For the fledgling Bharatiya Janata Party, New Year's Day, 1985 was not the occasion to celebrate. As the general election results poured in, the anticipated victory of 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 BJP 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 Jayaprakash Narayan. Behind the ideological gobbledegook that accompanied the departure from the ramshackle Janata Party in 1980, the faithful perceived the BJP as both a mission and a movement. Voluntary retirement was not a realistic option as long as the 'cause' remained.
Vajpayee, who was then BJP president, was no great ideologue. In a somewhat despondent interview to India Today immediately after the results, he put his faith in the future. There were capable leaders in their thirties who would assure the success of the party in another era. Vajpayee identified two: 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 organizing skills.
The Bhishmapitamah of the BJP came within a whisker of anticipating the future. Jaitley, 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 ideological angularities. A natural coalition-builder, he is the patrician face of the BJP. And then there was Mahajan ' the man anointed by Vajpayee as Lakshman ' who died in Mumbai on Wednesday, killed by his younger brother.
The son of a humble Brahmin school-teacher in Maharashtra, Mahajan was a man never at ease with the languid ways of the parivar. He was a now-or-never man, permanently 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 epitomized 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 didn't lack novelty.
Tragically, one essential component was missing ' 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. That conviction bred arrogance and led to him even shunning Sharad Pawar's desire to team up with the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance. He was on a high, let down his guard and forgot that most Indians don't like seeing their politicians giving interviews while running on a treadmill. As one of the foremost of the BJP's '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 by a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh determined to get back to the basics.
Yet, the irony is that Mahajan was no political innocent. Political journalists 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. He 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 for party workers ' he called it 'cadre building' to extending an extra helping hand 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 he regarded as adversaries ' to be distinguished from political opponents. Mahajan had loyal friends but he also created fierce enemies. Uma Bharti was just one who spoke out.
That he was resourceful was well accepted. But few outside BJP circles were aware of the extent to which he put his resourcefulness to optimum advantage. Had he miraculously survived the bullets, Mahajan's pre-eminence in a future BJP was virtually assured. The media attention and the outpouring of concern witnessed at the Hinduja Hospital had convinced the RSS top 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.