M.J. Akbar and his politics
Just as M.J. Akbar could work under Rajiv Gandhi for the Congress five years after 1984, he will now work under Narendra Modi for the BJP a dozen years after 2002
For those of us who grew up reading the journalism of the Emergency of 1975 and its aftermath, what Mobashar Jawed Akbar did at the now-defunct magazine, Sunday, was inspiring. Akbar set his reporters free to bring back stories of police brutality, corruption and communal violence across the country, making us feel the anger. Our generation can trace some of our early inspiration to such stirring journalism.
Later, Akbar launched The Telegraph, a newspaper with an elegant typeface and modular look that rewrote not only the rules of layout and design, but also of marketing, with its advertising that included the neologism “unputdownable”. The newspaper is probably the only Indian newborn English daily to overtake the market leader in the city of its launch—in this instance, The Statesman, in what was then Calcutta.
With India: The Siege Within, Akbar wrote an engrossing account of what made India exceptional, and why, despite its many flaws, it was better than the countries in its neighbourhood. Much of the credit, he showed, went to the nationalist ethos of leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and Jawaharlal Nehru (he was to write an admiring biography of Nehru later). Before Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi, Akbar’s book was required reading for anyone who wanted to understand post-independence India. And with Riot After Riot, Akbar wrote searing prose to reveal his anger and anguish over the periodic frenzy that gripped India. With relentless detail he recounted the build-up of tensions, the role of outsiders, the cynical opportunism of local politicians, and the sparks that ignited violence. Each community went after “the other”, seeking revenge for grievances that dated back to atavistic fears and ancient hatreds, continuing to churn the blood-soaked binary narratives. Congress got much blame, but so did the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Like Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Akbar could have said: “A plague o’ both your houses.” In 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Congress workers went on a rampage, killing thousands of Sikhs in cities in North India. But five years later, Akbar became a spokesman for Rajiv Gandhi. He won from Kishanganj in Bihar as a Congress candidate, entering Lok Sabha that year. He lost the seat in 1991, and soon returned to journalism.
After the tragic burning of the train in Godhra in which 59 people died in February 2002 in Gujarat, Hindu mobs sought revenge across the state, and over 1,000 people died, a majority of them Muslims. Akbar wrote that the state’s chief minister Narendra Modi deserved Nishan-e-Pakistan, the country’s highest honour: “Modi has been trying to destroy the idea of India as a nation in which every citizen is equal irrespective of his faith...Till he started his lynch-mob response to the cruel tragedy of Godhra, all the negative focus of South Asia was concentrated on Pakistan...Modi has, in a space of days, taken Pakistan off the world’s front pages and replaced it with Gujarat. If President Pervez Musharraf has not yet sent a thank you letter to his benefactor in Ahmedabad, then the president is remiss.”
Akbar has now found his Damascene moment in the bombs that went off in Patna during a Modi rally. He believes that Modi’s focus is on jobs and poverty and he thinks that the absence of evidence against Modi is sufficient to anoint Modi as the man for the moment, an idea whose time has come, and other more eloquent phrases Akbar is capable of offering during the final stages of this campaign. Akbar is clever enough to know that it wasn’t the Supreme Court, but a special investigation team (SIT) that inquired and controversially concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence against Modi in the Gulbarg Society case. Manoj Mitta’s timely book, The Fiction of the Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra, meticulously dissects the SIT, but Akbar refers to Modi’s “exoneration” by the Supreme Court. Akbar also praised the “judicial accountability to an unprecedented degree” in Gujarat, presumably meaning the arrests and convictions of people, including one of his ministers and police officers, who were implicated in or participated in the violence. He contrasts that with the state’s failure to prosecute rioters in hundreds of cases elsewhere. Here is the kind of question Akbar, the journalist of the 1970s and 1980s, would have asked Modi: “What sort of a leader are you that you appointed, tolerated, and persisted with such individuals in your government and in the party for nearly a decade? Who was in charge?”
That’s because Akbar, the much-admired journalist, ceased to exist a long time ago and we hadn’t noticed. What became of him is between him and his conscience. But this we know: just as Akbar could work under Rajiv Gandhi and for the Congress five years after 1984, he will now work under Narendra Modi and for the BJP a dozen years after 2002. It adds little to what we know about Congress or BJP, but rather a lot about M.J. Akbar.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com.
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