Indian police have arrested Varun Gandhi, the estranged scion of the powerful Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, for allegedly making vitriolic attacks on India’s Muslim minority as he campaigned as a parliamentary candidate of the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata party.
The 29-year-old member of the BJP’s national executive board surrendered to police in his would-be parliamentary constituency in the volatile northern state of Uttar Pradesh on Saturday. As he was remanded to judicial custody, his right-wing supporters clashed with security forces, leaving around 20 people, including 5 police officers, injured.
Police charged Mr Gandhi, great-grandson of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, with four additional counts on Sunday, including attempted murder and rioting for allegedly stoking the violence during his dramatic surrender.
A first-time parliamentary candidate, Mr Gandhi was charged earlier this month with violating India’s ban on hate speech, after local television aired tapes of him vowing to cut off the hands and heads of Muslims who threaten Hindus, and demanding that Muslims be driven to neighbouring Pakistan.
The young politician, due to appear in court today, claims the tapes were doctored in a ‘political conspiracy’ against him. But India’s independent election commission concluded that the videos were genuine and urged the BJP to drop Mr Gandhi from its candidate list.
However, the BJP, facing a tough battle to regain power after five years in opposition, appears to have calculated that the venomous, high-profile attack on Muslims will galvanize its traditional right-wing Hindu support base.
After initially condemning Mr Gandhi’s remarks and suggesting his candidacy was unconfirmed, the party has thrown its full support behind the firebrand leader, rejecting the election commission’s advice to drop him, and demanding that India’s notoriously slow legal system be permitted to take its course.
“You see clearly here an intention to cash in on it,” said Abhishek Singhvi, a Congress party spokesman, in a televised discussion about the BJP’s response to the tapes.
The BJP’s staunch support for Mr Gandhi threatens to complicate its relations with regional allies, which fear an erosion of their Muslim support bases.
Despite the prohibition on words that ‘promote enmity’ between religious groups, rabble-rousing speeches are not new to Indian politics. But the spread of new technology, like inexpensive hand-held video cameras, and the growth of private TV channels mean that small rallies in distant communities can now be subjected to national scrutiny.
Mr Gandhi’s pedigree as the scion of India’s most prominent political family – which has dominated the ruling Congress party since independence – brings its own spotlight.
His grandmother Indira Gandhi was prime minister and his controversial father Sanjay was thought her likely successor until his 1980 death in a plane crash. His widowed mother feuded with her powerful mother-in-law, leading to her expulsion from the family and eventual embrace by the BJP. His cousin, Rahul Gandhi, 39, is the heir apparent of Congress, which professes a vision of a secular India.