By Swapan Dasgupta
For the fledgling Bharatiya Janata Party, the last day of 1984 was hardly an occasion for celebration. As the results of the general election poured in, the anticipated victory for the Congress turned into an avalanche. Rajiv Gandhi not only bettered Jawaharlal Nehru’s 1957 performance but left the BJP decimated and devastated. All the party stalwarts—from Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia to Sikander Bakht—were roundly defeated and the party just about saved face by notching up two fluke victories in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. On hearing the results, K.R. Malkani, then editor of Organiser, rang L.K. Advani with a terse message: “It’s time to shut shop.”
For the BJP, dissolution was not a realistic alternative. To the committed, the BJP was more than a party dedicated to Gandhian socialism and the true legacy of Jaya Prakash Narayan. Behind the ideological gobbledegook that followed the departure from the ramshackle Janata Party in 1980 over the “dual membership” issue, the faithful perceived the BJP as both a mission and a movement. It would need something truly catastrophic—the saffron equivalent of the collapse of the Berlin Wall—for the party to undertake voluntary retirement.
Vajpayee, who was then BJP president, was no great ideologue. In a somewhat despondent interview to India Today immediately after the results, he reposed his faith in the creeping anti-incumbency that would invariably follow the dizzying expectations from the new Gandhi. Yet, by way of a footnote, he added that the BJP needn’t be disheartened. There were capable, young leaders who would assure the future of the party. Vajpayee identified two of them: Arun Jaitley, an up-and-coming Delhi lawyer who had graduated from student politics, and Pramod Mahajan, one of the candidates from Bombay who had impressed everyone with his oratory and organising skills.
Some 21 years later, Vajpayee, now the Bheeshmapitamaha of the BJP, must be chuckling over his ability to almost anticipate the future—he failed to factor in the post-2002 Narendra Modi. Jaitley, apart from evolving into one of India’s most successful lawyers, is regarded by many as the most acceptable face of the Indian Right—upright, modern and devoid of those angularities associated with ideological parties. A natural coalition-builder, he is the patrician face of the BJP. And then there is Mahajan—the man anointed by Vajpayee as Lakshman—now battling for life in a Mumbai hospital.
The son of a humble Brahmin school-teacher in Maharashtra, Mahajan was a man never quite at ease with the languid ways of the parivar. He was always in a hurry. In early-2004, after L.K. Advani abruptly announced his decision to undertake his Bharat Uday Yatra, in pursuance of the India Shining campaign, it was left to Mahajan to do all the bandobast. A vehicle, with all the necessary embellishments, had to be made ready in less than a week. The evening before the souped-up Swaraj Mazda was to be despatched to Kanyakumari, in time for the inauguration, Mahajan arrived at the workshop. He didn’t like what he saw and demanded a complete overhaul. The hapless contractor pleaded for more time. “Nothing doing”, snapped Mahajan, “It must be completed by the morning.” Then, turning to a party functionary, he barked: “They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. I say Rome was built in a day.”
Mahajan exuded the frontier spirit of India’s market capitalism. He epitomised the spirit of Mumbai, the city that moulded him and which he made his karmabhoomi. To him, politics was more akin to a one-day cricket match—lots of entertainment, oodles of improvisation and a broad but flexible strategy. It was the mantra of a brash age, impatient to make up for the wasted years of socialism—and Mahajan was its personification. “There are just too many problems”, he once told a closed-door chintan meeting of the parivar, “whose solutions haven’t been addressed by ideology.”
Mahajan was ruthlessly impatient of long-winded deliberations that went on interminably without yielding an outcome. The niceties of political decision-making weren’t his cup of tea. Put in charge of the BJP’s general election campaign in 2004—an election whose outcome was thought to be a foregone conclusion—Mahajan bypassed all the established party structures. Operating from a row of well-equipped portakabins in the back lawns of his Safdarjung Road residence, he left the campaign to a few of his hand-picked managers. With money available by the bucketful, Pramod’s boys conjured up a fun campaign—lots of stars and starlets, SMS messages and recorded telephone calls with Vajpayee’s voice. As an exercise in event management, it caught the public eye.
Tragically, it lacked one essential component—content. In being preoccupied with the form, Pramod’s boys lost sight of the message. So, for that matter, did Mahajan. He convinced himself that a resurgent India would translate its aspirational lifestyle into a vote for the BJP. He forgot that most Indians don’t like seeing their politicians giving interviews while running on a treadmill. Mahajan wasn’t a hypocrite but as another of BJP’s many “political Hindus”, he didn’t gauge the ingrained importance of double standards in the Hindu way of thinking.
All in all it proved a very costly mistake and seriously undermined Mahajan’s reputation of being a permanent winner. The resulting backlash in the party also eroded a key plank of the Mahajan philosophy—the importance of pragmatism and expediency over ideology. When Advani fell victim to his own indiscretions over Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Mahajan’s claim to be primus inter pares in the second generation was brushed aside.
Yet, the irony is that Mahajan was no political innocent. Journalists on the BJP beat will testify that when it came to objective, dispassionate assessments, Mahajan was unsurpassable. In many ways, he both understood and anticipated the paradigm shift brought about by the market economy. Unfortunately, he failed to convey this political understanding with sufficient gravitas. A natural flippancy—remember the tasteless aside equating Sonia Gandhi with Monica Lewinsky—and some unwholesome associations brought him into needless disrepute. Mahajan was often his own worst enemy.
Mahajan has often been compared to S.K. Patil and Rajni Patel—both formidable fund-raisers for the Congress in a different era. The comparison holds only partially—in terms of an ability to earn the confidence of the nation’s moneybags. But there was a crucial difference. Fund-collectors were almost always backroom operators; they rarely aspired to the very top of the political hierarchy.
Mahajan always believed that in any democratic, inner-party election not involving either Vajpayee or Advani, he would prevail easily. Over the years, he collected an enormous number of IOUs at the grassroots. From ensuring a livelihood to humble party workers to giving a little bit extra to potentially winning candidates in elections, Mahajan created an elaborate network for both himself and the party. He knew how to earn fierce loyalty. On the negative side, he was intolerant of those who identified with others of the second generation. Mahajan had loyal friends but he also created fierce enemies. Uma Bharti is just one who spoke out.
That he was resourceful was well accepted. Outside BJP circles, few were aware of the extent to which he had put his resourcefulness to optimum advantage. If he and the doctors are able to fight off the damage caused by the three bullets, Mahajan’s pre-eminence in a future BJP is almost assured. The media attention and the outpouring of concern witnessed at the Hinduja Hospital have convinced the RSS to brass that maybe they did him a grave injustice. They were in a mood to make amends.
It was too late. For Mahajan it was always now or never.
(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, May 4, 2006)