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Rivals and relatives contest India's election

ENTERING the home of Maneka Gandhi in New Delhi some years back was a slightly nervous experience. About 15 dogs including large mastiffs lolled on the pathways and across the entrance, eyeing you like fresh meat.

As it turned out, none of them were on a meat diet, and Maneka was no friend to the butchers of the Indian capital. A strict vegan herself, she fed her pets on vegetarian substitutes, and at the time was busily galvanising a crackdown against the city's butchers for alleged cruelty to animals.

Her then-teenage son Varun, she proudly informed me, had been weaned on a formula made from ground lentils and water, rather than cow's milk.

In a country where, more than in most places, you are what you eat, the issue of diet easily morphs into a communal one. In India, the meat and skin trades are largely left to Muslims and the former Untouchables. Vegetarianism is often a mark of Hindu higher castes, and religions such as Jainism and Buddhism.

Not surprisingly, Maneka and Varun eventually transferred their political loyalties to the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. For Maneka, this is the latest in a series of political shifts. A journalist from a Delhi socialite background, she joined the Congress party's ruling dynasty with her marriage to Sanjay Gandhi, second son of the late prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Sanjay was the son his mother couldn't resist, and seen as her political heir-apparent. He flourished as a bully boy during her 1975-77 suspension of democracy, leading a campaign of compulsory sterilisation and garnering state funds for his pet car project.

When Sanjay was killed doing aerobatics in his light aircraft, his milder-mannered elder brother Rajiv was reluctantly drafted into politics and took over Congress leadership and the prime ministership on Indira's assassination in 1984. Maneka became estranged, and joined the leftist Janata Dal that pushed Rajiv out of power in 1989, becoming a minister for two years. In the 1990s she played her hand as an independent, aligning with BJP coalitions, before formally signing up to the BJP itself in 2004.


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