The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate acquires a great communicator
The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate acquires a great communicator
New entrants to the court of Mobashar Jawed Akbar are unlikely to accuse the scholar journalist of modesty. But then his achievements aren’t modest either. MJ, as he is popularly known, was in his early twenties when he became the editor of Sunday magazine. Sure of his superiority, he wore it on his sleeve. But hours before the BJP named him national spokesperson this Tuesday, the man with the shining moustache sounded humble—perhaps like the class 11 boy who had dropped in long years ago at a well-known columnist’s office at Junior Statesman in Calcutta to submit a short story for publication and addressed him as ‘sir’. The other man who could have offered some light on that now-recessive trait of MJ died last week—Khushwant Singh, who hired the Presidency College, Calcutta, alumnus as a trainee journalist at The Illustrated Weekly of India.
In the House of Saffron, expectations are high that MJ, who no doubt has friends in high places, will play a pivotal role in hardselling Narendra Modi to the world. But the 63-year-old author of best- selling books such as Nehru: The Making of India and India: The Siege Within, says in a self-effacing tone, “That is very kind of you, but I know I am a small cog in a wheel.” Efforts are on to project Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial aspirant, as a visionary like former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee, and the part ‘this new philosopher’ in the court of the BJP czar will play, party insiders say, is ‘crucial’.
Seated in his spartan Maharani Bagh office, MJ dwells at length on development aimed at uplifting the poor. As a new member of the party where ideas are increasingly preferred over ideology, he comes across as focused, opinionated, sometimes dismissive and yet kind and humorous. Not inclined to tolerate “empty talk”, he wouldn’t hesitate to snap at you for what he feels are perfunctory questions. What particularly irks him are stereotypical questions hurled at him over his switching sides to the BJP from being a fellow traveller of the Congress. He was a spokesperson for the Congress some 24 years ago when his friend, the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was at the party’s helm.
So MJ, one of Indian journalism’s greatest stylists, wants to focus on tangibles, not “boring” stuff.
MJ Akbar, whose grandfather was a Hindu, was born in “a small basti near a jute mill” in West Bengal’s Hooghly district in 1951. Now, when he visits his birthplace, the impoverished and decrepit Telinipara, it hurts him deeply to see that nothing has changed for the poor. It is a forlorn locality where, they say, if a worker smiles once a fortnight he is considered lucky.
Hard-nosed and quick-witted, MJ— who has broken out of the most trying of personal circumstances and set high professional standards—puts the blame for this abject poverty of the “other India”, that of the poorest of poor, on policies pursued by a party he once represented briefly in Parliament. The Congress party of 1989, the year MJ was elected MP, is no longer the same, he notes; it has degenerated. The UPA Government of Manmohan Singh, which was in power for the past 10 years, has dashed the hopes of the poor, he declares. “All aspirations have been kicked down a dark hole. We need a national recovery mission. And somebody has to lead that mission,” he notes, referring to the BJP campaign spearhead. He vows to work towards ensuring that the rewards of development go first to the poor. “I really believe that we are going to see a development decade ahead,” he says.
For MJ, the process of writing is very important. He sees every book as self education. Then it becomes another step in an eternal enquiry, he says. In the process, over the years, the top-notch editor has also learnt to appreciate what he terms ‘visible reality’—and to understand what works and what doesn’t. Well-travelled within and outside India, he has been a regular visitor to Gujarat’s hinterland since the late 1970s. Road connectivity was poor and power supply erratic—infrastructure facilities in the state were as bad as they were in the rest of northern and eastern India. Lately though, MJ has seen some quick changes in the state.
“I hope I have some common sense,” says MJ who has faith in the ‘Gujarat model of development’ championed by Modi, which has kicked up a storm with renowned economists such as Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya lapping it up as a ‘role model’ and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen trashing it. While he doesn’t pass judgment on either Professor Sen or Bhagwati, he is glad that Gujarat is now a “generator-free” state. MJ asks naysayers to question why Gujarat has no market for power generators. “Why? You can [also] take a look at the infrastructure of its cities. You can take a look at the spread of [Gujarat’s] education system. You can take a look at the status of jobs offered to minorities,” says this fan of Amitabh Bachchan, the Bollywood superstar who happens to be a brand ambassador for the state. MJ wants Modi-baiters to take a look at the “figures produced by the Government of India” to dispel their doubts. “Truth cannot become a convenient truth,” says MJ.
WHY HE WAS WRONG ABOUT MODI
For someone who has founded and edited several publications such as The Telegraph, The Asian Age and others, MJ exudes an avuncular aura. And his columns and reports are mind-tinglingly good, yet he knows only too well that attributing finality to journalistic commentaries is a sin that deserves no mercy. Not that he ever condoned sloppy reporting. He was, on the other hand, a terror in the newsroom, a stickler for perfection and a conjurer of the snappiest of headlines. Sankarshan Thakur, one of his protégés at The Telegraph, writes in an article titled “The Tailor of Telinipara”, with much admiration, “Believe me, this man could bleed you from orifices you did not know existed—such was the daily tyranny of distinctions you lived under.”
Like most editors, he too had attacked Modi over the Gujarat riots of 2002. In a profession where reacting to immediate circumstances is the name of the game, it is often easy to err. Such hazards are par for the course, because “while fiction is about contemporary life, journalism is about temporary life”, he says.
