A fighter and a leader

Print edition : May 19, 2006

Pramod Mahajan, 1949-2006. - GURINDER OSAN/AP

Pramod Mahajan's death is bound to limit the BJP's manoeuvres in realpolitik in a big way and for a considerable period.

"NO war is lost till the last warship is sunk." Hours before Pramod Mahajan succumbed to death, a close associate remembered that this phrase was often recited by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader to inspire himself and those working with him.

Apparently, it was with these words that Mahajan responded to a concerned BJP activist on the morning of May 13, 2004, as it became clear that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was hurtling towards a shock defeat in the Lok Sabha elections. In terms of his personal political career Mahajan did indeed live up to this inspirational bon mot. Despite the failure of several of his initiatives, he continued to sustain his position, and from time to time even increase his clout, in the BJP hierarchy. The associate likened Pramod Mahajan's 12-day-long battle with death as yet another illustration of the grittiness of the man.

This " indomitable fighting spirit", as his associate chose to describe it, will be long remembered by a large number of his supporters and friends in the BJP, in the larger Sangh Parivar, and even by his political adversaries. There were umpteen situations in the past decade when political observers and activists ruled out Mahajan's escape from a political tangle and started a kind of countdown to his demise. Each time, however, the BJP general secretary surprised his critics by extricating himself from the mess, and at times emerging stronger.

The 2004 Lok Sabha election defeat of the BJP-led NDA was undoubtedly the biggest setback in Mahajan's political career. He was not only the brain behind the incongruous "India Shining" campaign but also the prime mover of the proposal to call elections before the end of the Vajpayee government's term. Mahajan was held guilty on both counts by almost the entire NDA and the Sangh Parivar. He received trenchant criticism for the conduct of the campaign, which relied on hi-tech gizmos and electronic media rather than on traditional methods such as door-to-door canvassing and direct contact with the electorate.

When he shouldered the shackles of responsibility political commentators unanimously predicted political exile for him. Hardly four months down the line, as the new Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre faced its first major electoral test in the form of the Assembly elections to Maharashtra, Mahajan rose, as if from the ashes, to lead the BJP-Shiv Sena combine's campaign in the State. The " fighter" came up with a great exhibition of his political and organisational adaptability.

The laptop and the cell phone, two ubiquitous pieces of equipment in Mahajan's campaign armoury were of course there, but the BJP leader had started spending more and more time in the dusty villages, sipping tea and sharing simple meals with BJP-Shiv Sena activists. When this correspondent caught up with him during the campaign Mahajan stressed that he was as comfortable sitting on a charpoy (webbed cot) in the middle of a village as in an air-conditioned "electoral war room".

Despite his best efforts, Mahajan could not produce a win in the Maharashtra Assembly polls. Once again his critics, many of his associates in the BJP and the rest of the NDA started drafting his political obituary. Peers such as Arun Jaitley gained dominance in the party. Jaitley brought victory to the NDA in Jharkand and Bihar, with some help from the follies of the Congress and other UPA constituents. Doomsday predictions about Mahajan's future got even shriller.

Just over a year later Mahajan was managing the BJP's silver jubilee in Mumbai. At the end of the conference none other than former Prime Minister Vajpayee declared Mahajan more than equal to his peers in the `Generation Next' of the BJP. Vajpayee said that he and former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani had been called the BJP's Ram and Lakshman. With his retirement from active politics he said a new Ram-Lakshman duo would take over - Advani and Mahajan. True to form, the "fighter" fought his way centre-stage.

How was it that Mahajan overcame so many reverses? What were the characteristics that made him so indispensable to the BJP? The reasons are multifarious. To start with, Mahajan was the epitome of political and organisational adaptability. Over the past two decades he held an influential position in the headquarters of the BJP. Throughout this period the "Big Two" (Vajpayee and Advani) held sway over all affairs of the party. When there were differences between the two, or between the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of the Sangh Parivar, Mahajan was deft enough to take sides with one or the other without creating much rancour. It was as though what he did was the most natural thing to do in a given context.

