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Varun Gandhi, the newly appointed general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sees his party as a “symbol of hope" in the current political scenario. Gandhi, the 33-year-old son of Lok Sabha member Maneka Gandhi and the late Sanjay Gandhi, can’t run away from his surname—and a prevailing perception that the BJP has promoted him so as to counter his cousin and Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi— but says that it is the work one does that ultimately matters in public life. In an interview with Mint, he spoke about his party’s strategies for the upcoming state and Lok Sabha elections. Edited excerpts:

You are the youngest ever BJP general secretary. What does that mean to you? Do you think you have been chosen because of your surname?

I treat my appointment as both an honour and a responsibility. I joined the party almost 10 years ago, in 2004, but fought shy of taking any formal party post until after I had stood for election and earned my spurs. In the 2012 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, 23 of the 32 candidates that I backed won their seats, which has clearly increased the party’s confidence in me. My appointment is, above all, (a) tribute to the BJP’s growing commitment to India’s youth.

My family upbringing and the values I have imbibed of integrity , discipline and public service will always stand me in good stead. Personally I believe that it is not your naam (name) but your kaam (work) that earns you respect.

Is being a Gandhi in the BJP an asset or a liability?

While my name might have helped me get a ticket at the age of 29, thereafter, I’ve had to work as hard if not harder than anyone else. Like Abraham Lincoln said, “You have to do your own growing no matter how tall your grandfather was". I won in Uttar Pradesh with the highest margin among (candidates from) the party. Subsequently, in the run-up to the assembly elections, I organized and addressed rallies in support of 32 candidates, 23 of whom won. Within a cadre-based party like BJP, a family legacy is not necessarily an advantage. Often it means one has to jump hoops higher than others.

What kind of alternative would the BJP offer to voters? How is it different?

There is a completely different mood in the country today which is not a little due to the shift in demography towards a far younger and more assertive electorate. That we have seen chief ministers being re-elected with greater margins, whether in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh or Bihar, testifies to the fact that people are no longer swayed by party politics; they are interested in results. Quite apart from the sordid spectacle of corruption and non-governance by the present dispensation, the BJP has a very strong platform based on its own positive performance in the various states it heads. We have demonstrated the kind of responsible, responsive and effective political leadership that the country is yearning for. What will count in these elections is candidate selection. The selection process is already under way and we are committed to (putting up) credible candidates based on a proven track record of honesty and public service—people that embody public aspirations and inspire.

Can (Gujarat chief minister) Narendra Modi pull it off for the BJP in the next elections?

It is belittling to think of elections simply as a quest for power. What political parties, including the BJP, seek is an opportunity to implement policies that will best fulfil the nation’s aspirations. There are an overwhelming number of factors that suggest the BJP will win the forthcoming elections, including the party’s track record in the various states it governs compared to the resounding failure of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government. There is no doubt that Narendra Modi has captured the imagination of the country and become, for many, a symbol of hope and change.

If people have strong reactions to Shri Modi, I consider that a very positive sign because you only feel strongly about someone that you believe matters. I think it is a credit to Modi that he has become central to the political debate and is regarded by many as a symbol of hope. By contrast, no one has any opinion about the Prime Minister because he is not seen as setting the political agenda or, frankly, making any difference at all.

What’s your take on the factional politics in BJP? Have you ever felt that young leaders including you have not got a fair deal because of that?

There is a greater realization within the party’s top leadership that without absolute unity we cannot achieve our goal in the upcoming elections. Therefore, a greater emphasis is being placed on teamwork and co-ordination at every level. Regarding young leaders not getting their due, I have become general secretary at the age of 33 and I feel many fresh faces have been given a chance in this team. However, it is up to us to prove our mettle to both win ourselves and prove effective in the larger victory of the party. Ultimately, respect has to be earned and not clamoured for.

It was the charges of corruption that caused the decline of the UPA’s popularity. However, the developments in Karnataka have somehow created the impression that the BJP is no different.

There is a crucial and telling difference between the Congress and BJP. The Congress continues to preside over a government where almost every single minister including the Prime Minister has been linked to serious financial scams. Findings have been ignored, denied or buried, investigations have been manipulated, and till today, no or little action has been taken. By contrast, the BJP has acted swiftly and firmly any time any of its members have been accused—even at great political cost. In Karnataka, the BJP risked its government to abide by its moral code. Similarly, in Jharkhand it preferred to lose its government than support a corrupt JMM (Jharkhand Mukti Morcha). Even our former party president, Nitin Gadkari, though completely in the clear, chose to abdicate his position rather than compromise the party’s position. The BJP has clearly demonstrated its zero tolerance of corruption.

