The Poetry of Dynasty and the Prodigal Son

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Where Rahul Gandhi is an ancestral memory and Varun Gandhi is the intimate Other. Chinki Sinha discovers the dynamics of dynasty as she travels through Amethi, Rae Bareily and Sultanpur
When they came to annex Awadh, the last Nawab of Awadh felt he wasn’t ready for badshahat and composed a song about nostalgia, and leaving his city Lucknow.

Babul, mora naihar chhooto jaye... (Father, this ancestral land is slipping away)

Wajid Ali Shah, who ascended the throne in 1847 and was loved by his subjects, might have lived in poverty then. In the divine theory of kingship, as Wajid Ali Shah’s mother said, kings were only answerable to the Almighty. In much of Amethi, not far from Lucknow, nostalgia for what is lost prevails. In their loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, people have forgiven the lackadaisical development in the region. Rahul Gandhi at 43 remains a young son.

In Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Amjad Khan, who plays the Nawab, says to his minister that he never told his people he was capable; they knew he was a reluctant ruler. Condemned for debauchery and praised for his love of the arts, the Nawab remains a controversial figure. Like Rahul Gandhi, the reluctant prince. Or his cousin Varun Gandhi, who is contesting from neighbouring Sultanpur, a poet, trying to come to terms with the ‘otherness of self’, the title of his debut collection of poems published in 2000.

They are all poets here. The masses, and their beloved rulers, including Rahul Gandhi. The election, and its side effects. They won’t call them slogans. These are poems, they insist.

In this dusty part of Uttar Pradesh, they speak of Rahul Gandhi fondly. It is not his fault that they are poor, they say. He has a good heart. He has suffered the death of his father, and grandmother. Ultimate sacrifices. He didn’t choose politics as a career. It was his destiny, says Amrit Dubey, who lives in Sultanpur.

Sometimes, Rahul sports a beard. At other times, he is clean-shaven. He is almost child-like, earnest, when he is meeting people here. The women love him most. They call him ‘Rahul Bhaiya’ and tease him about getting a wife.

When they showered rose petals on his cavalcade on 12 April when he came to Amethi to file his nomination, he smiled, and folded his hands. Sometimes, an eager man or woman would reach out, and he would take their hands in his, and utter words of solace, or promises.

People here attribute everything to the Gandhi dynasty. The list starts from the Sharda Canal on the Sai river in Rae Bareily. In these parts, they are the photogenic poor, for whom India’s welfare schemes matter. Like the Right of All Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, the MNREGA, free rations under the BPL scheme, etcetera. Development is a matter of perspective. The welfare state, or overall growth? In urban elite circles, this is being debated. Such questions elude most here. Democracy, or dynasty. Rulers aren’t always tyrants, they say. Like Wajid Ali Shah, says Dubey. When he was crowned the Nawab, Awadh was well past its days of glory.

On 12 April, they stood at the Amhat air base with withering rose petals in their hands. From time to time, they would cover it with the loose end of their synthetic saris, and wipe the sweat off their foreheads. The women had come from various villages, and were part of the ground cadre of the Indian National Congress in Amethi, the Nehru-Gandhi bastion in Uttar Pradesh. The plane that was carrying Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi was delayed almost two hours. Someone told me to write there were ‘10 lakh’ people who had gathered to welcome the prince when he came to file his nomination papers. But there were only a few hundred.

In spite of the heat, Krishna Devi, 55, had turned poetic. “Khaye Congress ki, duhai kare doosre ki. Nahin nahin (They eat off the Congress, but they speak of others. No way, no way),” she says, and other women cheer her on.

She is in a polyester-blend purple sari with sequins, like the others in synthetic saris. We can’t afford ‘khadi’, she says and winks. That’s a luxury of the rich. “The Gandhi family has given us their blood. We should be able to give them our sweat. We will wait until he comes,” she adds.

Udhar hunkaar rahegi, idhar jhankar rahegi (The roar might be there, but the tinkle is here),” she goes on. She has travelled almost 30 km in the morning to reach the Amhat air base.

