The Gandhis at war

The anti-Muslim tirade by a descendant of Nehru and Indira Gandhi has caused outrage in India and put him at odds with his family. But, as Andrew Buncombe reports, tensions within the political dynasty are nothing new

Outside the large white Lutyens-built bungalow on Ashoka Road, the television cameras had been camped out for days. They were waiting for Varun Gandhi, the black sheep of India's most famous political dynasty and a man who has sparked the fiercest of controversies ahead of the country's April elections. But of the 29-year-old poet-turned-politician there was no sign. Since a speech in which he apparently vowed to "slit the throats" of Muslims, Varun has sought to avoid the attention he once so keenly pursued.

As the news crews whiled away the hours outside the British-era home in Delhi, Varun was understood to be locked inside in a crisis meeting with his mother. And no wonder. His speech has earned widespread condemnation and triggered a broader debate about the sort of country India seeks to be – one divided by religion and caste or a place that tolerates and celebrates diversity.

But beyond that, the speech has focused attention on the enduring legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, probably the best-known political family in South Asia and one whose name still wields tremendous power. Dynastic politics is not uncommon in the region – Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh have seen power held by different generations of various influential families – but none has enjoyed the longevity of India's first political clan. Several commentators have suggested that had the anti-Muslim comments been made by any other aspiring MP, they may very well have been arrested and charged with inciting communal violence.

"Power is very closely attached to this family, and they also have the capacity to extend large patronage," said Valerian Rodrigues, a professor of political science at Jawarlahal Nehru University. "The family has a big presence in the popular imagination of the country's elite, its middle class and the corporate world."

Varun's great-grandfather was Jawarlahal Nehru, India's first prime minister and the man who fought the bitter independence struggle alongside Mahatma Gandhi. But the "Great Soul" is no blood relation. Varun gets his surname via his grandmother Indira – the daughter of Nehru who took the name after her marriage to Feroze Gandhi. Varun's father was Sanjay Gandhi, Indira's younger son, who died in a plane crash in 1980.

After his father's death, Varun's mother, Maneka, fell out with Indira and moved out of the family house. Since then, that line of the family has been largely estranged, not only from the family but also from the ruling Congress Party. Maneka – a leading vegetarian and animal rights campaigner – became an MP for the right-wing Hindu national Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is for that party that her son is now running.

When he joined the BJP in 2004, he declared: "Historically, my family has been part of the Congress and has led it through its most glorious era. I do believe, however, that what my family was true to was not a party but a value system, a tradition of self-sacrifice, national pride, independence of spirit."

Varun studied at the London School of Economics before completing a masters at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Having published a collection of poetry, The Otherness of Self, he is now running in his first election and finds himself on opposing sides to both his aunt, Sonia Gandhi, and his cousin Rahul.

In contrast to Varun's newcomer status, Rahul, at the age of 38, is already general secretary of his party. There's talk that if Congress win sufficient seats, Rahul, unmarried, reserved and seemingly terrified of the media, could even be propelled to the position of prime minister in the next coalition government. Experience is not the only difference between the two scions. While Varun has apparently decided to pursue the rigid, right-wing vote, Rahul has campaigned in the tradition of his ancestors, seeking to reach out to all Indians. During a confidence vote last summer, Rahul told fellow MPs he was speaking not as "a member of a political party but as an Indian".

The controversy engulfing Varun began with a speech made on 7 March in the Uttar Pradesh constituency, currently occupied by his mother, Maneka. At a videoed election rally, he said: "All the Hindus stay on this side and send the others to Pakistan." Raising a palm, he said his hand was the "Lotus hand" – a reference to the symbol of the BJP – and that after the election "it will cut their throats".

Condemnation of the speech was swift. A complaint was filed with the police and he was censured by the country's election commission which advised that he should not stand as a candidate. Varun has claimed the recording had been tampered with .

But the matter has not gone away. The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said Varun's endorsement by the BJP was "shameful". His other cousin, Priyanka, said the comments were an insult to the Nehru-Gandhi name. "It really is very sad to see him saying all this," she said. "Whatever he said was against the principles of the Gandhi family, for which they lived and died."

Despite widespread condemnation, the BJP has refused to drop him as its candidate. A party spokesman, Sidharth Singh, dismissed a suggestion that the BJP had taken a cynical step by backing Varun, on the basis of his family name. "The Congress party is the only dynasty," he said. "Other than the [left-wing] parties, we are the only one that practises internal democracy."

The truth may be a little less high-minded. Observers say that for all its claims to have moved to the centre, the BJP is happy for Varun to project himself as a right-wing nationalist in an effort to secure the so-called Hindutva vote. Furthermore, having a member of the Nehru-Gandhi clan can only act as an irritant to family members in the rival Congress. MK Dhar, a veteran Indian journalist, said: "The BJP are going to use [Varun and his mother] at a local level. They hate Indira Gandhi but they are going to use the family name to try and win two seats. This is a highly contested election. Every seat counts."