Varun Gandhi charged over 'anti-Muslim hate speech' in campaign fracas

Delhi, India - The estranged nephew of Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of the Congress party in India, is due in court today, two days after being arrested for anti-Muslim campaign speeches that have catapulted him to the centre of the looming elections.

Varun Gandhi, 29, is expected to apply for bail at the hearing in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where he is running as candidate for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in next month's parliamentary elections.

Police said yesterday that Mr Gandhi had been charged with rioting and public order offences. His lawyers said it was unclear whether the court would grant him bail given the gravity of the charges, which could get him disqualified from the election and jailed. Analysts said that, either way, the ruling would enhance his sudden emergence as the new darling of India's Hindu right wing - just as the BJP appears to be falling behind Congress in opinion polls.

The controversy has set up Mr Gandhi as a counterweight to Rahul Gandhi, Sonia's 38-year-old son and heir, who is the new face of Congress, and embarrassed her by rekindling a feud in the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty. Varun Gandhi is also causing problems for the BJP by upstaging its own leaders and stirring up its extremist fringes as it reaches out to the centre ground by focusing on the economy, governance and security.

Mr Gandhi had lived in obscurity until two weeks ago, when Indian TV stations aired footage of speeches in which he appeared to make anti-Muslim remarks, including comparing a Muslim rival to Osama bin Laden.His mother, Maneka, stoked the controversy by accusing a Muslim police officer of opening fire on her son's supporters on Saturday.

Maneka, the incumbent MP in Pilibhit, was married to Sanjay Gandhi, the eldest son of Indira Gandhi. She fell out with Indira after Sanjay died in 1980 and joined the Opposition after being thrown out of the family home two years later.