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.
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 reelection 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.
Akbar received an early education in the nuances of local politics and power. In Blood Brothers, he tells the story of how his father, a Congress member, campaigned for and won a municipal election. Akbar also describes how, in the midst of the 1965 India-Pakistan War, his father was detained by the police on trumped-up charges made by a political opponent, who played up suspicions around his rival’s brief stay in Pakistan. Afterwards, Akbar writes, The Statesman, the venerable Calcutta newspaper, wrote “an editorial against the jingoist victimization of innocent Indian Muslims during the 1965 war.” When he read it, the young Akbar knew that he “wanted to become a journalist.”
That same year, The Statesman published a letter to the editor from Akbar. A few days after that, it carried an article by him, which was followed by another reported story in the youth magazine Junior Statesman, on Mother Teresa’s work in Ranchi in the midst of a famine. Akbar joined the Times of India as a trainee in 1971, and in 1973 was named the editor of Onlooker, a fortnightly magazine. In 1976, and still in his mid twenties, he was appointed the editor of Sunday, a new weekly established by the Ananda Bazaar Patrika Group, which ran a dominant Bengali daily.
Akbar was an outsider in Calcutta journalism—unlike most of his fellows, he was not from an established Bengali family or the Anglo-Indian community—but he quickly made his mark. He was a hands-on editor, and took charge of a staff of about a dozen people. In a recent Outlook article, the journalist SNM Abdi, who worked with Sunday, recalls,
I’m yet to see another editor work as hard. He came to office even on Sundays. Interestingly, he didn’t have much faith in subbing (sub-editing); he rewrote stories from top to bottom. Sometimes he rewrote half-a-dozen 1,000–1,500 word magazine stories in a single day, pounding away at his Olivetti typewriter.
Sunday brought some pride back to Indian journalism after the Emergency, when the majority of the profession had bowed to state censorship. Over the next five years, it brought numerous explosive stories to national attention, including the Bhagalpur blindings, in which police purposely poured acid into the eyes of undertrials in a Bihar town, and cases of caste and communal killings in Uttar Pradesh—at a time when such things were rarely reported in depth by the rest of the media. Sunday became one of the country’s top news magazines.
In 1982, even as he remained in charge of Sunday, Akbar took up another project. The ABP Group, in what seemed an act of conceit unmatched in Indian journalism, launched The Telegraph, an English-language daily aiming to take on The Statesman. Each evening, a bunch of young reporters filed copy to be edited, and then re-edited. When the proofs came out, they went to MJ Akbar, the paper’s editor. Reporters who worked there at the time told me of how, seated in the middle of the newsroom with a bottle of Old Monk by his side, Akbar would work until 3 am, looking through everything from the copy to the design of the morning’s edition as the level of the rum dropped. The next day, he would be back in the office by 10 am.
Umesh Anand, who started out with The Statesman and is now the publisher of Civil Society, a Delhi-based magazine, was one of Akbar’s young hires. “He was a strong personality, you either hero-worshipped him, like me, or didn’t like him,” Anand told me. “The change from the bureaucratic atmosphere of The Statesman was huge.” Akbar’s big contribution to Indian journalism, Anand said, was “the creation of modern-minded editorial setups … You could say Akbar inspired and empowered a whole generation of young journalists who went on to do great stuff in their own different ways.”
The Telegraph boasted an impeccable layout, smart headlines and lively copy—all far removed from the staid style of other Indian newspapers at the time. And, like Sunday, it also stood out for its daring reporting. In the early 1980s, as the Sikh fundamentalist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale gained notoriety in Punjab, its reporters filed some of the best stories to come out of the state. After the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, in 1984, it carried a series of pieces about indiscriminate retaliatory violence against Sikhs, making it one of only a few newspapers to do so. Within a few years, it became an established competitor to The Statesman.
On top of all his editorial duties, Akbar still found time to write his first books. His debut, India: The Siege Within, came in 1985, and looked at the challenges posed to the country by conflicts surrounding Kashmir, Pakistan, and the movement for an independent Sikh nation. In 1988, he published a comprehensive and sympathetic biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, and also Riot after Riot, a compilation of impressive reportage on communal violence. In it, Akbar writes that “the basic cause for the communal frenzy is the same: poverty , economic deprivation and a history which has been perverted and misused by religious zealots.”
