There is intense speculation on why the Congress has, after so many years, chosen to resurrect the late Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s younger son, who died in a tragic plane crash on 23 June 1980 in the national capital. Sanjay had, along with his mother, led the party’s fight back following the debacle in 1977, where both he and the then Prime Minister lost the elections from their respective parliamentary constituencies of Amethi and Rae Bareli. The Congress returned to power within three years and Indira Gandhi once again assumed the office of Prime Minister in January, 1980 after decisively defeating the divided Janata Party primarily due to the efforts of Sanjay and his loyalists in the Indian Youth Congress, who clearly outwitted the ruling dispensation on the streets as well as power politics.
The Congress officially acknowledged Sanjay’s death anniversary on Thursday, with many senior leaders calling up his son and BJP Member of Parliament, Feroze Varun Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi, who does not share a good rapport with Sanjay’s widow, Union minister Maneka Gandhi, went to the Shanti Van after a gap of four years to offer prayers at his samadhi. Several Congress leaders tweeted from their official accounts remembering him. Hoardings and posters recalling the leader were put up in various places, raising questions regarding the motive behind these actions. It is obvious that no leader in the grand old party would have done that on his own despite the fact that many of them owe their political standing to Sanjay, who had, in 1977 and 1980, hand-picked them for specific assignments and brought them to the centre stage of national politics. Therefore, it is evident that the party was prompted by someone in the family to once again publicly honour Sanjay Gandhi, who was heir apparent of Indira Gandhi before his untimely demise. There are indications that the entire exercise was undertaken at the instance of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who shares a close relationship with her cousin Feroze Varun at a personal level and perhaps feels and believes that the time has come when all the three grandchildren of Indira Gandhi should be on the same side and protect her legacy from being destroyed by the present regime.
It is very obvious that the Congress is playing a game to create confusion in the BJP ranks, ahead of elections in Uttar Pradesh where the saffron brigade is hoping to wrest power from the Samajwadi Party in 2017 by taking on the might of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party. The Congress has little hope of winning on its own and is interested in somehow stopping the BJP, which is yet to announce its Chief Ministerial candidate despite the fact that Feroze Varun has emerged as its most acceptable face in the seven surveys that have been conducted so far. The surveys by media organisations such as Amar Ujala, Dainik Bhaskar, Punjab Kesri and ETV have placed Feroze Varun as the principal challenger to Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati and his ratings are more than double of any other BJP leader. However, the BJP is reluctant to project him as a possible face in UP because of his surname and several senior leaders of the party apparently told journalists on the sidelines of the National Executive in Allahabad that there would be difficulty in giving him an assenting nod.
The Congress, which is leaderless in the state, is wanting to encash in on the BJP’s hesitation and has therefore decided to woo Sanjay’s only son. The primary proof of the Congress showing unprecedented interest in him was at a meeting of Pradesh leaders held in Lucknow some days ago. In presence of a very senior leader from New Delhi, Naseem Pathan, a party activist proposed Feroze Varun’s name. Instead of being shocked, there were many others who were inclined to back him, until a former minister got up and reminded them that they were talking about a BJP MP at a Congress meeting. At this point, a Sanjay Gandhi loyalist informed the former minister that there was little wrong in bringing forth Feroze Varun’s name. After all, his father had been their mentor and even the Union minister’s father was promoted in politics by him in 1980.
The developments at the Pradesh leaders’ meeting became a talking point within the Congress and finally resulted in the party remembering Sanjay Gandhi on his death anniversary publicly. Sources said that the woo-Feroze Varun exercise had commenced soon after Priyanka Gandhi Vadra spent some quality time with him at the wedding reception of her family friend Tehseen Poonawala at the Meridien Hotel in Delhi a couple of months ago. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul also attended the function. Congress leaders viewing Priyanka interact with her younger cousin with such candid candour found it significant enough to spread the word.
The party thereafter started making overtures to Feroze Varun, who has shown astute maturity by not succumbing to the vivid exhibition of emotions. Rahul Gandhi’s key adviser and UP poll strategist Prashant Kishor is understood to have called on the BJP leader with an offer of making him the Chief Ministerial face of the Congress if he chooses to switch sides. Sources said that Prashant Kishor was politely told that this proposal was unacceptable and though there were family ties, politically, the cousins were on different sides of the fence, even though they may share the same ideological genes. The Congress thinking is that Feroze Varun has emerged as a liberal thinking politician, who does not appear to be on the same page as many of the anachronistic and close minded BJP leaders. Therefore, he can be politically seduced to return to his father’s party. By now rebuilding the legacy of Sanjay Gandhi, the Congress believes that somehow an emotional chord would be touched and tapped within his son. Secondly, if Feroze Varun becomes the face of the Congress, Priyanka can campaign without sharing the blame if the party does not win and thereby allowing Prashant Kishor to lay the onus of defeat on somebody other than Rahul and his mother.
The foremost question that arises is: why would Maneka Gandhi and her son Feroze Varun Gandhi who have been with the BJP for so many years, relinquish their party and return to the Congress fold? All these years, they have been ridiculed and in 2009 when Feroze was contesting his maiden election from Pilibhit, the Congress did everything to get him disqualified by planting edited as well as doctored media clips on TV channels, which showed him in an exceptionally pathetic light. The Election Commission also arbitrarily issued him a notice to explain his conduct and cases were registered against him for making inflammatory speeches by the state police. Feroze, who was barely 29 at that time, survived the onslaught and has over the years created political space for himself in Uttar Pradesh. He has also evolved as a politician, who is seen as a liberal face in the BJP. Thus it is highly unlikely that with his eyes wide open he would fall in the Congress trap, knowing that his changeover would both affect his image and close doors for him permanently in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar.
The BJP is equally worried on what to do with him. A senior leader, while talking to select media persons on the sidelines of the Allahabad BJP meeting, acknowledged that Feroze Varun was the most popular leader in the state and could perhaps even win the elections for the party. However, the problem was with his name. When the BJP was seeking to finish off the (Indira) Gandhi name in national politics, how could it afford to have her grandson leading the party in the country’s most populous state? And what if at 36 he was to become the Chief Minister? He would not stop at that and would certainly positively have larger national ambitions, the leader is reported to have told newspersons informally.
It is no secret that Feroze Varun is not the most liked person within the BJP and many leaders including an important minister who has dreams of conquering Uttar Pradesh are pointedly allergic to his name. Recently, the minister had invited journalists to the official residence for lunch, but showed them the door after some of them raised Feroze Varun’s name as a possible contender for the Chief Minister’s position.
Sources revealed that Feroze Varun was not going to respond to the Congress overtures and would continue to be with the BJP despite all kinds of provocations. Undeterred by actions to undercut him, he would seek to remain politically relevant in national and state politics and one would believe would not fall for the lure of imaginary positions.