India elections: One Gandhi is fighting for power – the rest are fighting each other

Cousins in the country’s political royalty slug it out as they vie for power

Delhi

It's a case of Rahul and Priyanka versus Varun and Maneka. An internal feud involving India's first family of politics and which has its roots dating back more than three decades has found its way to the forefront of the increasingly hard-fought election campaign.

In recent days, Priyanka Gandhi, the daughter of the Congress party chief Sonia, and sister of its campaign head, Rahul, has been making a series of digs at her cousin, Varun Gandhi, who is a candidate for the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

On Tuesday, as Varun Gandhi, 34, filed his nomination papers in the Sultanpur constituency in the state of Uttar Pradesh, his cousin fired off the latest broadside, condemning him for standing for the BJP.

“This is not a family tea party. It is an ideological war,” she told reporters in language not heard from her before. “I would not have forgiven my child, if he did something like this.”

The comment was the latest in a number of verbal assaults. At the weekend, Mrs Gandhi, 42, who is married to a controversial businessman, Robert Vadra, told members of her own party that she hoped Varun Gandhi lost. “He is definitely from my family. But he has gone astray. When a young one in the family chooses the wrong path, then the elders show them the right path, the right way,” she said.

The feud between the different factions of the Nehru-Gandhi family dates back to the days of the late former prime minister Indira Gandhi, the grandmother of Rahul, Varun and Priyanka. Following the death of her son, Sanjay, in a plane crash in 1980, Indira had a bitter falling out with his widow, Maneka.

The dispute came as Indira Gandhi, effectively forced her other son, Rajiv, a commercial airline pilot, to enter politics, and scuppered Maneka's wish to contest the seat of her late husband. When Maneka, then aged 26, spoke at a political rally of one of her late husband's friends, Indira Gandhi apparently flew into a rage and broke with Hindu tradition to throw her daughter-in-law out of the house. Photographs from the time showed her luggage on the lawn.

“The indignities and physical and mental abuse I have suffered in the house - no and I repeat - no human being would have suffered,” Maneka subsequently wrote in a letter to Indira Gandhi, which she also leaked to the press. “As soon as Sanjay died you started literally torturing me in every conceivable way.”

There was to be no reconciliation between Maneka and Indira, who was killed by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. Instead, Maneka briefly set up her own party and then joined the BJP, serving as a minister and promoting the cause of vegetarianism and animal rights. Though the BJP has repeatedly condemned the “dynastic” nature of the Gandhi family, it also recognises its draw electorally.

Her son Varun first contested as an MP for the party in 2009, triggering controversy with a speech in which he threatened to cut off the heads of Muslims. This year he has been much more careful.

Indeed, while campaigning for his seat, located alongside the Amethi constituency being contested by Rahul, Varun Gandhi even offered some praise to his cousin, saying that Rahul had overseen important development work.

The comments were seized on by the media and condemned by his mother, Maneka, who said her son should speak with his “head and not his heart”.

“I have been to Amethi and there is no development there,” she said. Varun eventually “clarified” his comment.

The family feud has played out as Priyanka Gandhi has taken charge of the election campaigns of both Rahul and her mother. This week she denied a report in the Times of India newspaper claiming she had intended to contest the election in Varanasi, one of the seats being contested by the BJP's prime ministerial candidate and the assumed front-runner, Narendra Modi.

She said she had chosen to not yet enter politics. “This certainly is my own personal decision and I will change it only when I feel from within me that I should,” she said.

The promotion of Priyanka Gandhi appears to be have been pushed by elements of the Congress party concerned about the performance of Rahul Gandhi and desperate for something that could at this late stage change the dynamics of the race. Yet reports say some in the party feared Priyanka's entry might undermine her brother's campaign.

Satish Sharma, an old and close friend of the Gandhi-family and who was with Rahul last Saturday when he filed his own nomination papers in Amethi, said Priyanka's comments to Varun Gandhi had not been a personal slight. “She thinks Varun has got the wrong ideas,” Mr Sharma, a member of the upper house of the parliament, told The Independent. “But it's nothing personal.”

But Varun Gandhi claims he has been insulted. In a statement, he referred to a figure in Hindu mythology who drew a line around his house. He said that unlike his cousin, he had never crossed this line of “decency”.

“There has been talk of my path. I have always considered the nation's path as more important than my own,” he said. “In my lifetime, if I am able to constructively contribute towards nation-building, I would consider my life meaningful.”

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