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Excerpt: Shades of Saffron; From Vajpayee to Modi by Saba Naqvi

In this excerpt from Saba Naqvi’s very readable new book on the BJP, the author reminisces about Pramod Mahajan, one of Vajpayee’s most trusted ministers, who met an unfortunate end

books Updated: Jun 29, 2018 20:45 IST
Saba Naqvi
Saba Naqvi
Hindustan Times
Pramod Mahajan,BJP,LK Advani
Pramod Mahajan at the inauguration ceremony of the Global Telecom Summit 2001 in New Delhi. (Kaushik Ramswamy/HT Photo)

284pp, Rs 599


Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. And when the Lord said to Cain where is Abel your brother, he said, I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?
– Genesis, Old Testament

The first sin recorded in the Bible is the murder of a brother by a brother. Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, slays Abel in a fit of jealousy. Contemporary crime seems sordid, less grand. Yet the emotions that drove Pravin Mahajan to pump three bullets into his famous elder brother may have been the same deadly mix of blind rage and bitter jealousy.

On 22 April 2006, Pramod Mahajan was shot thrice by his forty-six-year-old younger brother at point blank range, and died thirteen days later. The reasons for this tragedy were never adequately explained, although there was a rumour that Pravin (who died in 2010) was mentally unstable. What happened thereafter to Pramod’s son and personal assistant, was shocking to say the least, but more of that later.

But first the political cost. Pramod Mahajan was literally the lynchpin of the system that had propped up the BJP in the Nineties. He was the go-to man to get things done, be it the Ram rath yatra that he organised for L. K. Advani, or the India Shining campaign that he oversaw from his home at 7, Safdarjung Road. (I recall it being planned and executed from porta cabins that were built on the lawns.)

At the time of his death, Pramod Mahajan was also the most effective fundraiser in the BJP. He came from the financial capital of India, Mumbai, and had links to big and small industry. He was following a tradition of Mumbaikars in politics: in the Sixties, there was S. K. Patel, followed by Rajni Patel during Indira Gandhi’s days, and then Sharad Pawar, initially with the Congress and now NCP, and finally Pramod Mahajan for the BJP. All of them could make elections happen on the ground.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee receives flowers from Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan as he arrive for the opening of the monsoon session at Parliament House in New Delhi on 23 July, 2001. ( Ajay Aggarwal/HT Photo )

Therefore, one of the problems the BJP faced after his death was how to retrieve the funds that were parked with him? There is after all an overall lack of transparency in political funding and even opposing political parties have joined hands to ensure that the Right to Information (RTI) Act does not cover this area. An MP who spoke to me on promise of anonymity, explained what the BJP confronted after Pramod’s death, ‘Trust is key to the art of raising funds in politics. Money is placed with different individuals and businesses and then given during an election or a party function. Many of the biggest funders dealt only with Pramod.’

When this MP first got a ticket to stand for elections, he was asked to raise money from local supporters of the party and other candidates, which he did successfully. The MP then proceeded to tell me that Pramod Mahajan had later given him an envelope as a good luck wish from the party’s side! That is precisely how Pramod built his network, especially as Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani preferred to not deal with money directly.

With India’s economy having opened up in the Nineties, the process of raising funds by political parties also underwent a major change—for instance, there was a time when local traders would make small-to-medium contributions that created a corpus for Jana Sangh and later the BJP, and that is why the labelling of the former as a ‘traders’ party’. In the early 1970s–1980s, one of the men who kept the party financially irrigated was none other than Nanaji Deshmukh, and as mentioned earlier in the book, he could make it happen because of his close association with industrialists. But back then, nearly seventy per cent of the money was still raised by the cadre. Pramod himself told me that once the BJP came to power in the late Nineties, 90 per cent of the money came from big corporates.

However in the post-2004 scenario, with the BJP out of power at the Centre, the states became the financial lifeline of the party, and this also marked the genesis of Narendra Modi’s rise in the party as a man who delivered on promise. With Pramod Mahajan gone, the prosperous state of Gujarat put the money on the table for several election campaigns in other states, particularly Bihar. Although chief ministers like Arjun Munda of Jharkhand, Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh, and Vasundhara Raje of Rajasthan added to the kitty, they could never match Modi’s financial clout as Gujarat was and remains one of India’s most prosperous states.


The saddest part of Pramod Mahajan’s macabre murder was that a man who had supported several loyalists and retainers, had failed to notice the darkness build up in his own brother’s soul.

