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Sadanand Menon: Stakeholders to the Gandhi franchise

Stakeholders to the Gandhi franchise seem to be swelling by the day. A thickly-charged set of semiotic conundrums have been raised by Varun Gandhi’s proclamation, “I am a Gandhi, a Hindu and an Indian…”. It signals an enriching use of the operative spaces within meta-language that could make even someone as complex as Umberto Eco writhe in glee.
No doubt, recent years have seen a revival of interest in Gandhiji, manifesting in movies, plays and allusions and invocations in popular fantasies — like in the coining of the term ‘Gandhigiri’, which has now become the brand equity of actor Sanjay Dutt as he pleads with his voters in Uttar Pradesh (UP).
However, Varun Gandhi’s claims to being a ‘Gandhi’ is worthy of some scrutiny. One might not have had much of a quarrel with him had he laid claims to being a ‘Nehru’. But straightaway bidding for the ‘Gandhi’ jackpot is sure to backfire on him. Spoilsports are sure to point out that he is Nehru’s great-grandson, but in no way connected to ‘the’ Gandhi. It is merely a matter of sociological interest that his grandfather, Feroze, happened to carry the caste name of Gandhi. Varun is but displaying enormous historical cretinism by trying to conflate the two Gandhis into a single consolidated enterprise and trying to wrest political mileage out of it. It is clear that Sanjay (Dutt, not Gandhi) will gain more brownie points in UP for a tenuous link with Gandhi than Varun.
The shift in claimants to the Gandhi sweepstakes in the Indian political arena and mindspace, has been quite dramatic from the conventional Gandhians to the new wannabes. When the Gandhi ‘memorabilia’, consisting of his leather chappals, spectacles and the brass bowl which he used for his frugal daily meal turned up at an international auction last month, one did not witness the surfacing of any ‘Gandhi’ pride in Varun Gandhi. He played no part in the national mobilisation which saw a genuine grandson of Gandhi, Tushar, setting up a hat collection to bid for a recovery of the ‘priceless’ objects from a rather greedy ‘collector’, James Otis. It kept the central government under pressure to announce itself in the bid at the auction and ended with the ironic spectacle of liquor baron Vijay Mallya buying back the objects at a cheesy Rs10 crore and, in the process amassing some much needed ‘social capital’ for himself.
The scenario is fascinating now. An actor, who throughout his career has played nothing but the beefy muscle-man he is in real life, can now lay claims to being a ‘Gandhian’ and juggle it for electoral dividends. A liquor baron, known for his flamboyant display of wealth and his Epicurean tastes in the ‘good’ things of life, can now lay claims to being a ‘Gandhian’ (one could propose an entire seminar on what Gandhi might have thought about having been rescued through liquor money; like, if the cigarette lobby was to fund the election campaign of Anbumani Ramadoss). And, finally, a completely underprepared ‘politician’ like Varun, claiming to be a Gandhi in the same breath as spewing communal venom.
Shouldn’t some of the major parties, at least, take an initiative and start training centres where potential candidates are offered a crash course in Indian political history and the who’s-who of Indian politics so that they don’t continue making such boo-boos? At least some basic primers on Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Lohia, JP or Namboodiripad seem like a must, as basic protection to the electorate against potential ‘Raiders of the lost Ark’.
More distressing is the readiness with which the entire national media, both electronic and print, acts in concert to offer prime space to every mutton-head tricked into a ‘neta’s’ costume. For the repulsive speeches he made at his election rallies, Varun Gandhi gets rewarded with glamourous front-page mug shots in every paper. It reminds me of how, a few months ago, Pramod Muthalik, boss of the ‘Sri Ram Sene’ in Karnataka, earned some juicy front-page recognition in most national papers for having unleashed his reign of terror over women and minorities who did not adhere to his ‘moral code’ in the state. This is a recurring pattern and it is time the media reflected a bit on this mindless use of photographs. It is almost as if all it needs for an unknown, marginal player in politics to get some coveted media coverage is to stand at a street-corner and launch into a hate-speech. The channels and the newspapers would then ensure his swift upward propulsion into the political stratosphere.
It is not enough today for the BJP leadership to be merely seen as ‘distancing’ themselves from Varun Gandhi’s intemperance. They will have to be also seen explaining why they have as much of a stake in correcting Varun’s fantasy of being a ‘Gandhi’ stakeholder as, say, their own continuing interest in the ‘Gandhi’ franchise.


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