The success of Sunday and The Telegraph marked Akbar out. And that allowed him proximity to power at an age when most journalists of his generation were still working municipal beats or editing copy for city pages.
IN DURBAR, her memoir of life among Delhi’s social and political elite during and after the Emergency, the veteran journalist Tavleen Singh recounts the first meeting between MJ Akbar and Rajiv Gandhi. It was 1978, a year since Indira Gandhi had been voted out of the prime ministership by an opposition united against her dictatorship, and, from her central Delhi address, she was looking for a way back to power.
Singh had been writing for Sunday from the capital, and would later work for The Telegraph too. “When I asked Akbar if he would like to interview Rajiv Gandhi,” she recalls, “he thought at first that I was joking.” But the interview was set up, and Singh and Akbar arrived at the Gandhi home.
Rajiv was waiting in what seemed to be the study, seated beside a window that offered a view of the garden. He was reading a magazine but stood up when he saw us, held out his hand to Akbar and said something like, ‘Hello, nice to meet you… Let me tell you, I’m very nervous. I’ve never given an interview, ever.’ The sincerity of the remark disarmed Akbar. A look of wonder came into his eyes as he held Rajiv’s hand and it took me a few moments to realize that Akbar was overawed to be in the presence of Mrs Gandhi’s son.
For the young editor, this was a remarkable moment. His experience of Indian politics now spanned two extremes: from the very bottom, in the gallis and mohallas of his small home town, to the most powerful drawing rooms in Delhi. But it was also, as things turned out, a big step in Akbar’s political misadventures.
That meeting did not signal any immediate proximity between Akbar and Rajiv. Akbar had access, and connections, to almost all the prominent politicians in the post-Emergency years under the Janata Party, and also after Indira Gandhi’s reelection in 1980. Umesh Anand recalled the heady atmosphere of the Telegraph newsroom in the early 1980s: “You could be making a page and find Shabana Azmi or Farooq Abdullah peering over your shoulder.” A journalist who worked with Akbar at this time recalled the editor meeting Chandra Shekhar of the ruling Janata Dal at the politician’s Calcutta apartment.
Singh writes of how, over this period, she discovered that Akbar’s “political analysis could often be based on emotions rather than on empirical evidence.” With the approach of the 1984 general election, “for reasons that were not entirely clear … Akbar became a passionate supporter of the opposition parties and against the Congress Party.” During the campaigning for that election, Singh recalls, Akbar sent her off to Ballia, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, to write a long article on Chandra Shekhar, “the opposition leader he believed could defeat Mrs Gandhi.”
The journalist Seema Mustafa, who was then with The Telegraph, told me that she also noticed an impact on the newspaper’s coverage. Akbar “traveled to Allahabad during that election,” she said, to write that the Congress candidate there, the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, “was losing the elections. We were wondering what he was doing—it was not as if he could hope to influence the electorate.”
Almost on the eve of the vote, Indira Gandhi was killed, and Rajiv stepped in as the Congress’s prime ministerial candidate. Even as public sympathy for the party swelled, Akbar had such belief in Chandra Shekhar that he kept predicting the Congress would be beaten. He was wrong, and the party won a massive majority.
Then, Akbar changed direction. “I think it was exactly the day after the results,” Singh writes, “that he summoned me and said he would like me to arrange for him to get the first interview Rajiv gave as prime minister.” That interview took place soon afterwards, in Raipur, and by the time Akbar returned to Delhi “he had become Rajiv Gandhi’s most ardent devotee,” prompting “much mirth and merriment in the office over the transformation.”
Akbar became a regular visitor to Delhi. His behaviour, always mercurial, became increasingly imperious. Mustafa told me that he began calling bureau meetings at the end of each working day, and that these often went late into the night. “It wasn’t a meeting, it was a durbar, where alcohol flowed freely,” she said. “After a while I stopped attending, I did not see the point. The first time I did not go, my boss got a call from Akbar as he was on the way to the airport, asking him to take me off my beat.”