Pramod Mahajan may have become the financial nerve centre for the BJP, but he had come up the hard way, taking care of his siblings even as he earned to support himself as a student. All of that came to naught on that fateful Saturday morning, when the forty-six-year-old Pravin Mahajan walked into Pramod’s Worli residence in Mumbai and pumped three bullets from a .32 Belgian pistol. All of that is however well documented.

What is less known is that just before dying, he had apparently forgiven his younger brother and told his brother-in-law and fellow BJP traveller, Gopinath Munde, ‘Pravin ko chhodo’ (Let Pravin be). I’d met Munde when he next came to Delhi and he told me what Pramod had apparently said to him. That of course was not to be, as the police took Pravin into custody and thereafter began a tragic sequence of events. (Pravin Mahajan died in jail in 2010.)

Pramod Mahajan was given a state funeral at the iconic Shivaji Park in Mumbai. I recalled how just five months before his death, he had taken to playing emcee at a hightech function at the same venue, the likes of which neither his party colleagues nor reporters like me had ever seen. It was the National Council meeting of the BJP to ratify its new president, Rajnath Singh, and a glitzy public spectacle had unfolded: large plastic lotuses, whose petals opened and closed in perfect synchronisation, were placed at the venue even as firecrackers lit up the night-sky.

Pramod Mahajan had also organised a spectacular show of Marathi theatre’s classic, Janata Raja, complete with horses and elephants. That evening he introduced his daughter Poonam to me and a colleague from The Hindu, and was delighted when we told him how we loved the show. ‘I will bring it to Delhi as soon as I find a way to transport the elephants,’ he had joked.

There was also a minor scandal witnessed at the meeting when some BJP members and journalists found a CD anonymously delivered to them. It was a recording of pracharak Sanjay Joshi having sex with a woman, very much his private matter except that pracharaks are ideally meant to be celibate. It was obvious that scores were still being settled in the BJP; many prominent BJP leaders wanted to get even with Sanjay Joshi who had once been in charge of Gujarat. No one ever knew where the CD came from, but there was a lot of speculation. The BJP and RSS suggested that the Congress had recorded and distributed it. Joshi on his part kept saying it was fake. Like I said earlier, none of us shall never know, but let it be said that the ‘sex scandal’ was the biggest in the Sangh Parivar and overshadowed the BJP meeting.


I remember my first meeting with Pramod Mahajan soon after the BJP came to power in 1998. He looked at my visiting card and commented, ‘Look, you’re a Muslim, and you may be apprehensive. But let me tell you something. After the Mumbai riots (of 1993), I feel this rioting is pointless. Muslims kill five, the Hindus kill 5,000! How is that an equal battle?’

Four years later, at a BJP National Executive after the Gujarat riots, when he saw me go past Narendra Modi, he had said, ‘Saba, you have to survive with everyone.’

I liked Pramod and saw him as an pragmatist who was not obsessed with ideology. That was one reason why he could maintain long-term relationships with journalists even if they were opposed to the ideology of the BJP. In the nine years I knew him, he never once showed any rancour towards me despite my frequent run-ins with the Vajpayee administration.

I recall how on several mornings, I would get a call from his man Friday, Vivek Moitra, ‘Pramodji has given you time from 11.15–11.45 p.m.,’ and despite the short interaction, his briefings were most useful because as long as there was an understanding that his ‘off-the-record’ statements wouldn’t be reported, he was willing to speak and share information.

I remember this one time when Moitra unusually summoned me at 7.45 p.m. The reason: Pramod Mahajan was extremely angry about something and would I come to meet him, asked his secretary. I did, and found him sitting alone and looking livid because of the constant in-fighting among the second rung of leaders within the BJP. He spoke of stories being planted against him, and used some unprintable words against a high-profile colleague. After venting, he shrugged it away a moment later. That was classic Pramod, who mostly insulated himself from petty rivalries by adopting an independent style of functioning.

Even at the height of power, when he was Vajpayee’s most trusted minister, Pramod remained accessible. But as mentioned earlier, he was particular about mutual trust and if one changed one’s mind and wished to quote him on a controversial subject, it was prudent to check. He would often call back at night and, more often than not, agree to be quoted. Just a month before his death, he had called me late in the night while campaigning in Assam and complained about a news snippet in my magazine. When I explained, he readily accepted my premise, cracked a few jokes and then went on to chat about the next round of assembly polls. Unlike some BJP leaders who on being criticised would waste no time in complaining to editors, Pramod reposed his trust in correspondents and didn’t go over their heads.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi with LK Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee at a public meet in Ahmedabad in November 2004. ( PTI )

Again, after L. K. Advani’s infamous Pakistan visit in 2005, he summoned me for a one-on-one, and then produced an article from which he believed Advani’s speechwriter had copied the speeches. He was seething because he genuinely wanted Advani to continue at the helm of party affairs. But being the ultimate pragmatist, he knew it was no longer feasible and went along with consensus.