The women gathered are part of the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana, a rights-based welfare scheme that has been dismissed like many others for having failed to uplift the poor. Under the scheme, women run self-help groups which involve micro-finance. Here, in Amethi, more women have gathered than men.

Soch ko badlo sitarein badal jayenge. Nazar ko badlo, nazarein badal jayenge. Kashtiyan badalne ki zaroorat nahi. Dishaon ko badlo, kinaare badal jayenge (Change your thought, and your stars will change. Change your perspective, and your vistas will change. There’s no need to change the tides. Change your direction, and the shores will change),” she said, adding this is what Rahul Gandhi had said.

That poetic note again.

Krishna Devi dismisses the other candidates with a wave of her hand. AAP candidate Kumar Vishwas, who has been attacking the dynasty by calling himself a commoner, the son of a school master, can’t convert them. “Kumar Vishwas ko apne upar vishwas hai, janta ko nahin (Kumar Vishwas believes in himself, but we don’t),” she says.

The BJP has fielded Smriti Irani in Amethi, but as the election approaches in this Nehru-Gandhi bastion, she is beginning to fade out.

When Rahul Gandhi finally arrives, an iron gate separates them. Through the chinks, they see him, and the steel grey roads turns pink as Rahul Gandhi along with his mother Sonia Gandhi and sister Priyanka Gandhi and her husband Robert Vadra set out on a 40-km road show to Gauriganj in Amethi, a constituency that was handed to him by his mother. Almost 16 kilometres of this falls within Sultanpur constituency, where his estranged cousin Varun Gandhi is contesting the election on a BJP ticket.

At some point, Krishna Devi is pushed to the second row. Rahul Gandhi doesn’t stop here. The SUVs roll out. One by one. Covered in rose petals. A glimpse of Rahul Gandhi. Nothing more. Perhaps he saw her, she said.

Sultanpur was once Sanjay Gandhi’s constituency. This is a story of dynasties, and their reluctant heirs, lonely too, pitched in battles of claims and ideology. They say there is a wave. A Modi wave. Like a tsunami, it has come to claim them. Like the British came for the last Nawab of Awadh. They said he was unfit to rule. They said he hadn’t cared much for development. Sonia Gandhi is a reluctant politician, they say. They are grateful she has come with her son. They will resist the wave.

So far, the cousins have stayed out of each other’s way. But Priyanka Gandhi tells the people that Varun Gandhi has gone astray, and urges them not to vote for the BJP in Sultanpur. That sets off a battle of words in Delhi. Later, Varun would say in Sultanpur that his decency should not be mistaken for weakness, and that he hasn’t crossed the “Laksman rekha”. He is there to work, he said.

It is time he returned, they say in Sultanpur. In this constituency, he is pitched in battle against Rani Ameeta Singh, the second wife of Sanjay Singh, the erstwhile king of Amethi who is contesting on a Congress ticket. He is now a Rajya Sabha MP from Assam. But the Singhs must lay claim to the land of their ancestors. The hangover is too much for democracy to fix.

Near the barricade at Gauriganj in Amethi, people have gathered again. A lone man is deriding the dynasty. The women chide him, but Ram Awadh Yadav continues. “Have you seen Chandigarh? I want the formula from Rahul Gandhi,” he says. “Rahul Gandhi drives his Fortuner. We have to walk in this heat and dust.”

“Why don’t you fight then?” Rita Devi mocks him. “He gives us something each time he comes. You are standing on the road that was built by him,” she says. “Seven national highways intersect here. He gave us a Central Reserve Police Force centre, two units of Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd, et cetera...”

As Rahul Gandhi leaves, they turn poetic again. “Hawa mein bindaas udd raha hai Modi. 16 May ko ruk jayegi hawa. Gir jayega Modi (Modi is fluttering high in the breeze. This breeze will stop on 16 May and he will fall flat),” says Rehaan Zaidi.

About 177 km from here, the BJP’s Narendra Modi is contesting from Varanasi. But ‘the wave’ has skipped these parts. Those who ride the wave have lost the ground beneath their feet, Rita Devi says.