Also, she continued, “covering the Congress got more difficult.” Stories about Rajiv “would only make it to the inside pages, if at all,” though reporters “were free to write about anyone else in the party.” Things got bad enough that, in 1986, Mustafa was involved in a big row over the paper’s coverage. She went to Aveek Sarkar, the head of the ABP Group, to tell him that Akbar “is already a communalist. He told me he agreed with me about everything, but that Akbar is not communal.”
Many of Akbar’s colleagues continued to idolise him, but Mustafa came away with a different impression. “I always found him to be very insecure, someone who was always impressed if any politician reached out to him,” she said. “The first was Chandra Shekhar, and then it was Rajiv Gandhi.” Another former Telegraph journalist noted: “He progressively became a different person. Even in office the old equations began to change, and he started drawing people who shared his attitude to power closer to him.’’
As the country prepared for the November 1989 elections, the Congress found itself beleaguered. Rajiv Gandhi was caught up in a corruption scandal involving defence purchases from the Swedish firm Bofors, which opened the door for the Janata Dal’s VP Singh, once Rajiv’s finance minister, to mount a serious challenge for the prime ministership.
In August that year, a Kuwaiti newspaper carried a story alleging that Ajeya Singh, VP Singh’s son, held an offshore bank account in St Kitts, of which the main beneficiary was VP Singh himself. The matter was picked up by the Indian press, and government investigators, acting with unusual speed, filed a report that was tabled in parliament on the eve of the polls. Years later, the names of the Congress leader PV Narasimha Rao and the godman Chandraswami would come up in connection with the alleged forgery of crucial documents in the St Kitts case. Before the matter was eventually dismissed, Rao’s lawyers told a court that the investigation had been ordered at Rajiv Gandhi’s behest. At the time, though, the issue became a major headache for Rajiv’s main challenger. The papers that most prominently reported on the case were the Hindustan Times, widely considered close to the Congress, and Akbar’s Telegraph.
In the wake of the St Kitts controversy, Akbar resigned from his journalistic duties to take up a Congress nomination for a Lok Sabha seat from Kishenganj, in Bihar. As election results came in, it emerged that, although he had won, his confidence in the Congress had been misplaced. The party won more seats than any of its rivals, but it still lost over half its previous strength in the Lok Sabha. A large coalition of anti-Congress parties came together to keep Rajiv from returning as prime minister, and the post went to VP Singh.
Despite this, Akbar stood by Gandhi, and was appointed a national spokesperson for the Congress. A former journalist who covered the Congress at this time, and now works with the government, told me that for the party, “winning Akbar over was a coup.” It was receiving very hostile media attention after the election, particularly over the ongoing Bofors scandal. The former journalist said that Akbar “managed to cool things down, either through one-on-one interactions with journalists, most of whom held him in awe, or by deflecting issues at conferences in a way Gadgil”—VN Gadgil, the party spokesperson who until then had been facing the media alone—“couldn’t manage.”
The head of communication for the Congress in those years was Pranab Mukherjee, who, like Akbar, hailed from West Bengal. With a common language in Bengali, and a shared sense of home, the two forged a friendship that has lasted to this day. Mukherjee continues to trust Akbar, and over the years has relied on him for advice, and also for help with his speeches.
Akbar entered parliament during one of the most tumultuous periods in its history. VP Singh’s prime ministership was cut short in just 11 months, as his fragile coalition crumbled under the combined weight of protests against the Mandal Commission report and the growing Ram Janmabhoomi movement. His successor, in late 1990, was Chandra Shekhar, the man in whom Akbar had once placed such faith. But his coalition collapsed too, and the country went into elections again in 1991. During campaigning ahead of the polls, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated.
Akbar was left bereft of his chief patron. On top of that, he was voted out of his Lok Sabha seat. The Congress, though, won a majority, and parliament elected PV Narasimha Rao to be prime minister. Akbar tried to stay close to Rajiv’s widow, Sonia, but she was wary of him, as she was of a number of Rajiv’s friends. He also found himself short on favour in the new power nexus around Rao. He explored the possibility of going back to The Telegraph, but Aveek Sarkar, who had no say over editorial policy while Akbar was there, did not want a return to the old scheme of things.