The major allegation against the BJP is that it did not allow Parliament to function so that legislative and administrative businesses could proceed. Do you think stalling Parliament is the right way to protest in a democracy?

The BJP has the highest respect for Parliament. It has the distinction of having India’s finest parliamentarian after Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Sushma Swaraj. In every session, Sushmaji has raised important issues and we have been ready to debate them fairly. Unfortunately, the Congress has used brute majority to shout us down, avoid debate and stall investigations. We have seen how other arms of democracy like the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General), CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) and the police have been subverted. We are not going to allow Parliament to be similarly misused.

Personally, how are you looking at the 2014 elections? What’s going to be the major issue? Could jobs be an electoral issue?

Unfortunately, in our country education has still not reached the last man in society, and therefore issues of regionalism, religion, and casteism will continue to be predominant, at least for the moment. However, with liberalization and increased urbanization, as well as increased aspiration levels amongst our young people, the level of debate will certainly rise. The economic situation in the country, the state of internal security, as well as the level of environmental degradation, will automatically be the issues that come to the fore in times to come.

Are you going to move your constituency from Pilibhit?

The decision will be taken by the party and its parliamentary board. That said, Sultanpur does hold a special significance as it is has been earlier represented by my father. The people of the area still hold him in their hearts, and I have been showered with their love and blessings on my various visits. However, Pilibhit shall always remain for me the place where I started my political journey, and I shall never forget the generosity of my constituents who elected me with a record margin. I have tried to live up to their expectations and trust that the pace of work I have set in these five years will continue unabated.

Where do you think the BJP will gain in the next elections? Is Uttar Pradesh going to hold any surprises for you? Is there any particular strategy?

Fundamentally, I want to shift focus from the divisiveness of caste calculations to the unifying force of people’s aspirations. No matter our caste or creed, we all basically want the same things—healthcare, education, employment, security and justice. In the current climate of cynicism, BJP must emerge as a symbol of hope. We have to remove the insecurities that encourage casteism and inspire the confidence to elect principled representatives. Our job will be to field competent candidates based on efficiency, not just ethnic identity. Regional parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party draw their strength from the feeling of alienation that occurs when we fail to empathize and engage with local aspirations. We have to recognise the distinct social reality of each area. The issues that plague the sugarcane farmers of western Uttar Pradesh are different from those of the 25 million riverbank-population whose lives are annually disrupted by floods. We have to empower local leaders that embody local aspirations.

Although you have been cleared of all charges and found innocent in the court of law, you were once accused of making statements that polarized voters on religious lines. Do you think communal polarization works in electoral politics in India?

I believe in the politics of hope. We have seen in our country those leaders who stand as symbols of hope being elected and re-elected. I am optimistic that this is the path of the future. I had received nine strong verdicts from the Supreme Court to the district court in my favour, proving my innocence. That is enough for me. Unfortunately, in certain parts of the country, there exists an atmosphere prone to communal polarization. We must go to the electorate with a promise of hope and change, rather than trying to exploit the situation for political benefit.

Who do you think can lead the BJP at this time? Who are you closest to?

The best teachers are those who tell you where to look but don’t tell you what to see. I am inspired by different qualities in different people. From my mother, a six-term MP, I have learnt the values of courage, compassion and commitment. I admire the vision of Sardar Patel and the generosity of Nelson Mandela. I find Mahatma Gandhi’s simple yet ingenious common sense approach as relevant today as ever, as are the teachings of Lord Krishna in Bhagavad Gita. If there is a single composite that I aspire to, it would perhaps be that amazing ideal conjured up by Rudyard Kipling in the poem, If.

I have had the honour of knowing Vajpayeeji, Advaniji (L.K. Advani) and Gadkariji very closely, of spending time with them and learning from them. However, Sushmaji is that leader whom I look to as a second mother. She is the only leader who has consistently fought for me when I was at my lowest and been there for me through all of life’s tribulations. I owe anything I have achieved to her. Nobody can ever take her place in my heart.

You will always be compared to your cousin and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. Do you think there are similarities between the two of you? Have you ever considered working with him?

While I understand the inevitability of the comparison, I question its aptness. My cousin is 10 years, a whole decade, older than me. Having had a long innings in the ruling party, he is, by now, a seasoned politician. I, on the other hand, am just setting out on my first major assignment.

We may be in different parties but we remain family.

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