What MJ Akbar brings to team Narendra Modi

MJ Akbar is formidably good at debate, but his talents lie in being mostly clever and often rude

Akbar (second from left) with BJP president Rajnath Singh (centre). Photo: Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times
Akbar (second from left) with BJP president Rajnath Singh (centre). Photo: Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times

Asked why he joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after the Gujarat riots, Arif Mohammad Khan, a superb mind, said, “You cannot fight civil society.” I thought of that when I read the news of M.J. Akbar, the brilliant editor and founder of The Asian Age, joining the list of those queuing up to kiss Narendra Modi’s ring.

He has joined the BJP as national spokesman, but it is unclear what he adds to the substantial talents of Smriti Irani, Meenakshi Lekhi and Shaina N.C.

Yes, Akbar is formidably good at debate, but his talents lie in being mostly clever and often rude. It was said of The New Yorker’s founder Harold Ross that he was better at parry than at thrust (“You got me there!”). Not so Akbar. He likes to dominate. He is short of temper and curt with all those not as smart as he is (everyone). These are not good qualities for a spokesman.

When London-based industrialist Swraj Paul complained about some problem with the delivery of The Asian Age in London, Akbar told him it would be sorted out. “You’ll ensure I’ll get it regularly?” asked his lordship. No, said Akbar, “I’m cancelling your subscription.”

When he got the Haldighati award for journalism, he informed the gathering of Sisodia Rajputs who gave him the honour that “this is not the first time Akbar has won Haldighati”.

In the late 1990s, Akbar got brief and minor notoriety. This came in the Jain pay-off scandal, where a businessman’s diary that was seized had the initials of famous figures against which sums of cash were noted, apparently as pay-offs. Akbar’s name also came to be linked (disappointingly only for Rs.5 lakh). Akbar’s old friend Jug Suraiya wrote proudly about this in The Times of India, under the great headline “Our man in Hawala”. Akbar was, of course, innocent.

Though he is himself the most talented headline-writer in India, Akbar’s political understanding is not first-rate. He wrote once that a comment by Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar (that the Emergency was Constitutional) could cost the Congress a general election. When Sonia Gandhi entered politics, he said she was brilliant at her speeches. How, I asked. He said she referred to the BJP only obliquely, through “unhonein” and “unko”. This clever strategy would apparently get her sympathy if not votes.

In 1989 he was elected a Congress Lok Sabha MP from Bihar. Akbar said he muffed his political career because of a juvenile incident. He was, he said, sitting with Rajiv Gandhi one day when P.V. Narasimha Rao entered. The old man had a small mishap, perhaps he tripped. The young men laughed at him. Rao did not forget, and after Rajiv’s death returned Akbar to the shelf.

Akbar can comfortably see himself in the company of both Rajiv and Modi because he is supremely opportunistic. Once, as a trainee, I was accompanying someone interviewing Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray in his Bandra house. In that week Akbar was visiting Mumbai, to launch an edition of his paper. The interviewer, A.T. Jayanti (now editor of Deccan Chronicle), was hard of hearing in one ear. As we rose to leave, Thackeray said: “Your boss, kai naav ahe—Saeed Naqvi?—is he in town? He wanted to see me.” Jayanti only heard “Your boss” and “in town” and said yes. I mumbled “M.J. Akbar, not Saeed Naqvi”, but by then she had already dialled, and handed Thackeray the phone.

Thackeray chatted with “Saeed”. Realizing quickly what must have happened, and without a second’s hesitation, Akbar pounced on the opportunity (the Shiv Sena-BJP were running the Maharashtra government).

By the time we reached the office, Thackeray had realized his error and called back to cancel. I could hear Akbar say smoothly, “Not at all, Balasaheb, not at all.” He put down the telephone as if nothing had happened. I made bold to say that he had fine presence of mind, but he just shrugged.

He once sent me to interview Syed Shahabuddin, who also won from Kishanganj, Akbar’s constituency in Bihar. When Shahabuddin learnt I worked for Akbar, he was outraged. The man cheated in the election, Shahabuddin said. How, I asked. “Akbar had me physically blocked from filing my nomination. Didn’t let me enter the election office.” My respect for Akbar, always high, immediately went up.

Under his brilliant “franchisee” model, Akbar pulled in several investors into The Asian Age. They included African tycoon Ketan Somaiya (jailed on swindling charges), Vijay Mallya, Suresh Kalmadi and Deccan Chronicle’s T. Venkattram Reddy. You get the picture. Call it the curse of Akbar.

When he was finally pushed out of the paper, all his staff knew, having been informed by the proprietor, that Akbar was on notice. And yet, on the last day he pretended to be surprised and played victim. His mentor Khushwant Singh wrote an angry piece in his defence, outraged that Akbar could be fired, as if editorships were bestowed for life.

Akbar was a terrific editor but as an author not so good. His writing is racy rather than illuminating, and none of his books has really stood the test of time. His interest in history lies in the anecdotal, and he gave up publishing bibliographies or references in his later work. In one column he confused then Maharashtra chief minister Manohar Joshi with BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi. When I pointed this out to him, he shrugged. This sloppiness was on evidence in the press conference announcing his BJP entry. “And those who rake up this issue all the time, I want to tell them to read the Justice Krishna report. How many people are there in Gujarat who are in jail through the legal system. More than 100. Can one tell me the numbers as far as the 1984 and 1993 riots are concerned.”

What is the Justice Krishna report? Nobody knows. The Times of India edited his statement to add “V.R.”, referring to Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, who attacked and later praised Modi.

My guess is Akbar was referring to the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission report of the Mumbai riots, which blames the Congress for being lax and the Shiv Sena for its activities.

To return to motive, what does Akbar bring to the BJP specifically? I cannot think of anything. The party doesn’t have a shortage of ageing editors—they already have Chandan Mitra and others. And Akbar is not, as Muhammad Ali Jinnah referred to Maulana Azad, a show boy for the BJP .

Not because Akbar may be unwilling to offer himself as such but because Modi has no need for tokenism—that he has made clear. In any case, the BJP also has a ready stock of such people, Shahnawaz Hussain and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi to name two.

Akbar is, I accept, quite good at flattery. In his column from that time I mentioned, he addressed the Shiv Sena leader as “Hindu hitrakshak Balasaheb Thackeray”. But again, what shortage of such people in Delhi?

Akbar’s personal habits (he loves Scotch) are not BJP-esque. Modi, puritanical about such things, and highly judgemental, will be revolted. Modi also has little use for Akbar’s wit and none for his erudition.

Khan was so moved by the riots that he offered surrender to the BJP. Think about that for a moment. Akbar’s motives are probably more tawdry.

It was Akbar who commissioned Khan to write his columns. No other editor could have seen his nuanced brilliance. Akbar is not only genuinely secular, he is totally above religion. He is Indian in a way that will make most of us go weak-kneed.

Perhaps he actually believes the rubbish he spouted on joining the BJP—“Modi’s leadership is essential for the country.”

But I doubt it. This is, like that time with Thackeray, Akbar taking a chance. I wasn’t surprised to learn his favourite song is Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya, har fikr ko dhuen mein udata chala gaya.

I hope he pulls it off and gets a ministry or ambassadorship or whatever it is that he’s angling for.

However, he has too much pride to survive in that nasty place. I give him six months.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

More From Livemint