April 05, 2020
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Children Of The Suns

Accompanying their mothers on campaign trails, Rahul, Priyanka and Varun get introduced to their political legacy

Children Of The Suns
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THE mystique may have mutated, but it's far from evaporated. The fifth generation of India's first family, dynasty or call-it-what-you-will is still pulling in the crowds, evoking nostalgia and prompting fond comparisons. The aura surrounding the current crop of the Nehru-Gandhis, as they hit the campaign trail to garner votes for their mothers in the last election of the millennium, has a strong touch of deja vu. Even if in varying degrees. An anachronism in this day and age, exploiting the residual feudal instincts of the subcontinental masses? Or the informed choice of a modern democracy that lays great store by its traditional referral points? Choose one.

Sonia, or Indiramma kodalu (Telegu for Indira's daughter-in-law), has. Picked Rahul.

The chattering among the women huddled together at the Congress rally in Mahboobnagar in Andhra Pradesh, reaches a crescendo: "Gadugo, ga porade Indiramma manavadanta. Antha valla nayina lagane vunnadu. As dressu, ga mokam. Soodu, soodu. Cheyi vuputhundu (Hey, look at that boy. He's a replica of his father; even dressed like him. He's our Indiramma's grandson. Look, look, he's is waving at us)." Rahul Gandhi has been spotted on the dais, his stocky frame nearly hidden by the local worthies flanking Sonia Gandhi. He leans forward to whisper into his mother's ear, sparking off a renewed, rather frenetic, bout of handwaving from the predominantly middle-aged female audience.

Rajiv Gandhi's son, Indira Gandhi's grandson, Nehru's great grandson... the lineage is well-known. And well-regarded. Well-publicised too, by the party faithful. Not that it needs to be, now that the 29-year-old has forsaken his jeans and T-shirts (not to mention his job) for the trademark Congress kurta-pyjama to accompany his mother on the campaign trail. And in Andhra Pradesh last week, he seemed well on the way to secure public acceptance as the true political heir to Rajiv. He is the SON, after all. Even if, unlike his sister, the charm isn't apparent. An awkward speaker, he very definitely lacks spontaneity in comparison to Priyanka. But as the latest torch-bearer of the Nehru clan, he is a huge draw. Especially among the women.

Perhaps because he arouses their maternal instinct: "We know he doesn't say much but we're pleased just to see him helping his mother," says a mother of four attending a Congress rally at Nellore. Sonia, in fact, is now thought to be pushing her son over her daughter to claim the family's political mantle. And she gets visibly excited each time the crowd chants "Rahul, Rahul...". She nudges her son to the edge of the dais, ensures that all sections of the audience catch a glimpse and encourages him to respond to their greetings. The campaign managers catch on: Rahul is persuaded to sit in the front row, along with his mother. A palpable thrill of excitement runs through the huge crowd as their "young leader" takes his place up front. And he doesn't seem to mind it one bit.

Neither, apparently, does Priyanka. Mind that her mother is tilting to tradition, undermining her status as the odds-on favourite to inherit India's most famous family's political legacy. She seems content with helping "mummy" to victory.

Even though she's been a huge hit from the moment she made her first political speech of Election '99, at the remote town of Siruguppa in Karnataka. Clad, quite deliberately perhaps, in a saffron saree, her few sentences in Kannada had the crowd on its feet roaring approval. The buzz is easily discernible: "Just like Indira Priyadarshini, even her hair is cropped short," an excited group of women point out. But the comparison doesn't end there. Much like her grandmother used to, Priyanka skips over the barricades and goes across to the ladies' enclosure of the maidan, greets the audience with folded hands and then, quite instinctively, grasps the outstretched hands in hers. A gesture that perhaps evoked more support for Sonia than the Congress president's speech in heavily-accented Hindi, punctuated as it was with declarations of undying love for India.

