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Mahajan: He died as he lived

Though we never were friends, I knew Pramod Mahajan reasonably well and liked him, reminiscences Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: May 07, 2006 17:08 IST

Some people — politicians, especially — die as they lived. Remember Sanjay Gandhi? When his Pitts aircraft crashed into a residential area in New Delhi in 1980, my first thought was how the manner of his passing so closely approximated the way he lived: it was reckless; probably against the law and certainly against all the rules; and it needlessly endangered the lives of innocent people.

So it was with Pramod Mahajan. Given his natural flamboyance and his penchant for attracting controversy, I could never have imagined him dying peacefully of old age, while asleep in his bed, long after his political career had ended.

In the event, Pramod too went as he had lived: with the whole country watching, with saturation TV coverage, in circumstances that are both sensational and shocking. And he did not die at the hands of an enemy but from three bullets fired by his own brother — an appropriate enough metaphor for a man whose greatest enemies were never in the Opposition but always within his own party.

I first met Pramod over a decade ago and though we never were friends, I knew him reasonably well and liked him. The obituary writers — in nearly every paper — have told us that he was arrogant. They have said that he had a corporate mindset. And they have remembered him as the BJP’s master strategist.

He may well have been all those things, but I never saw that side of him. Far from being arrogant, he was the one politician who always took everybody’s phone calls. Even when he was at his political peak, he had time for every junior reporter. A couple of months ago, he came to a studio in NOIDA to shoot for my NDTV programme. One of the other guests was detained and so we started late. Pramod sat uncomplainingly in the communal make-up room, laughing and joking with everyone. And on the show, when I asked Soha Ali Khan if she would vote for Pramod, he reacted good-naturedly to her look of absolute horror. “It is all right,” he said. “I will vote for her even if she never votes for me.”

He was not an arrogant man; nor did he take himself too seriously.

As for the corporate mindset, that too is a misjudgment. His attitude was the antithesis of the corporate ethos. Far from looking for efficiency and performance in his inner circle, he preferred to be the all-forgiving patriarch of an extended political family. His home was filled with associates and protégés. Each day, they all ate lunch together. And if he minded that they misused his name, he never showed it. Had he been more corporate-oriented, he would never have allowed the pimps, fixers and tentwallahs who crowded around him to get so rich by trading on his clout.

Nobody who knew Pramod will dispute that he was shrewd and savvy. But a master strategist? I’m not so sure. He completely misread the mood of the nation in 2004 and screwed up the BJP’s election campaign. He let Maharashtra slip away from the BJP-Shiv Sena’s grasp and failed to strike the deal with Sharad Pawar that seemed easily within the party’s reach. And he spent much of the last decade coping with personal reverses: he was thrown out of the Advani household; he lost his own Lok Sabha seat; his time in the PMO was a fiasco; he was sacked as Communications Minister etc.

Nor do I agree with the consensus that he was the ultimate party-man. In fact, I always saw him as a maverick, as an individual performer, not as a team player. And that, I suspect, was his own view of himself. On that same NDTV programme, he made the famous parallel with Sachin Tendulkar that has been quoted again and again by nearly every paper since his death.

Did he see himself as a team leader, I asked. On the contrary, he said, he preferred to be like Sachin, known not for the team’s performance, but celebrated and admired for his own achievements. 

So what then was Pramod’s contribution to the BJP? ‘Visionary’ is a much misused word so I hesitate to apply it to Pramod Mahajan, but I think it comes closest to summing up what he did for the BJP.

After so many years of BJP rule, we tend to forget what the party was like when it was founded in 1980. At that stage, it was an RSS-backed operation, appealing mainly to Hindu communalists, petty traders, small shopkeepers and dispossessed maharanis. Not only did it seem medieval in its outlook, it was essentially a collection of small-timers who were regarded as untouchable even by the non-Congress parties. In 1984, when it won only two seats in Parliament and AB Vajpayee was defeated from Gwalior, it looked as if the party’s very survival was at stake.

When he remembered those days, Pramod used to say, “We had difficulty raising money in lakhs. All we got were a few thousands.” Then, he would pause. “But after I got active, we started collecting in crores.”

It was not an idle boast. It is easy to sneer at fund-collectors but no political party can survive without them. Pramod was the first BJP leader who asked his party why it could not go out and raise money the way the Congress did. He forged close contacts with a variety of businessmen and, largely through his powers of persuasion (in those days, there was no prospect of the BJP ever coming to power), got them to cough up the crores the party needed to reinvent itself.

Take the first rath yatra. LK Advani may have thought of using Ram to win votes but the rath yatra itself was Pramod’s baby. He organised the trip, raised the money and even constructed the rath — a modified Toyota van.

Pramod’s greatest skill lay in his ability to persuade the BJP that things it had once considered impossible (or too difficult or too expensive) were entirely possible. For instance, the BJP had no political presence in Maharashtra in the 1980s. It was Pramod who convinced the leadership to tie up with the Shiv Sena; who managed the difficult relationship with Bal Thackeray; and who gave the BJP its first taste of power in the state.

No matter how great the challenge seemed, he was always willing to find ways of tackling it. He did not always succeed — during Vajapyee’s 13-day government, Mahajan genuinely believed that he could gather enough support to win the confidence vote.

This, of course, was truly impossible but Pramod never stopped trying.

In the process, he transformed the BJP from a party of small-timers and losers into a party that dared to dream; a party that thought big; and a party that finally made itself believe that it could actually win power.

But his never-say-die sprit sometimes led his over-enthusiasm to cloud his judgment. For instance, he got carried away by the idea of a high-tech American-style campaign in 2004 and made every mistake possible: from inflicting nuisance phone calls from Vajpayee on unsuspecting voters to arranging a post-election convention at a seven-star hotel.

It was this over-enthusiasm and lack of judgment that sometimes caused me to question whether he would ever lead the BJP. Certainly, he had a lot going for him. He was Vajpayee’s designated successor. He was senior to most of the Young Jerks — the BJP’s second generation — and unlike the rest of them who are media creations, he had a solid political base and an oratorial style that worked brilliantly in both urban and rural India.

But his lack of moderation ensured that he always went a little too far, always messed up just when things were going well. Whether it was a juvenile remark about Monica Lewinsky in the context of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins, or his blatant support of Reliance Infocomm (he even got his murderer-brother Praveen a job with them) when he was Communications Minister (which is why Vajpayee sacked him) or the whole

Shivani Bhatnagar thing, you always had a sense with Pramod that far from being the great survivor that the media are now calling him, he was a tightrope walker who would slip and fall just before he reached the other side.

And that, in a sense, is pretty much what happened when his career came to a sad and premature end last week. In death, as in life, Pramod Mahajan was the man who nearly made it — until something spectacular and unexpected went tragically wrong.