Election campaigning is in full swing in India and amidst all the frenzy, the Pilbhit constituency in Uttar Pradesh, has come under the scanner after one of its young BJP candidates, Varun Gandhi courted controversy over his allegedly communal and inflammatory campaign speeches during election rallies in his constituency on March 6th and 8th, 2009.
Over the next few weeks, video footage of Varun Gandhi's speeches were repeatedly splashed across TV channels. When questioned by the media and the Election Commission. Varun stated that the audio in the footage had been doctored and it was a ploy against him. Unmoved by his denial, the Election Commission sent him a show cause notice for violating the Model Code of Conduct, and later, on 22 March 2009, found him guilty of making ‘hate speeches’.
A spate of criminal cases lodged against him, on 29th March, Varun Gandhi surrendered before a local court in Pilbhit. He was arrested and jailed. The State Government has now booked him under the National Security Act (NSA) on “charges of inciting communal passion by making provocative and inflammatory speeches during [election campaign] meetings”.
As of today, Varun Gandhi continues to be in the eye of the storm as various political parties and their leaders try to gain maximum mileage out of the incident. The Rashtriya Janata Dal supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav has gone as far as to court controversy himself after making a speech berating Varun. The BJP on the other hand, has renewed it's stance of backing it's protege Varun Gandhi with both political and legal aid.
The blogosphere too has been abuzz with opinions on the Varun Gandhi controversy.
Youth ki Awaaz writes:
If young leaders like Varun give such defamatory remarks, what can we expect from the others? The fact that India is a country with communal diversity makes it mandatory for each and every citizen to have a feeling of brotherhood.
Blogger ak too is apprehensive about young candidates like Varun Gandhi, who could also be tomorrow's leaders spewing such rhetoric. He says:
To hear someone so young like Varun Gandhi give out that hate speech against the muslims in such mean tones was just shameful. Are these the young leaders that is going to takle(sic) India forward??
Another blogger Vijay Vikram discusses what he feels was the motivation behind Varun's rhetoric.
It is a sad fact of Indian – for that matter all democratic polity – that aspiring statesmen have to appeal to the lowest common denominator for electoral gains. That is precisely what Varun Gandhi was doing. Varun Gandhi's remarks were borne out of political necessity, nothing else.
On the other hand, some bloggers have come out in support of Varun Gandhi, seeing him as a scapegoat in the drama of India's minority-vote politics. Sreekrishnan Venkatesan writes:
i did not find anything wrong in Varun Gandhi's speech. He warned any other religious fanatics killing Hindus, which to me looked very much normal. In fact this isn't as bad like congress which goes all out to playing the communal card, with non hindu religions. Hypocrisy in all its strength. Supporting a minority religious community is “Secular” while supporting Hindus is “communal”.
In this entire controversy, the role of the MSM has also come under scrutiny. Shahid Siddiqui of Media-Mania wonders why the TV channels devoted as much as over 22.57 hrs of prime time playing back the video footage. He asks:
If the media really believed that Varun Gandhi’s speech would cause unrest among a section of the people, did the repeat telecasts of the speech make any sense?…All the TV channels have overplayed the issue. It was not even authenticated if the CD was original. As per the ethics of journalism, it should not have been played as it has been done, especially during the elections….The role of media is certainly open to question. While reporting that it was a “hate speech” “blatantly communal” etc, did the media behave responsibly by telecasting the tape umpteen times a day for the last few days?
Bloggers are also discussing whether Varun Gandhi should have been booked under the NSA. Many of them seem to echo the words of the Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, who stated that “The hate speech of BJP's Lok Sabha candidate Varun Gandhi did not threaten national security and a law other than the National Security Act could have been invoked to deal with it”. In this context,Vinay writes:
… punishing him under NSA is unwarranted. Even though his speech had the potential to disturb public order, the warning by election Commission and subsequent FIRs under Representation of People Act were sufficient.
The CD containing his speech came into light some 15 days later after he gave it. It means his speech did not lead to any violence immediately, which is actually case in most of the instances.
Listening to his speech one can say that it was more of rhetoric in spite of being venomous.
Nonetheless he deserves punishment, but not under NSA.
He has been arrested under the preventive detention clause of NSA, which is clearly doctored to prevent him from contesting elections.
Varun's lawyers have challenged his detention in the Supreme Court. The case will come up for hearing on April 13th.
This post is part of the Global Voices special coverage on Indian Elections 2009