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Man for all seasons

While Mahajan?s corporate style of politics may have angered the RSS old guard in particular, his persona is critical in understanding the evolution of the BJP from being a marginal party into a potent national force.

india Updated: Apr 28, 2006 21:41 IST

In the corridors of power, politicians and journalists share a peculiarly incestuous relationship based on mutual need. It’s a strategic alliance. The politician ‘feeds’ the journalist with privileged information, the journalist depends on the neta for access. In recent times, the lines have got blurred: much of the information disseminated is propaganda, while the access obtained by the journalist has spurred partisan reportage in the mistaken belief that proximity to power is an end in itself. For most politicians, journalists are a pestilence that has to be endured (please note how in any official function, journalists are kept at the very edge of the high table). For most scribes, the neta is a singularly disagreeable character, someone who has to be ‘exposed’, but at the same time someone who has to be humoured as a valuable source of stories. In the circumstances, ‘friendship’ as normal people would understand the word is not possible in the utilitarian power matrix.

Which is perhaps why with some hesitation I choose to describe Pramod Mahajan as a ‘friend’. We have not been dinner companions, we have not shared the secrets of  life and we will probably never discuss our personal lives with each other. I am not a BJP worker who is performing a yagna, nor am I in the long queue of VIPs who have descended on the hospital. And yet while ‘Pramodji’, as he is better known, battles for his life in a Mumbai hospital, I must confess to getting rather emotional. The act of   brother gunning down brother may be a mix of a Bollywood potboiler and a Shakespearean tragedy, which in the age of 24 hours news television has transformed family trauma into a national media event, but for me somehow, it’s not just another news story. It’s the fear of losing someone whom one has felt a strange bond with.

Maybe, it’s because in a funny way Pramod Mahajan and I have run parallel careers. In October 1988, as I took my first tentative steps into journalism through the forbidding walls of The Times of  India in Mumbai, Pramod Mahajan was taking his first big step in politics, the cementing of an alliance between the Shiv Sena and the BJP in Maharashtra. It was one of the first press conferences I covered, and the mood within the assembled journalists was of distinct scepticism. In the shadow of Rajiv’s Congress and VP Singh’s messianic zeal, few gave any credence to the idea of an undivided Hindu vote bank in ‘progressive’ and ‘secular’  Maharashtra. Thackeray was the lumpen rabble-rouser with a base that did not cross Mumbai’s metropolitan limits, while Mahajan was the upstart young leader, a Brahmin in a Maratha-dominated state who had never won an election. While both sides may have espoused the cause of ‘Hindutva’, the strained relations between the RSS workers and the Shiv Sainiks were apparent, and even led to a section of the BJP’s Maharashtra unit drifting apart. But somehow, Mahajan was convinced that the future of the BJP lay in ending its sense of ideological purity. In the context of the coalition politics of  the Nineties, it was a remarkably prescient political move.

Mahajan’s next big jump in politics also coincided with the first really big national story that one got to cover. The year 1990 was an incredible year in Indian politics, when the political template shifted decisively away from the Congress. It was the year of ‘Mandal’ and ‘mandir’. As a young reporter assigned to cover the first leg of LK Advani’s rath yatra, Pramod Mahajan became an intrinsic part of the job. If Advani was the figurehead, Mahajan was the charioteer. Every little detail of the yatra was micro-managed by the BJP general secretary, from the Toyota rath to the venues to the neatly packed press folders. The yatra was not just another contentious political event, it was ultimately a public ‘spectacle’ and provided the first glimpse of Mahajan as impresario, a role which he would soon make his calling card.

In 1994, I moved to Delhi at around the same time that Mahajan decided to also focus on national politics, leaving the Maharashtra BJP in the hands of his brother-in-law, Gopinath Munde. By now, he was the rising star of the party, the president of its Yuva Morcha, a leader with unquestioned organisational skills, oodles of energy, first rate oratory and the ability to network across the political and corporate worlds; someone who could have breakfast with the Prime Minister in Delhi, lunch with Jayalalithaa in Chennai and dine with the Ambanis in Mumbai. Recognition of these qualities saw him become the country’s youngest defence minister in Vajpayee’s ill-fated 13-day government, and then, in the 1998 to 2004 NDA government, the third most important man in the government (after the BJP’s big two) as the Prime Minister’s Lakshman, his man for all seasons. During this period, he remained a primary source of  information, someone always ready to provide that little bit of breaking news which in the maddening world of television was critical to stay ahead of the competition (the fact that we were both Maharashtrians in the Hindi heartland was no doubt an added advantage).

Ironically, when I chose to leave the great comfort of NDTV in April last year, Mahajan too had (in his case, involuntarily) moved out of  his power zone. As the party’s election strategist and architect of the ‘India Shining’ campaign, he was blamed for the 2004 defeat. Even allowing for the fact that the final verdict was at one level a psephological accident, there is little doubt that Mahajan got carried away with his own myth-making. Style was confused with substance, key allies were alienated, links with big business spurred controversy and a certain arrogance of power crept in. Mahajan with a Nike shirt and Ray Ban glasses exercising on a treadmill became symbolic of a five-star party seemingly out of  touch with real India. In an interview I did with him six months after the defeat, Mahajan candidly admitted that he had made mistakes and needed to connect with the ‘charpoy’ once again.

And yet, while Mahajan’s corporate style of politics may have angered the RSS old guard in particular, his persona is critical in understanding the evolution of the BJP from being a marginal party into a potent national force. The pre-rath yatra BJP may have claimed to be a party of higher ethical standards, but was it really a party able to understand the logic of power in the 21st century? The flip side of Mahajan’s flamboyance and seeming brashness is a dynamism, a never-say-die spirit and a willingness to embrace the new world. These are qualities alien to a Brahmin-bania party of small-time traders and pre-Partition minds mired in medieval antagonisms. Sure, Mahajan is umbilically tied to the RSS, but it’s not a bond that has bred inflexibility in his political relationships and personal equations that have been marked with a certain openness and candour.

To that extent, despite his flaws, Mahajan offers the hopes of a new BJP, a party which can offer a genuine alternative to the Congress. It’s a value that the BJP in particular recognises only too well, which partly explains the chorus of sympathy for the leader from workers across the country. It’s a value that as a political journalist, I have learnt to appreciate.

As a ‘friend’ though it’s the man’s remarkable journey that I must confess has left an enduring stamp. The road from a small village in Beed to becoming a key decision-maker in the country is a long one, and could scarcely have been easy. As he once laughed, “Whether I become prime minister one day, I am probably the most famous person that Ambejogai has produced!”

The writer is Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN, sardesai.rajdeep@gmail.com