As Union Communications minister, he wasn’t half as good as he was as minister for Parliamentary Affairs. Again, it was his ability to reach out beyond the ideological brotherhood, which made him popular with MPs across party lines. He had a great rapport with many of the Left MPs and is still rated as one of the better Parliamentary Affairs minister of the past two decades.


Exactly a month after Pramod Mahajan’s death, his secretary of fifteen years, the forty-one-year-old Vivek Moitra died of a drug overdose on 3 June 2006. On the night of 31 May, he along with Pramod Mahajan’s son, Rahul, and a twenty-one-year-old student, was said to have imbibed a cocktail of alcohol and drugs, and was declared dead on arrival at New Delhi’s Apollo hospital. Rahul Mahajan was taken into police custody.

This reckless party had taken place the night before Rahul was to immerse his father’s ashes. Eventually, the remains were sent by a courier service to Guwahati where the Assam unit of the BJP organised a small ceremony on the banks of the Brahmaputra.

The entire sordid episode exploded in the face of the BJP —the India Shining slogan was ridiculed as ‘India Snorting’ and a vicious SMS campaign ensued suggesting BJP’s name be changed to Bharatiya Janata ‘Let’s Party’.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was away on vacation in Manali, and on his return made a generic statement about the incident, ‘Sometimes our youth get misled. They have to be shown the right way.’ At both a personal and professional level, Vajpayee owed it to Pramod Mahajan. Among several other things, when Atal Bihari became prime minister and shifted to Race Course Road, it was Pramod who had hosted his foster grand-daughter’s birthday party.

Meanwhile, various people who were beholden to Pramod began making sinister allegations and the rumour mills began churning one sordid tale after another. Even as it was getting tough to sift chaff from grain, I was told that an influential relative of a senior BJP leader had visited the Mahajan residence on that fateful night of 1 June and had allegedly promised to help settle some financial disputes for the powerful secretary of Pramod Mahajan. It was said that the revelry that had followed at the Mahajan household was in anticipation of the happy times that the person had promised would arrive shortly. There were other sources who subsequently suggested that the home, that would buzz with routine activity during the day, would transform into a dubious den by night. A man who had worked on the India Shining campaign for the BJP told me. ‘There was a cloak of secrecy about the goings-on. Only Vivek seemed to know who was coming or going, and he was very secretive about it. Even Pramodji was very secretive about his dealings. He created several financial nodules which were independent of each other.’

Author Saba Naqvi ( Courtesy Westland )

It was well known that Vivek Moitra, the post-graduate in Law from Bombay University, who had joined Pramod as a young man, was the keeper of his secrets. Just before his death, Vivek had been complaining about how certain people had reneged on promises—after Pramod Mahajan’s death, many refused to return the money that was parked with them. Given that Vivek was the only one who knew details of the complex financial matrix created by Pramod, it was suggested that many stood to gain by his death.

With each passing day, the Pramod–Vivek–Rahul saga sounded more and more like a popular crime novel. In my several meetings with Vivek Moitra, that took place while waiting for Pramod, I remember him as a young man who loved to brag and talk big. For instance, he would talk about the glamorous parties in Mumbai and once told me, ‘When you come to Mumbai, I will show you what a real party is!’ He proceeded to drop names of the best discotheques in town and starlets who he said would happily party with us humble journalists. No one really took him seriously, except when he set up meetings with Pramod Mahajan.

Read more: Book Review | In Good Faith

Lots of stories of murder by heroin or cocaine did the rounds after Moitra’s death. One of them went like this: someone who knew that Vivek occasionally did drugs, played a dirty trick on him and passed on some spurious stuff to him. Since Vivek Moitra knew about the money, he was the real target, while Rahul the unintended victim.

In comparison, the second theory sounded rather staid— Vivek and Rahul felt orphaned and desperate in the wake of Pramod’s death and took refuge in the mood-altering cocktail of alcohol and drugs.

For years after his death, I had Vivek Moitra’s number in my mobile phone. It was a ghoulish reminder of this shocking episode in the history of the BJP.

First Published: Jun 22, 2018 20:45 IST