varun can beat Rahul.”

Cousin Rahul Gandhi is fighting from neighbouring Amethi that he won in 2009 by a margin of 3.3 lakh votes, a performance Varun is aiming to better.

“It’s a one-way contest,” Dwivedi said.

The other candidates are Samajwadi Party’s Shakeel Ahmed, the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Pawan Pandey and the Congress’s Amita Singh, who is the wife of sitting MP Sanjay Singh.

Varun, whom election manager Gyan Pandey described as “super confident”, introduced himself as Sanjay Gandhi’s son in his first interactions in Sultanpur and reminded people of a “padyatra” his father had conducted here after he won his election in Amethi and of a sugar mill he had set up. In 1980, Amethi was part of Sultanpur district.

“He didn’t take Narendra Modi’s name. The first posters that were pasted didn’t have Modi’s picture. He spoke of his resemblance to Sanjay Gandhi and of the charisma of his “dadi” (grandmother Indira Gandhi),” said Uttkarsh Singh, a secondary school teacher.

A slogan coined by his cheerleaders, “Varun Gandhi ki aandhi” (Varun Gandhi’s storm), also played on the Gandhi name. The word “aandhi” to chime with Gandhi has been a favourite of Congress slogan-writers from Indira’s and Sanjay’s time.

Sceptics like Vimal Singh, who works for the NGO Population Service Institute, asked the BJP why it was showcasing the legatee of the face of the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi. “The local leaders had no answers,” Vimal claimed.

But Karuna Shankar Dwivedi said: “Politics is about reconciling contradictions and repairing relations.”

As a young leader — he is 34 — Varun has energised the local boys enough for them to form “youth brigades” and “mitra mandals” (friendship clubs) that canvass for votes in “nukkad sabhas” (street-corner assemblies) and on social media sites.

Naam vahi jo kaam karaye, Sultanpur kaa samman badhaye,” goes another slogan, stressing that you only earn a name if you work and enhance Sultanpur’s stature.

The reference to “samman” (respect) has a sub-text: until recently, Sultanpur was considered a poor cousin of Rae Bareli-Amethi, Uttar Pradesh’s marquee seats held by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul. Sanjay Singh of the Amethi principality, who won in 2009, was seen as a “Gandhi family retainer”. Although his wife is contesting now, Congress worker Fateh Bahadur admitted: “She is not in the fight. Her husband did nothing in the past five years, he never bothered to meet people.”

With Varun in the fray, residents are hoping Sultanpur will gain “VIP status”.

Shivakant Mishra, involved with a local NGO, said: “At last, we have found a leader. So far, all the development was concentrated in Rae Bareli and Amethi.”

However, the young MP who arrived on his father’s turf after making his debut in mother Maneka’s seat Pilibhit has learnt during the campaign that in the BJP, the name that matters is Modi’s. Possibly nudged by the state party leadership, he praised the “strong leader” on the day he filed his nomination papers.

Shivakant Mishra said: “A vote for Varun is a vote to make Modi the Prime Minister. Development will come only if there is a BJP government at the Centre. Varun alone can’t do anything.”

Mahavir Mishra, an auto dealer at Ahimane Bazar on Sultanpur’s periphery, rubbed it in: “What is Varun? First he is from a party called the BJP. Then he has a leader called Modi. Lastly, he is Varun, son of Sanjay Gandhi. To us, Sanjay Gandhi is history and Modi is the future.”

But the BJP’s Karuna Shankar Dwivedi demurred: “Yes there’s a Modi wave, but there’s also a separate Varun wave. He may be from the Gandhi clan but to us he is a BJP leader who cut his political teeth in the BJP.”

Sultanpur votes on May 7