Monday, December 21, 2015

HARTOSH SINGH BAL: Experiments With Truth: MJ Akbar’s inconstant path through journalism and politics

IN DECEMBER 2002, weeks before the announcement of state election results in Gujarat, MJ Akbar, then the editor-in-chief of the news daily the Asian Age, published a column. That July, Gujarat’s legislative assembly had been prematurely dissolved, and its chief minister, Narendra Modi, had resigned, following criticism of his Bharatiya Janata Party government for widespread anti-Muslim violence under its watch earlier in the year.

Akbar’s column, titled ‘Congress is BJP’s B-Team in Gujarat,’ chided the opposition party for a campaign strategy centred on “soft-Hindutva,” a watered-down version of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology. “It is chicanery to claim outside Gujarat that you want to destroy the evil of communalism by defeating Narendra Modi,” he wrote, “and to indulge in a variation of his communalism inside Gujarat.” But he had sharp words for the BJP, too. A major victory for Modi should cause the party to worry, he said. The chief minister is an ideologue, with a difference. The difference is hysteria. It is an edgy hysteria, which can mesmerise; and it easily melts into the kind of megalomania that makes a politician believe that he is serving the larger good through a destructive frenzy against a perceived enemy. In Hitler’s case, the enemy was the Jew; in Modi’s case the enemy is the Muslim. Such a politician is not a fool; in fact, he may have a high degree of intellect. But it is intellect unleavened by reason, and untempered by humanism.

Akbar continued,
If Modi wins big, he will immediately seek to make the whole of the BJP a version of his Gujarat experience. He is already visibly contemptuous of the senior leadership of his own party. … Modi will mount a challenge within his party, and get some support too; he will dream of becoming Prime Minister of India after a national victory fashioned through the Gujarat rhetoric.

With all of this, Akbar warned, “long before Modi gets anywhere near Delhi, he will have destroyed the BJP.”

The party won 127 of the 182 seats in the Gujarat assembly, and Modi returned as chief minister. He retained the office until May 2014, when he stepped down to take up a new post, as the prime minister of India.

In March 2014, during the general election campaign that delivered Modi and his party to national power, MJ Akbar was inducted into the BJP. Draped in a scarf in the party’s colours of saffron and green, he appeared before the media on a Delhi stage to accept a bouquet from the BJP president, Rajnath Singh. Days later, Akbar wrote an article in the Economic Times justifying his evident change of heart about the party and its leader. Of the 2002 violence in Gujarat, he wrote that, under the preceding ten years of national Congress rule, “every relevant instrument of state was assigned the task of finding something, anything that could trace guilt to Modi. They could not. … One suspects that only some politicians have a vested interest in the past during an election when Indians want to vote for their future.” For India, he continued, “There is only one way forward. … You know his name as well as I do.”

THIS WAS NOT AKBAR’S FIRST FORAY into politics. Yet his entry into a Modi-led BJP surprised even those familiar with the many twists in his career—and not just because he was a Muslim joining a Hindutva organisation. Rising from a small town in West Bengal, a young Akbar roared into public consciousness in the latter half of the 1970s as the precociously talented editor of Sunday, a weekly magazine that broke several important stories and pioneered a bold, iconoclastic style of journalism. Through the 1980s, he edited The Telegraph, a landmark newspaper that did away with the ponderousness that marked other Indian papers of this period. Akbar’s example transformed Indian journalism, and, when still in his mid thirties, he was recognised as one of the country’s finest editors.

But, on the eve of the 1989 general election, Akbar quit the profession to contest a Lok Sabha seat in Bihar for the Congress. Though the party was ousted from national rule, he won his seat, and became a Congress spokesperson under Rajiv Gandhi. This proved to be the first of his many political miscalculations. In 1991, after Rajiv was assassinated, the Congress surged back, but Akbar failed in his bid for re-election and found himself on the wrong side of the party’s new leadership. He quit the party at the end of 1992.

Akbar returned to journalism, and founded the Asian Age. Through the 1990s, as the BJP grew in strength and came to head the national government, he became close to one of its main leaders, LK Advani—though his journalism remained critical of the party’s Hindutva politics. But in the 2004 election, even as the BJP’s hold over the country seemed firm, the Congress managed a shock victory. Once again, Akbar was shunted out of the circles of power.

Over the next decade, Akbar was removed from his position at the Asian Age, served a brief tenure with India Today magazine, and launched another newspaper, the Sunday Guardian. In all of this, he never reattained the journalistic stature he earlier enjoyed. Meanwhile, he continued to exert himself politically. By 2014, this brought him close to Modi, and he quit journalism once again for formal politics.

Upon joining the BJP, Akbar was appointed a party spokesperson. This gave him the questionable distinction of having served in that office for both of India’s oppositional national parties—that is, of having defended, across his political career, actions and ideologies that have often been diametrically opposed. Yet despite his many compromises—and, perhaps, because of them—Akbar is distrusted by the bulk of the BJP and its affiliates. For now, he is, in effect, on probation. This July, the party installed him in the Rajya Sabha. It could have put him in any of a number of seats that opened up since he joined that offered him a full six-year tenure. But it chose to give him one vacated in mid term, five years in. Akbar will have to rely on the BJP for re-nomination next year. While he waits, he has the unenviable task of representing the party line at a time when the government faces a spate of criticism over incidents of communalism and intolerance.

More than ever before, Akbar can least afford for his latest political manoeuvre to backfire. He has, over the years, had and lost ties with almost every major party. If Akbar and the BJP part ways, he will have few political allies left. Journalistically, too, his ideological wanderings have tainted his reputation. Among the many journalists I spoke to for this story, a good number of whom owe Akbar a great deal, few cared to defend what they see as the concessions he has made out of a compulsive thirst for power.

Akbar’s is a dispiriting tale, of a brilliant professional scuttling the heady respect he once commanded. Though he is not the only prominent editor of his generation to have been intimate with those in power—take Shekhar Gupta, Prabhu Chawla or Vir Sanghvi—he is the only one to have made an overt commitment to a political party, and that too, twice. Though none of his editorial peers have come close to matching his intellectual stature at its height, all of them have had more successful journalistic runs over the last two decades. Somewhere along the way, Akbar the iconic journalist was overtaken by Akbar the politician of easy virtue.

AKBAR’S 2006 NOVEL, Blood Brothers, which he claims is largely autobiographical, describes three generations of a Muslim family. The story goes back to how a Bihari Hindu—presumably Akbar’s grandfather—first arrived in Telinipara, a riverside town north of Calcutta famous for its jute mills, after losing his entire family to a famine. He was taken in by the Muslim owner of a tea stall, and later converted to Islam and took the name Rahmat. He made enough of a success of his adopted family’s business to eventually build the town’s first two-storeyed house.

Like thousands of Muslim families, Rahmat’s was uprooted by Partition in 1947. According to the book, Rahmat’s son—Akbar’s father—initially opted to go to East Pakistan, but decided to return to Telinipara just months later. Mobashar Jawed Akbar was born there a few years later, in 1951..

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