Rajiv Gandhi’s former buddy wants to thank the UPA Government for exonerating Modi. “In 10 years they have answered every question raised by me and many others. The whole effort of the past 10 years was not to find the guilty, but to link one man called Narendra Modi to that guilt. That is the only objective for which the police, lawyers, courts and turncoats, bureaucrats—all of them were used,” he says angrily. “If this investigation [of the Gujarat riots] had been done by an NDA Government, you may not have found it credible,” he thunders. “So whatever I wrote [against Modi] was wrong. And time has proved it to be,” MJ explains with a guffaw intended at sweetening his outbursts.
Cartoons may have appeared portraying him talking of Modi doing Jesus-like tricks such as walking on water, but MJ, who has authored books such as The Shade of Swords, Riot After Riot, Blood Brothers, says what struck him deeply about Modi are his rare leadership qualities— he says some of those were on full display at his 27 October Patna rally hit by serial blasts. When bombs were bursting in Patna at that rally, it was a threat to the audience, but there was also a threat to Modi. And at that moment it is not usually the “head” that takes charge of your senses, it is the “heart and the nerve”. Modi could have been emotional at that point. Instead, he was cool, focused and composed. He said something that resonates with MJ: Hindus must decide whether they want to fight Muslims or they want to fight poverty, and Muslims must decide whether they want to fight poverty or fight Hindus. MJ admits that it was the Patna address that blew his mind. He dismisses talk of him being a rank opportunist who veered towards the BJP, favourites to win this year’s polls, explaining that he prefers to “shrug and carry on” because in a democracy like India nobody can stop anyone from saying what they like. “Now, the most important thing is to live with my mirror and be true to myself,” he says raising the timbre of his voice as he speaks, stressing the words ‘mirror’ and ‘true’, and ending in a low growl.
Long ago, when MJ joined the Congress party, there was a similar outcry and he can’t forget the beast his announcement unleashed. How can a promising young editor join a dispensation scarred by the Bofors scandal? So sceptics asked. There was stardom then. Now MJ seeks an opportunity to give back to society.
Unlike the likes of the great writer and rhetorician Christopher Hitchens who shifted his loyalty from the Left to the Right overnight citing the 9/11 New York attacks, our own chronicler of the history and plight of minorities in the Subcontinent describes his transition as a gradual one. Not that he didn’t wish to be as blessed as St Paul on the road to Damascus (who was converted through divine intervention on his way), MJ says with a scholarly flourish. MJ’s journey has often been tough: he has won laurels for his sparkling prose but has also been stung by the actions of certain people whom his former mentor Kushwant Singh referred to as those “with less breeding and more money”.
ABOUT FORGING AHEAD
As a Congress MP from Kishanganj in Bihar between 1989 and 1991, he had seen first-hand how welfare schemes work, and believes such “positive discrimination” is right and necessary. “Do you think the West survives without social- welfare schemes? If they didn’t have it, there would be insurrection on the streets. But what people need are jobs. Welfare schemes operate only as a social net. The primary objective therefore has to be on legitimate ways of creating employment,” states MJ.
Having learnt Public Service 101 at the grassroots, MJ is profoundly excited about Modi’s plan to build 100 new cities. “It means jobs down the line and the priority of the next government should not be just jobs, but jobs for the poorest. The curse of poverty has to end in 10 years and that can be done by making the economy of the country meaningful for those at the bottom. And that is the great challenge,” says he. The man is also attracted by the idea of rebuilding India’s east—his home turf—which has fallen far behind in development as well as on human development indices. “It is in such areas that we need to focus on. Modi has many such great ideas. I am only giving an example of the imaginative thinking on the horizon,” MJ says, adding that the country should look at international relations with a fresh mind.
MJ’s last book was on Pakistan. He is a voracious reader too, and falls back on Mahatma Gandhi and various other leaders of the freedom struggle for intellectual inspiration. At his bedside, he keeps books by Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse; he reads Christie when he is happy and Wodehouse when he is pensive.
In Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan, he concluded that Pakistan is a jelly state—which will not collapse, but will remain unstable. In the face of dynamic geopolitics, he has often warned against India’s stagnant foreign policy. MJ faults the Manmohan Singh Government for miscalculations on dealing with the neighbours, especially Pakistan. His policy was very much a part of a continuum and one of its underpinnings, regrettably, was emotional rather than practical, MJ points out. “I think we drifted along, propelled by a stagnant flow of understanding. We can’t afford it anymore,” says the author who says he has exhausted the sequence of books that dealt with the state of Muslims in the Subcontinent and the world. He adds, “We have to understand the nature of the adversary… tactical battles and strategic battles.”
MJ is well-read, caustic, defiant and outspoken. He is also an ideasmith who loves books but finds James Joyce’s Ulysses unreadable. He is copy fiend who spikes clichés. He also has strong views on India’s foreign-policy front: India’s challenges are numerous, especially because “the war zone of tomorrow” lies between the Brahmaputra and the Nile. “Very much at our doorsteps,” says this music aficionado who enjoys songs in Hindi, Urdu and Bhojpuri when he is not gorging on books on history. A Dev Anand fan, he stopped “worshipping” actresses after he began to see them in real life, confides this father of two—Prayaag and Mukulika—and husband of former journalist Mallika Joseph whom he met at the Illustrated Weekly. “I can only go back to actresses I have never seen in real life. There is Madhubala. I also like Vyjayanthimala,” MJ says, gesturing with folded hands.
For those familiar with the tessellated polish of his style, maybe the best of him is yet to emerge—as a public servant and an apostle of Modi’s development mantra.