Akbar was appointed an advisor in the ministry of human resource development, but many of his ideas turned out to be counterproductive. According to a bureaucrat who served at the ministry at the time, Akbar suggested a celebration to mark four centuries since the Mughal emperor Akbar put forward his idea of a composite faith, the Din-i-Ilahi, but this provoked anger from orthodox Muslims.
Meanwhile, in 1991, Akbar published a book on the history of Kashmir. The journalist Inder Malhotra, in reviewing it, noted two points that Akbar may not care to highlight today. The book, he wrote, “takes a swipe” at Sardar Patel, the independence hero lately much lionised by the Hindu right, for his “‘astonishing indifference’ to Kashmir whether before August 15, 1947, or afterwards”; and “at Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, the forebear of today’s BJP, for having first voted for Article 370”—which grants special autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir—“and two years later made its repeal a major issue in the first general elections.”
Then, on 6 December 1992, a mob demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Protesting what he described as the Congress’s inept handling of the issue of the mosque in the lead-up to its destruction, Akbar resigned his government and party posts.
In December 2004, in a column published the day after Rao’s death, Akbar looked back at this parting of ways. He wrote that the former prime minister had “slept through the destruction of the Babri mosque,” and that he “had nothing but contempt” for Muslim Congressmen. “Not a single Congress minister, official or MP resigned in protest after the destruction of the mosque,” Akbar said. “Each one queued up for promotion or office, which Rao was happy to offer. As it turned out, I was the only person who resigned from government, when I discovered on the evening of 6 December what everyone else who had tried to call Rao knew, that he took no action because he considered inaction the solution rather than the problem.”
But there could well have been more than disagreement over principles to the antagonism between Akbar and Rao. The columnist Aakar Patel, writing in the business newspaper Mint shortly after Akbar joined the BJP, described how Akbar told him that, after his election to the Lok Sabha, “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.”
Regardless, it seemed Akbar was genuinely affected by the Babri Masjid’s destruction. According to a story he related to a few journalists, on the night of the demolition he stormed into the Delhi office of The Telegraph and started organising coverage as if he were still the editor. He was finally thrown out. “I was humiliated,” a journalist who heard Akbar tell the story recalled him saying.
SHORTLY AFTERWARDS, Akbar decided to start another newspaper, and in February 1994 he launched the Asian Age. Like The Telegraph, it stood out for its layout and use of photographs. The paper also used technological innovations then unheard of in Indian journalism: it was produced digitally in Delhi, but came out in multiple, simultaneous editions across several parts of the country. It also had an exceptional editorial desk, led by Shekhar Bhatia, who had also played a key role in setting up The Telegraph. But one thing Akbar could not muster was the kind of reportorial talent he had at his earlier publications. His attraction to politics had levied a price on his journalism, and would continue to do so.
Unlike during his employment with the ABP Group, where Aveek Sarkar handled the business and Akbar focused only on the journalism, from the very inception of the Asian Age, Akbar was involved in the paper’s finances. On this front too, he innovated: he brought in franchisees to run individual editions across India and in London, something no other Indian paper had done. In retrospect, the paper’s list of partners makes for embarrassing reading. It included Suresh Kalmadi, a sports administrator and Congress politician found guilty of corruption in relation to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi; Ketan Somaia, a financier convicted of fraud by a London court last year; Vijay Mallya, owner of the bankrupt Kingfisher Airlines and declared a “willful defaulter” by the State Bank of India just last month; and T Venkattram Reddy, the owner of the now debt-ridden Deccan Chronicle, and of a failed team in the controversial Indian Premier League.
During his time in Delhi, Akbar also cemented another contact in the world of high finance and politics: the richly connected lobbyist Tony Jesudasan, the go-to man in Delhi for Reliance Industries. After the Reliance fortune was divided in the early 2000s, Jesudasan became a trusted lieutenant of the younger Ambani brother, Anil.
Akbar also started looking for political friends outside the Congress. Among those he reached out to was LK Advani, who became the home minister under the BJP government elected in 1998. Evidently, Akbar was not bothered that the BJP leader had played a major role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Advani, a former journalist himself, was fond of building close links with the media, and hosted an informal salon—the “Pandara Park Club”—at his official residence near India Gate. Akbar began attending.
