In village after village, addressing gatherings under the shade of mango trees, BJP's youngest general secretary, 34-year-old Varun Gandhi denounces caste and community politics. "Otherwise what difference would there be between me and the BSP and SP?" he asks in Rajware Rampur village. There is loud applause. The village is a part of the Sultanpur Lok Sabha constituency in Uttar Pradesh, for which Varun is campaigning.
Gandhi is clearly on a mission — striving to erase perceptions of being a rabble-rouser and projecting himself as a liberal, progressive and inclusive voice, promising probity and development. As his 18-car cavalcade moves through dusty, pot-holed roads through wheat and pigeon pea (arhar) fields, he rolls down his window to greet some Muslims along the road.
In Sultanpur, he makes it a point to tell the gathering that he is not indulging in identity politics. "I don't know the caste, community break-up here. I don't even want to know. I want to know how many farmers are here," he says. Dressed in a cotton kurta-pyjama and a black Nehru jacket, he says: "I am your son. A son makes mistakes sometimes." The remark is an apparent implication of his father Sanjay Gandhi's association with Sultanpur, the seat Varun shifted to from Pilibhit.
In Badhupur village, Varun points out to the absence of women among the people, who have gathered to hear him. In his 10-minute speeches, he focuses on three concerns — the leadership vacuum, caste-community politics and corruption. He says he is neither God, nor does he have a magic wand but promises that he will "not steal a single penny and not allow the theft of a single penny". He ends each address by asking his audience if they will support him.
For Prakash Yadav, an ice-cream vendor, who does brisk business at rallies in the poll season, Varun is a "ray of hope" in a place starved of development. There are others who echo similar views. Despite around a 25 per cent Muslim population in the constituency, there are not many from the community at Varun's public meetings. The seat has 26 per cent OBCs, 18 per cent Brahmins and 24 per cent Dalits.
Most people in the constituency say they have not seen Sanjay Singh, the sitting Congress MP. Singh's wife Amita is now in the fray from the Congress. Others in the race for Sultanpur are BSP's Pawan Pandey and SP's Shakeel Ahmed.
Varun, who was mired in a hate speech controversy in 2009, talks of love, sensitivity and compassion. He castigates the lack of leadership, but refrains from naming the Congress. He seeks votes, but does not chant Modi's name. "When one wins an election it should not be treated as a coronation... The greatest task for a politician should be to be seen as a good human being," says Varun, adding that he would like to emulate his grandmother's inherent simplicity and Atal Bihari Vajpayee's "large and soft heartedness."
For Varun, the focus is to fight a secular election. "I don't believe in talking about other political adversaries or parties in any campaign because I feel our polity is becoming more and more meritorial and aspirational and people want to know what your message is rather than how mediocre your opponent is... I seek to serve every member of my constituency with equal respect and accountability towards their needs. Whether your are a Muslim or a Hindu or any caste, if you repose your faith in me, I will stand with you with whatever strength I have," he says.
Retracts from Rahul's praise
In a bid to douse the flutter over his reported praise of cousin and Congress' Amethi candidate Rahul Gandhi, BJP's Varun Gandhi said his comments should not be seen as an endorsement of any party or candidate.
"My comment, last night, in a meeting with teachers and NGOs, in response to being asked whether I knew about initiatives in Amethi, was that although I had not seen the work done via self help groups in Amethi, I had heard it was fairly decent, and that I would stress on empowering people towards being self-reliant," Varun tweeted on Wednesday. He also issued a statement reiterating his tweet. "It should NOT be seen as an endorsement of any political party or candidate," he said.
Earlier, Varun was reported to have said: "I want to bring a new form of politics. The way Rahulji has worked successfully in Amethi... though I haven't seen his work from inside."
Varun had made it clear to his party that he will not be campaigning in Amethi, which is just 34 km away from his own constituency, Sultanpur.