Mahajan's adaptability was reflected in his amalgamation of conservative Hindutva ideology and pragmatic politics.

Pramod Mahajan with (from left) Jaswant Singh, Advani, Vajpayee, Murli Manohar Joshi, Venkaiah Naidu and Rajnath Singh at an election committee meeting of the BJP in New Delhi in September 2005.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

In the early 1990s the Sangh Parivar as a whole realised that it could not capture power at the Centre on the strength of Hindutva-oriented political actions alone and that it needed to adjust and compromise with various other interests and forces including smaller secular parties and corporate entities. Of all his peers, Mahajan was the best suited for the job of concocting this mixture and keeping it potent. This, undoubtedly, was one of the reasons that bolstered his indispensability. By any yardstick, an important factor that helped Mahajan undertake this task was his supreme understanding of the Hindutva organisational machinery.

Unlike many other `Generation Next' BJP leaders, who descended to leadership from the top and even from other ideologically disparate parties, Mahajan was a product of the Hindutva organisational machinery itself.He started as an RSS pracharak and later performed roles such as a journalist in Tarun Bharat, an RSS publication, and an Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and later Bharatiya Yuva Morcha activist.

The Brahmin boy from Ambejogai village of Maharashtra had indeed struggled up the Sangh Parivar hierarchy. The lessons of this experience, coupled with his fierce personal ambitions, were what motivated and, in many ways, helped him walk the tightrope between Hindutva ideology and realpolitik.

As can be expected, Mahajan did not always walk a smooth road. In the latter stages of his political career, large sections of the Sangh Parivar, including many in the RSS top brass, perceived that the once-committed pracharak had completely fallen to corporatised politics and power-mongering. But Mahajan knew his strengths and indispensability so well that he is once reported to have asked those who criticised him in a Sangh Parivar meeting whether they expected him to accept party funds received from industrialists after washing it with Gangajal.

It was with the same cocksure attitude that Mahajan toughed out corruption charges during his ministerial stints in the NDA governments, including those relating to the preferential treatment and pecuniary benefits given to a private communication company and the allegations about his involvement in a sex scandal and the murder of a well-known television journalist.

Mahajan's political career can be broadly classified into four stages, which signify not only chronological categorisation but also qualitative differentiation. The first period dates from the late 1960s to 1977, the year in which the Janata Party government, the first non-Congress government at the Centre, was formed. It was during this phase that Mahajan's political and organisational skills and his fiery oratory were first noticed. His capacity for political struggle also came to the fore during this period. He was imprisoned between 1975 and 1977, during the Emergency.

The second phase saw Mahajan with increased responsibilities in Sangh Parivar organisations, culminating with his first nomination to the Rajya Sabha in 1986, at the age of 37. With his oratorical and parliamentary skills, Mahajan joined the young "attention grabbers" at the time of the young Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

In the third phase, between 1986 and 1996 Mahajan played a part in the various political games the BJP played while in Opposition - from aggressive Hindutva politics to adjustment with smaller secular parties, and from Swadeshi economic policy to compromise with corporate interests.

The last phase started with the BJP's first ascent to power at the Centre in 1996 and ended, of course, with his tragic death. It was during this phase that Mahajan rose to major positions of power, wielded great influence over the nation's polity and was at the same time branded a representative of degenerate politics and unethical practices.

Mahajan's political practice as a whole, and particularly his last phase, evoked strong feelings of loyalty and animosity, depending on how one perceived him. Whatever one's subjective feelings, it cannot be objectively denied that Mahajan carried an amalgam of the showmanship of Vajpayee and the strategising skills of Advani. He chiselled these attributes from his seniors and combined them with the organisational skills that gave him a powerfully individual stamp.

There was little doubt that, if he had lived, Mahajan would have been a Prime Ministerial candidate. Undoubtedly the BJP in Opposition will grossly miss Mahajan and his multifaceted abilities to raise funds, organise conferences, build bridges with ideological adversaries and develop campaigns against the government. In short, Mahajan's death has left a huge, and perhaps perennially unbridgeable, gap in the BJP's realpolitik manoeuvres.

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