Pramod’s sordid legacy

Swapan Dasgupta

Monday, June 05, 2006  22:01 IST

If what took place in Delhi’s 7 Safdarjung Road last Thursday night had happened a week later, the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership would have found no hospitable corner of India to hide their faces. According to the choreographed script, Rahul Mahajan was to travel to Assam on June 3 to immerse his father’s ashes in the Brahmaputra. On his return, he would have announced his decision to perpetuate Pramod Mahajan’s legacy and formally join the BJP. A day or two later, he would have been appointed a vice-president of the party’s youth wing. Rahul would have been honoured for his greatest asset—being his father's son.

By hosting a small rave party before his initiation, Rahul blew his chances. However, the mistimed celebrations provided the BJP a small face-saver. At least Sushma Swaraj could claim that the death of Bibek Moitra and the hospitalisation of Rahul was a “family tragedy” that had nothing to do with politics and Atal Bihari Vajpayee could loftily blame it on “bad company” and youthful indiscretion.

The disclaimers are unlikely to wash. The latest misfortune of the Mahajan family has destroyed the posthumous halo conferred on Pramod and brought into the open the decadent underbelly of an organisation that once claimed to be the repository of ethical politics. The sordid tale of indulgence is not merely an indictment of a lifestyle centred on easy, unearned money. It is also an indictment of an entire leadership that chose to be either willing participants or mute spectators to a perversion of public life.

There is no question that Pramod had many things going for him. Intelligent, articulate, witty, innovative and, above all, pragmatic, he was among the brightest sparks in the BJP. He fitted into a leadership role almost effortlessly. Unfortunately, all these attributes blended with a ruthless disregard for ethical niceties.

Pramod first undertook fund-raising for the party because, as he once explained, “someone had to do the job”. But money devoured him and became almost an end in itself. He institutionalised a regime of quid pro quo with leading donors on the pragmatic plea that “if you sleep with someone at night, you can’t treat him as a whore in the morning”. The colourful imagery wasn’t a Pramod original; he was echoing a prominent Mumbai industrialist who was generous in his contributions to the BJP.

The second distortion was triggered by what he called “cadre building”. It involved an elaborate network of private subsidies to individuals who were either fiercely loyal to him personally or were deemed useful in the long term. The individual sums involved weren’t necessarily staggering—a little help with household expenses here and help with securing an agency there. These were old Congress techniques and Pramod grafted them on to the BJP. This process meant that the party treasury became detached from a private war chest controlled by Pramod.

It is not that Pramod’s parallel economy was unknown to the BJP leadership. Indeed, many of them gleefully plugged themselves into the network. Pramod had an uncanny way of identifying human weaknesses and turning these into political opportunities. He was ruthless and unsparing in his attitude towards those who he identified as obstacles in the path of his political advance. Even the top leadership didn’t want to get on his wrong side. He ran what at least two senior BJP leaders have described to me as a “mafia” operation.

Pramod ran a system which was prefaced on money. Everything, he believed, had a price and everything could be “managed”. Once an astute political mind, he ended up reposing all faith in Mammon. Even elections, he believed, could be won by the necessary deployment of resources—a misreading that cost the NDA the 2004 election and contributed to the party’s dismal showing in Assam in April this year.

Money warped his vision and it distorted his lifestyle. An atmosphere of unwholesome recklessness permeated into the heart of the system he created. It may or may not have triggered his own murder but it has certainly ensured that his son’s political career was still-born.

Last December, Pramod was anointed Lakshman by the BJP’s most towering leader. Six months later, the entire party stands dishonoured by his epic legacy. What went wrong is well known. The BJP needs to ask why the wrongs were knowingly condoned.