The making of Pramod Mahajan and BJP’s credibility crisis

HE HAS been called Mr Possible of Indian politics, Lakshman of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and even the Rainmaker — a person with the near-magical ability to turn an adverse situation around and triumph.

By Praful Bidwai

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Published: Sat 29 Apr 2006, 9:49 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:25 PM

Pramod Mahajan is indisputably the ablest of the BJP’s second-generation leaders and the likeliest candidate for the party’s top job in the future. It’s a grim irony that his life and career should be jeopardised for family-related reasons.

Yet the Mahajan tragedy contains a concentrated expression of many trends in society and politics, including the upward trajectory of India’s political families, the upper-class culture of pelf and patronage, the relationship between the musty, dark, severe world of the RSS headquarters in Nagpur’s Reshimbagh, and the glitzy, chrome-and-glass, all-digital world of globalising corporations. Above all, it highlights the BJP’s changing nature.

Pravin has confessed that he wanted to kill Pramod because he didn’t treat him like other associates in his largesse-distribution network. Pravin Mahajan postulates his ‘right’ to become a millionaire through lucrative contracts: what’s the point of being in power if you can’t dole out favours to your family? Pramod’s ‘failure’ to do so justified his murder, according to Pravin’s argument.

But Pramod Mahajan did indulge his family. He organised large loans and a Rs 65,000 pm job for Pravin, just as he had earlier organised a Doordarshan contract for his own son. But Pravin’s greed was unsatisfied. He told the police that Pramod is "a Rs 2,000-crore-man, yet treated him like a dog". It’s hard to limit your greed when it’s part of your past —your rise from an impoverished family in one of Maharashtra’s poorest districts, to dazzling opulence.

It would be unfair to accuse the Mahajans of special criminality just because of one near-fratricidal attack. They were perfectly ‘normal’, upper-caste Bhadralok. Yet, the violence speaks unflatteringly of the moral fibre of the rising, arriviste, avaricious, layers of India’s middle class.

Mahajan’s career is a story of many crossings within an upward-moving spiral: from the RSS to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and the Jana Sangh, from pracharak-style activism to a sub-editor’s desk at RSS organ Tarun Bharat to the BJP’s top office-bearers’ team via liaison with Big Business. Mahajan’s speciality lay in spanning and connecting different worlds: the sangh parivar, and huge corporations.

Mahajan’s national break came in 1983 when he made his mark as a remarkably successful "media manager". One key to his meteoric rise lay in his organisation of L K Advani’s super-controversial rath yatra in 1990, which left a trail of blood. Another was his ability to move seamlessly from the role of an apparatchik to someone who’s happy rubbing shoulders with tycoons in 5-star hotels. By 1996, Mahajan had endeared himself so much to Atal Behari Vajpayee that he was appointed Defence Minister, albeit for just 13 days.

This 5-star stamp cost Mahajan some RSS goodwill. As Communications Minister, he handed out sweetheart deals by illegally relaxing the terms of licences for basic telephony. He also developed an uncanny knack for getting into controversies —and yet evading opprobrium, as in the case involving journalist Shivani Bhatnagar’s murder. His Teflon face and easy manner disarmed many critics, barring his own colleagues Uma Bharati, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley.

Mahajan has been a brilliant organiser and fixer, who could skillfully negotiate alliances. He also had an acute sense of timing. He demonstrated both in the Maharashtra Assembly elections in 1995 by developing a close rapport with Bal Thackeray. When Thackeray found himself in a soup in 2000, thanks to his former acolyte Chhagan Bhujbal’s decision to arrest him, Mahajan rescued him.

Mahajan’s greatest triumph came in the 2003 Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. He pulled off unlikely victories through clever candidate selection and micro-management. Mahajan seemed set to repeat that success in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections with his trademark India Shining campaign. But that was not to be. Ground realities had shifted after Gujarat, the BJP’s growing communalism, and a popular backlash against its economic policies.

Mahajan projected the image of a suave, modern leader, who could variously summon up candour or discretion, and had a quick grasp of political gains and risks in a given situation. He was a media personality par excellence, rivalled only, if that, by Vajpayee, but always more articulate than him.

Despite his corporate-friendliness, Mahajan remained deeply communal. His bearings were always determined by Hindutva. This was his central strategic perspective and political line. The rest was all tactics. One only has to listen to his anti-Muslim rhetoric, his nuclear rantings, and his defence of Gujarat pogrom, to recall this.

Lately, Mahajan had distanced himself from hardline Hindutva though. He sensed the twin yatras would flop. The people have no appetite for that kind of sectarian nationalism. But he never gave up his opposition to a multi-religious, multi-cultural Indian identity. The contradiction between ideological dogma and pragmatic politics was never worked out. Nor was the tension between neoliberal economics and winning mass support.

Mahajan personifies a major BJP phenomenon: the shift in its principal functionary from the austere lower-middle class pracharak to the slick operator who lives life in the fast lane, and rolls in luxury. Many others have pursued this trajectory including veterans like K L Sharma and Vajpayee himself. There is a larger point here. For long years, only two Indian political currents showed an abiding commitment to their beliefs, whatever their content: the Left, and the RSS-BJP. Both practised ideology-driven politics and spartan lifestyles. Many people respected them for their sincerity.

The Left has stuck to this course and shunned realpolitik in favour of its beliefs. The BJP and RSS have moved away from it. BJP has cultivated opportunistic alliances and abandoned many of its core-beliefs. Once a trader-dominated party, based in small cities, it now courts big business and relies on manipulation and money power. This shift can only further aggravate the BJP’s disorientation and crisis of credibility. No amount of gimmicks is likely to rescue the BJP.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at

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