Exhibiting the consummate ease of a political veteran, Priyanka's brief speech in Kannada was a direct tug at the heartstrings: "Bellariya nanna preethiya akka thangiyare, ivattu nanna thayiyannu nimmalige kare thandiruve. Ivaru nimmavaru. Ivarannu neevu yella reethiyalli rakshishi gellisi kodobeku (Dear sisters of Bellary, I've brought my mother to your place today. You must take care of her and ensure her victory)." The few sentences, say admirers, have neutralised Sushma Swaraj's now-famous appeal to "swadeshi naarige puraskara, videshi naarige tiraskara (reward the swadeshi woman and reject the videshi one)." Priyanka also made waves during the second leg of the campaign, as she accompanied Sonia through the streets of Bellary in the evening. Advising her to travel in an open-top vehicle, telling her where to stop, when to fling a garland amidst those lining the streets. The "fair hands that stood out in the dark", insist Congressmen; they cite her as the main reason for their confidence in the face of a meticulously-planned bjp campaign against her mother.

For the bjp's supporting Maneka, mother of Feroze Varun Gandhi, "Indiraji's" other grandson, son of the younger son Sanjay and the youngest of the trio. More pertinently perhaps, he is the son of the estranged bahu. The outsider, as it were.

His I-drink-my-glassful-of-milk-everyday smile, gawky body language and somewhat shy, teenaged demeanour (he's 19), make him the perfect odd man out in the heat and dust of a campaign in the north Indian backwater of Pilibhit. Surrounded by local leaders and hangers-on, he trudges down the bylanes of rural Pilibhit each day. Mixing with the hoi polloi, asking, hands folded, for their votes "to help" his mother Maneka Gandhi win the election. But it's when he utters well-rehearsed lines in his babalog Hindi, that you can feel the ordeal the boy from the London School of Economics is putting himself through for "MG".

For it's not easy being a rising son of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The softspoken, well-mannered but extremely camera-shy Feroze Varun is desperate—like his cousins Rahul and Priyanka in the rival camp—to do "some public service". From the first

day of his campaign for his mother who's seeking re-election as an nda-backed Independent candidate, Feroze has been eager to grasp the nuances of his family trade, politics. Initially a little shaky, he has improved with each public meeting. He's a fast learner, aides insist. His green activist-politician mother's decision to field the son as her representative in politics is what prompted Feroze to take time off from his busy study schedule at the lse, from where he is doing his graduation.

In the best tradition of the Family, Feroze too insists he's "here to help my mother". Remember Sanjay's willingness to help Indira during the Emergency? After his death in an air-crash, elder brother Rajiv Gandhi took the plunge to give strength to Mrs G. Feroze is following in the same tradition. "Main apni maa ke pratinidhi ke taur par aapke paas aaya hun aur meri maa ne is kshetra mein muhtod parishram kiya hai (I've come to you as a representative of my mother who has done backbreaking work in this area)," says Feroze at a small gathering in Neuria village. He could be forgiven for not knowing the difference between the Hindi words muhtod (befitting), and jeetod (backbreaking), which have completely opposite meanings. After all, his uncle Rajiv nearly made a career out of such slip-ups!

Caught in the traditional Indian crossfire between deorani-jethani, Feroze, it seems, has been briefed very clearly by his mother about what his political leanings should be. For him the Congress—led by aunty Sonia—is no longer important. "I'm a voter in South Delhi and I'll vote for the bjp. I'm not going to vote Congress," he told Outlook.

Politics apart, Feroze Varun says he has a good rapport with cousins Rahul and Priyanka, but he doesn't want to talk about it—"It's a personal matter and I want to keep it that way". Political ambition? "I want to do some public service but I don't have any golden ambition of becoming the youngest MP; I'm not a glamorous person. But I definitely want to come back and work here," answers Feroze. Despite the reluctance, there's no denying he's being affected by the media attention politicians get. Asked whether he'll write something on his "new experience" of poll campaigning, he says, with a child-like twinkle in his eyes: "Well, I do write poetry and prose..."

Wait and watch. This well-groomed son of a well-pedigreed politician could well be writing out a new destiny for himself in a well-nurtured constituency.

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