High family melodrama has always been a big part of Indian cultural life, from its grand literary epics to its teary TV soaps. But over the last month, the country has been riveted by a domestic drama on the national political stage that is unparalleled, even for those brought up on such a diet.

At the center of this dizzy plot about estrangement, thwarted destiny, and over-reaching ambition are the glamorous Gandhis, India’s first political family and perhaps the greatest political dynasty of the modern world. With three prime ministers, two assassinations, and several tragedies in their past, the good-looking Gandhis, in the vast pantheon of gods that govern India’s imagination, count only a rung below the holy trinity.

Varun is the family’s darker gene—made more opaque by thwarted ambition.

Their most recent trials began a few weeks ago, when secret footage of a young man’s campaign speeches erupted on national television, rattling the country with its toxic hostilities. Dressed theatrically in a long black kurta and a riverine red tika, the young man exhorted Hindus to unite and prevent “mini-Pakistans” from mushrooming in their midst, and promised to forcibly sterilize Muslims and chop off the hands of those who harmed Hindus if he was elected.

From anyone else, this rhetoric would probably have been ignored. Every Indian election brings with it a kind of itinerant circus full of immoderate speech. But this was no ordinary speaker, this was Varun Gandhi, fourth-generation bearer of an illustrious legacy. The nation’s collective memory recoiled. The outrage piled up in viral heaps.

varun_menkaThe French writer André Malraux once asked Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru—luminous architect of India as a modern nation—what had been his greatest difficulty since independence. Nehru replied, “Creating a just state by just means.” Then he added, “Perhaps, too, creating a secular state in a religious country.” What was his great-grandson doing, then, 62 years later, messing around in the sectarian dirt yard?

It’s clear now that Varun intended his hate fest only for local consumption. Delivered to an obscure rural constituency in Pilibhit, his speech was designed to polarize voters and win a difficult electoral seat. But yanked into the national spotlight by hidden cameras, it brought him a Faustian opportunity.

As the condemnation swirled around Varun, a raucous surge of counteropinion sprang up in his defense. Why should a Hindu be penalized for speaking up for Hindus in a Hindu country? argued enraged supporters and hard-line religious groups. Sensing the mood, Varun, who had been claiming the tapes were doctored, suddenly put out a cannier line: “I was just speaking up for my people,” he said.

With this, 29-year-old Varun was catapulted from relative anonymity to heady notoriety as the new billboard-size hero of sectarian Hindus—not the usual billing for a Gandhi. When the Election Commission filed charges against him for promoting enmity between communities, Varun went in a triumphal procession, like something out of a Bollywood film, back to Pilibhit to court arrest amid thousands of hysterical supporters. As he was taken into custody, hundreds tried to storm the jail. The police fired; several were badly injured. The myth of Varun Gandhi swelled.

Two weeks later, Varun remains locked up in the district jail, now booked under a draconian National Security Act. And there he is likely to stay for a year, reading the Bhagwad Gita and ruminating about karma and dharma amid mosquitoes and rat bites. If he’s allowed to remain on the ballot, though, he’s sure to win his election.

Varun’s little drama has big national implications. Communal distrust, in India, is lava always simmering beneath the skin. He has given it new expression at a time when everyone—even the BJP, the right-wing Hindu party to which he belongs—had opted to play it down. Report cards on governance were to be the big fight in these elections; Varun has put hate back in the score.

Beneath this public scandal is an intense personal story. Irony is one of the big, ill-starred themes of Varun Gandhi’s life. His family history makes the sectarian crown he wears today unbearably thorny. But he is also being reviled for betraying a family legacy he never really possessed. By a cruel twist of destiny, it is his charmed cousins Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, not Varun, who are considered the crown princes of the great dynasty.

Three generations at the helm of the largest democracy in the world. Forty out of India’s 62 years as an independent nation ruled by his family. As Nehru’s great-grandson, Indira Gandhi’s grandson, and Sanjay Gandhi’s son, Varun could be forgiven for believing in his own manifest destiny. His father was the chosen one, the distillate of his mother’s iron genes, a de facto center of power, and her staunchest ally during the dark years of the Emergency. His uncle, Rajiv Gandhi, headed the reluctant branch of the family.

But Varun was only four months old when his father died in a plane crash, and barely 2 years old and burning with fever when his mother, Maneka, wheeled him out of history after a bitter public spat with her mother-in-law, Mrs. Gandhi.

Briefly, after her husband’s death, Maneka had looked set for a meteoric political ride in the family-controlled Congress Party. But the fractious, abrasive woman with a passion for animals was never a favorite of Mrs. Gandhi’s. After storming out—or, as some versions have it, being thrown out—of the prime minister’s residence, she moved with her infant son to a house with 22 stray dogs and “a perpetual smell of piss,” as one family friend puts it.

It could not have been an easy time for the 27-year old widow. Her father was mysteriously found dead in a field, riddled with bullets; her brother disappeared one day and never returned. Her mother’s bitter property disputes trailed into the next generation. (Family fissures seem to haunt Varun; one of his most strident opponents in Pilibhit today is his mother’s first cousin.)

For all that, everyone who knew Varun as a boy recalls a quiet, bookish child. Old schoolmates remember him as “a nice guy, but a bit maladjusted.” After school, Varun went to England for a few years, returning with a passion for history, a mediocre book of poetry, and degrees from the London School of Economics and London University’s School of Oriental and Asian Studies.

So what transformed this solitary reader into the frothing demagogue of Pilibhit?

The will to power can be a corrosive hunger. Spiked with thwarted destiny, it is a ravenous force. While Varun was living out his unremarkable youth, his cousins Rahul and Priyanka, children of the reluctant Rajiv and the doubly reluctant Sonia Gandhi, were moving to center stage, feted and cajoled into making their political debuts, offered the giant Congress Party on a plate. This stoked Varun’s latent sense of injury, and the determination to reclaim his patrimony.

Poignantly, the cousins have not always been estranged. When Varun first returned to India in 2004, he went straight to his aunt Sonia Gandhi, the undisputed matriarch of the Congress Party, who offered him a Congress ticket. But Varun felt he could not betray his mother. She had had a difficult life; he could not put politics before her. Unable to join the family franchise, yet unwilling to live in an anonymous wilderness, he drifted into the BJP, ideological anathema to the Congress.

And so Varun finds himself at this moment in history: In jail, but finally a crown prince of sorts. His eruption in Pilibhit was not a betrayal of his inheritance; it was the first lap in his run to reclaim it. Varun sees himself as a legatee of his father, Sanjay Gandhi, not his great-grandfather Nehru. He is the family’s darker gene—made more opaque by thwarted ambition. He is the autumnal face of his grandmother, Mrs. Gandhi, as she slid increasingly toward autocracy, and the unconstitutional face of his father, Sanjay Gandhi, who had morphed into a goon because of his deep disregard for propriety. In an intractable country, despotism and the cynical short-term maneuver are big temptations. Like his father, Varun has succumbed to them.

Meanwhile, his cousin Rahul has embarked on a different course. Firmly resisting the clamor within the Congress Party to nominate him for prime minister (it is easy to postpone the inevitable), Rahul, with the calm of a long-distance runner, is touring the country on a less-glamorous mission: revitalizing the party’s youth cadre and preaching tolerance.

Creating a secular state in a religious country was one of Nehru’s biggest riddles. As India laces up for its 15th general election, two of his scions are continuing this argument, deeply symbolic of the country’s own cleft impulses.