The Asian Age, in the meantime, was struggling to find its feet. Seema Mustafa wrote a column for the paper, and joined as its Delhi bureau chief in 1997. “Despite our earlier differences,” she said, Akbar “took me on, he didn’t bear a grudge.” The paper ran, but did little to distinguish itself. “We lacked the kind of reporters we had in The Telegraph,” Mustafa said. But, she added, “I had a free hand.” Unlike in earlier years, now Akbar “never interacted with the reporters.” Mustafa noticed other changes in his attitude too. Though Shekhar Bhatia gave up a secure job at The Telegraph to join the Asian Age, Akbar “didn’t give Shekhar the respect he deserved. I have never understood this—Shekhar was an outstanding desk man, he was no threat to Akbar.”
The franchisee model gave way, in May 2005, to an understanding with T Venkattram Reddy that gave the media baron a majority stake in the Asian Age, and made Akbar the editor-in-chief of the Deccan Chronicle. The change, I was told, had little effect on Akbar’s notorious arrogance. A former staffer at the Asian Age described how “Akbar would throw lavish parties at his house, and would always make it a point to treat Reddy like dirt.”
In the run-up to the 2004 general elections, with the Congress mounting a challenge to the BJP, Mustafa traveled to Europe to interview Sten Lindström, a Swedish investigator in the Bofors case. The Asian Age reported his view that Sonia Gandhi, who by then headed the Congress, needed to be questioned to get to the bottom of the matter. Mustafa later wrote that the timing of the piece had been unintentional, but in the Delhi of 2004 it raised uncomfortable questions. In the eyes of the Congress, Akbar had orchestrated a betrayal of his old party by trying to taint Sonia.
Soon after the first phase of voting, Faraz Ahmad, then a reporter with the Asian Age, wrote “a piece based on a UN report that suggested that the fruits of various government schemes were not reaching the people who needed them.” This, he told me, undermined the BJP government’s “India Shining” marketing campaign for the election, which promoted a sense of economic optimism. “I was summoned by Akbar to his office, and had to face his wrath,” Ahmad said. “Shouting at me, he termed me an ingrate.”
Against expectations, the Congress won the polls and returned to national rule. Akbar, once again, found himself on the wrong side of the ruling dispensation. He kept an anti-Sonia stance, and drew even closer to the BJP and Advani—so much so that, in February 2008, snippets on political buzz in several papers suggested he was one of six journalists in the running for a BJP Rajya Sabha seat opening up in April. The biggest stumbling block for Akbar, one such piece noted, was that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s parent organisation, “shot down M.J. Akbar’s candidature and has pulled out all his old columns in which he had lambasted the Sangh Parivar to press its point.” The Rajya Sabha seat finally went to the veteran reporter Balbir Punj.
For Reddy, who was eyeing a Rajya Sabha seat himself via the Congress, Akbar’s position became ever more difficult to countenance. One day in March 2008, Mustafa recalled, “we woke up to find that Akbar’s name as editor-in-chief was missing from the newspaper’s dateline. It is only when he came in to the office that he realised he had been ousted.” Mustafa got a call from Reddy. “He said there had been a change in policy, and the paper could no longer write against Sonia,” she said. “I told him, how can one go from suddenly writing with freedom about the Congress to not writing about her? He told me to take a day to think it over, and I told him to take my resignation. While Akbar got a huge settlement, I had to pay three months of my salary to leave.”
Within months, Akbar had a new magazine, Covert, out on newsstands—reportedly paid for by the settlement money. It had little impact, and was discontinued the next year. Akbar started a new venture again. In 2010, with financial backing from Ram Jethmalani, a firebrand lawyer whose clients have included Anil Ambani, Akbar launched a newspaper, the Sunday Guardian. It was taken over two years later by the media entrepreneur Kartikeya Sharma, though Akbar remained its editor-in-chief. Mustafa joined the Sunday Guardian, but didn’t stay long. “It was the most third-rate paper I ever worked with,” she said. “It was as if Akbar had renounced everything that he had once journalistically stood for.”