Priyanka Gandhi returned to Amethi on 15 April. She has been planning the campaign strategy at Munshiganj. She will start from Rae Bareily, her mother’s constituency. Her unwillingness to enter politics has made them want her even more. She, who looks like her grandmother in her cropped hair and cotton saris, is the one they want to see, touch, and talk to.

“They come to learn politics in Rae Bareily,” says Munawwar Ali of Narai village in Sonia Gandhi’s constituency. “Even Indira Gandhi lost here once.” That was 1977.

They are sitting at a chai stall. Nostalgia, which is in abundance here, makes them recount stories. “Rajiv Gandhi had come here on a visit before he was killed. He was in an open-air jeep. Our Congress leaders are simple people. See, the Vidhan Sabha election in UP is a different game. That’s when local issues take the forefront. But when it comes to the Lok Sabha, we are fiercely loyal,” he says.

Not far from Azizganj in a village in Bachrawan, Ram Narayan lives here in a ramshackle house. The walls have crumbled. There is no roof. His daughter dropped out of school to look after his three children after their mother died. He is a daily-wage labourer and survival is an uphill task. But he says the Congress has come to their aid. With the NREGA and BPL cards. At least, there’s some food, he says.

Ram Ketar is sitting outside his home in the village. He is disillusioned. “What has the Congress done?” he asks. “I will not vote. There is inflation. How do we go on?”

There is dissent, but in Rae Bareily, Sonia Gandhi holds her ground. “Like Indira Gandhi served us, her daughter-in- law is doing the same,” says Shivkesh Kumar, a truck driver in Dalmau. In 1981- 82, he says, Indira Gandhi laid the foundation of a bypass from Dalmau to Fatehpur. Two years ago, Sonia Gandhi completed the project. “They remember. We remember too,” he says.

When Indira Gandhi lost the election here in 1977, the BHEL plant was shifted from here to Jagdishpur. For 15 years, nobody asked after them, says Ratnesh Shukla, a jeweller in Munshiganj market in Rae Bareily. He counts the industrial units that have been set up because of the Congress: ITI Limited, Rail Coach Factory, Birla Cement Factory, Indo Gulf Fertilisers, NTPC Ltd, Reliance Cement, etcetera. “We have a NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology), and AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) is coming up,” he says. In Lalganj, the Rail Coach Factory employs about 2,000 people. It is the benevolence of the dynasty. That’s how they see it.

In one of the poems in The Otherness of Self, Varun Gandhi compared himself to a kite caught in the skies. This was when his mother started introducing him in the political circles.

In this karmabhoomi, blood and estrangement are invoked. In case of Varun Gandhi, they speak of how his mother waited on the side of the road with four suitcases and a child who was running a high fever. He was just 100 days old when his father Sanjay Gandhi died.

“She was just kicked out of the house. Akbar Ahmed (Dumpy) helped her,” says someone. “I know the story. My heart bleeds for Varun Gandhi.”

Alay Rasool says he is an avid reader of national history, and knows his facts. Now that Varun Gandhi has come to claim what is his legacy, people will return to him his rightful place. Just then, the shopkeeper hands over a print of a newspaper article in Rashtriya Sahara about the prophesies that have come true. It says how in 1980 Maneka Gandhi had predicted on a visit that her son would one day stand from Sultanpur. We have been waiting since, Rasool says.

Anurag Raghuvanshi says Varun is just like his father. Once Sanjay Gandhi had visited his house in 1980. He was a young boy then. The people of Sultanpur owe it to the only son. Why should Rahul and Priyanka get everything?

Yet again, the roads are paved with rose petals. Not orange genda flowers. All of a sudden, the fragrance of roses assail the air, and 34-year-old Varun Gandhi emerges, atop an SUV. Here, they were only trying match the scale of welcome accorded to Rahul Gandhi. Rose against rose. Brother against brother. Dust and petals. Cheers and slogans. The son has returned. There is jubilation.

