Pramod Mahajan

Ruthless Hindu nationalist politician
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Pramod Mahajan, politician: born Mahbubnagar, India 30 October 1949; Minister for Information and Broadcasting 1998-99, for Parliamentary Affairs and Information Technology 1999-2001, for Communications 2001-03; married 1972 Rekha Hamine (one son, one daughter); died Bombay, India 3 May 2005.

Pramod Mahajan, a manipulative and ruthless politician, was one of the principal strategists of India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, occupying several ministerial posts during its six-year rule, which ended abruptly in 2004 due mainly to his flawed strategies.

Bitter BJP cadres held the flamboyant but articulate party general secretary, known for his extravagant and openly profligate life style, responsible for their surprising electoral rout, in which they lost out to the Congress Party-led coalition. They blamed Mahajan's arrogant campaign slogan of "India shining" for this defeat as it cynically ignored the reality of over 600 million eligible voters who lived either below or close to the poverty line and benefited not at all from the fanciful economic boom under BJP rule.

Senior BJP leaders, jealous of Majahan's meteoric rise to power, also accused him of moving the grass-roots party from a culture of austerity to a "five-star" culture, out of touch with the reality of a largely rural, illiterate and poverty-ridden country.

But, to his credit, Mahajan was the first to accept moral responsibility for the party's shocking defeat. And, while other BJP leaders were flabbergasted - even tongue-tied - at the turn of fortune, Mahajan appeared unflappable on television, openly admitting that he had got it horribly wrong.

Through a combination of cold- blooded charm and political adroitness, Mahajan had recently managed to claw his way back to the top of the party once again. And, when shot by his jealous and malcontent younger brother last month, he had seemed to be emerging victorious in the bitter internecine struggle with other BJP "technocrat" leaders and had been widely expected to take over the floundering party's reins ahead of the 2009 general elections.

Mahajan, however, was a closet extremist, having joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the RSS or the National Voluntary Corps, India's most powerful, well-knit and highly organised Hindu revivalist organisation, at the age of 21. The RSS is the spiritual mentor of the BJP and lists the former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, his deputy L.K. Advani and several erstwhile ministers as its members.

Its founding principle is to defend Hinduism by keeping it "pure" from outside influences like Islam and, to some extent, Christianity. During its tenure, the BJP presided over a pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat state four years ago and attacks on churches, missionary schools and Christian-run institutions and their personnel were commonplace. Such activities were stoutly defended by Mahajan in his capacity as senior party leader.

The RSS daily imparts basic military drill to its cadres and involves them in ideological discussions in hundreds of neighbourhoods across India. The assassins of Mahatma Gandhi were educated in such a school and murdered him because of his secular outlook and policy of appeasement towards India's minority Muslim community.

Mahajan was born into a lower- middle-class Hindu family in Mahbubnagar in 1949 in southern Andhra Pradesh state and migrated soon after with his family to the small town of Ambajogal in western Maharashtra province, of which the port city of Bombay is the capital. He graduated locally, majoring in Physics, and after attaining a postgraduate degree in political science and a diploma in journalism in the mid-1970s, he joined the RSS's magazine Tarun Bharat as a sub-editor.

Like thousands of other opposition members Mahajan opposed the state of emergency imposed by the Congress Party prime minister Indira Gandhi in mid-1975 when her continuance in office was threatened, and he was jailed until it was lifted some 19 months later.

In 1979 Mahajan was part of a select batch of RSS cadres co-opted into the newly formed BJP to help boost its political fortunes and, given his organisational flair, he never looked back. He played a major role in propelling the BJP to federal power by helping the party leader Lal Kishen Advani organise an extended journey across the length of India in 1990 as part of a vicious campaign to build a temple to the Hindu god Lord Rama on the exact spot where a 16th-century mosque stood. The mosque was demolished by Hindu fanatics in 1992. But, because of Advani's journey, the BJP successfully pandered to Hindu sentiments which, in turn, translated into votes for the BJP. The party assumed power in 1998 and remained in office for six years.

Mahajan was appointed information and broadcasting minister in December 1998, and in quick succession moved to the ministries of parliamentary affairs and information technology. He was finally given the communications portfolio in 2001, which he left under a cloud two years later. His questionable proximity to leading Indian industrialists at a time when India was in the throes of a mobile phone revolution heaped opprobrium on the party, adding hugely to its reputation as a corrupt administration.

Thereafter Mahajan was appointed party general secretary and given charge of the BJP's disastrous 2004 electoral campaign. Although an accomplished political strategist, Mahajan rarely contested or won elections himself, entering parliament mostly through the Rajya Sabha, the indirectly elected Upper House. But even those who had reservations about his political integrity never doubted his political acumen and divisive commitment to Hindu hegemony.

Kuldip Singh