Outside the Sanjay Gandhi Guest House in Munshiganj in Amethi, people have gathered because Priyanka Gandhi is holding meetings with grassroots workers inside. A man slips in a piece of paper with a poem, written by one Rajrani Pal, a former block leader in Amethi. It is titled ‘Maa Bete ka Balidan’ (The Sacrifice of Mother and Son).

Nehru ji ki gulab vatika mein do aise phool khile hai / Mata Sonia-Rajiv ji ki godh mein khele khaye aur pale hai / Bamo se chithre hue pitaji, yeh baat Priyanka ko bahut khali / Rahul kehte dil na toote, desh na toote, chaahe jitna ho balidaan / Bacha lo apna Hindustan, sambhalo apna Hindustan.

(Two flowers blossomed in Nehru’s rose garden / They played and grew up in mother Sonia and father’s Rajiv’s laps / The father was blown to pieces by bombs, this affected Priyanka a lot / Rahul says the heart mustn’t break, the country mustn’t break, no matter what the sacrifice / Let’s save our Hindustan, let’s take care of our Hindustan)

One heir is forgotten—Varun Gandhi.

Aafter Varun exits the stage, a local BJP worker takes over, and shouts ‘Jai Shri Ram’ from the stage. Rose petals in the air, lotus flags shimmer in the sun. During his short speech at a meeting in Sultanpur, he had said religion should not be a discriminating factor. Only a fleeting reference to Modi was made. A man comes forward and says Sultanpur will do justice to Varun Gandhi.

A BJP MP from Pilibhit, Varun Gandhi invokes his father’s name. They haven’t forgotten him, have they? He is their son. They should treat him like one. “Vanshvaad kam karna parega,” he shouts. Dynasty must decline.

“I have seen ups and downs. More suffering than happiness,” he goes on. “Politics isn’t everything. My dharma is service of this country.”

Such towns are stuck in a time warp. On the crumbling walls, there is a film poster of Inquilab starring Ajay Devgn. Elsewhere, there are films like Queen that celebrate women’s empowerment. But here, in this dusty town in the hinterland of UP, things move slowly. Or not at all. Once they had seen glory. It seems like Sultanpur is pitched in a battle of fame against Amethi.

Like Amethi, Sultanpur doesn’t have much to show for itself. But Amethi became famous because the Gandhis made it their constituency, Anurag says. “Now, it is Sultanpur’s turn,” he adds.

Over SMS, Varun Gandhi says he doesn’t give interviews to the media.

He shall speak to the people. Unlike Rahul Gandhi, Varun has rented a place in Shastri Nagar in Sultanpur, and stays back for meetings. After his hate speech debacle in the last Lok Sabha election, Varun doesn’t invoke religion. It is the family name that will do it for him.

In the last Lok Sabha polls, the BJP candidate polled only around 45,000 votes. Sanjay Singh won in Sultanpur on a Congress ticket in 2009. The BJP had won the seat thrice between 1991 and 1998. The BSP won in 1999 and 2004.

But in Varun Gandhi’s ‘karmabhoomi’, the others may fade out this time.

His father had represented Amethi from 1980 to 1981 before his death in a plane crash. Rajiv Gandhi won the seat in the 1981 by-election. Both families kept out of each other’s ways after 1984, when Sanjay Gandhi’s widow Maneka Gandhi contested the seat as an Independent leader of the Sanjay Gandhi Vichar Manch against Rajiv Gandhi but lost to him by a huge margin.

In 2009, Varun Gandhi rose to prominence after he won from Pilibhit. After he praised Rahul Gandhi’s work in Amethi, he was criticised. That’s how it is. On one side, there is the estranged family. On the other, the political family, the Sangh Parivar. The self, and the otherness of it.

Sometimes I wished I lived alone / and no one came by / my thoughts trapped in confusion / Like a kite in the sky / Imagine being caught in the sky...

Wajid Ali Shah lives on. In the two heirs who invoke their legacies. One, a reluctant heir, the other, also a poet.