That same year, in September, Akbar took up an assignment with the media conglomerate Living Media, as editorial director of India Today, the most popular English-language magazine in the country, and also of the television channel Headlines Today. His impact was almost imperceptible. Akbar was no longer the hands-on editor who had defined Sunday. A journalist who worked at India Today recalled, “Sometimes he would not even know what stories were being carried till the proofs were in. He seemed almost disinterested in the work.”
Another journalist who shared that newsroom told me that Akbar—who had never before allowed corporate bosses an overt say in editorial decisions—now had to answer to Aroon Purie, the CEO of the India Today Group, who often overrode his calls, including on the choice of cover story. Akbar also had to work with Kalli Purie, Aroon Purie’s daughter and an executive of the India Today Group herself. “She used to attend editorial meetings,” the same journalist said. “She would often lounge around playing with her mobile phone, barely paying attention.” But occasionally, she would cut Akbar off “to tell him a certain story wouldn’t work because it was not the kind of thing youngsters today wanted to read.” After two years with Living Media, Akbar left the organisation in October 2012.
Though he did little over this stint as an editor, Akbar used his position to build political bridges—as he had throughout his career. A Gujarat-based journalist told me that when Akbar first visited Ahmedabad after joining India Today, the magazine’s correspondent in the city, who is close to Narendra Modi, arranged for the editor and the then chief minister to share a meal. Having established this contact, Akbar assiduously cultivated it over the next few years. A politician in Delhi who has friends in common with Akbar told me the editor “would regularly write letters to Modi with ideas and suggestions.”
Through all of this, Akbar returned to writing books again. In 2002, he published The Shade of Swords, a history of Islamic militancy and the concept of jihad. Then came an anthology of columns—two more have followed, in 2010 and earlier this year—and Blood Brothers. In 2011, he released Tinderbox, a history of Pakistan that offers this diagnosis: “Pakistan can become a stable modern nation, but only if the children of the father of Pakistan, Jinnah, can defeat the ideological heirs of the godfather, Maududi”—the Islamist founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami.
BY 2014, as election campaigning began and Modi continued to rise, Akbar had developed other friendships with people close to the BJP leader. A journalist close to the BJP told me, “he had managed to draw close to Ram Madhav and Dattatreya Hosabale”—today, respectively, the national secretary of the BJP and a joint general secretary of the RSS. These connections played into his BJP membership and appointment as a spokesperson, as did his symbolic value as a Muslim face and his cross-party, “direct access to Pranab Mukherjee” at a “time no one was sure what the elections results would be.”
Early that year, a wedding reception for Akbar’s son brought together top figures in Delhi’s social and media circles, and politicians from across party lines. Advani attended, but soon left. Late into the evening, Modi arrived, fresh off of being announced the BJP’s candidate for prime minister. At the time, it was rare for him to make such social appearances. With the BJP leader was his main lieutenant, Amit Shah. For many in the capital, this was the first public signal of Akbar’s latest allegiances.
With the BJP’s resounding victory in the voting that April and May, Akbar’s tie-up with the Modi-led party appeared to be his first really successful political gambit in the two and a half decades since he left Sunday and The Telegraph. This profit, however, has its perils.
I heard the most charitable reading of Akbar’s motives from Madhav Das Nalapat, until recently his colleague at the Sunday Guardian and now the paper’s editorial director, who is known to be close to Modi. Nalapat told me that “Akbar is a genuine secularist,” who “genuinely believes that the presence of Muslims such as him can moderate the BJP, close the gap between the party and the community.” Akbar suggested as much in his Economic Times piece shortly after he joined the BJP, mixing in tones of the party’s development-focused campaign line. “The primary purpose of economic growth is to lift the poorest from their awful misery,” he wrote, “and this can best be achieved only when every Indian, across differences of creed and caste, works hand in hand.”
Others among Akbar’s former colleagues didn’t buy it. A senior journalist whose career was shaped by his work with Akbar told me recently, “The man can go to any extent to further himself. He only believes in himself. He needs to live close to the centre of power, he needs to exude it himself. This has led to a slow and complete emaciation of his journalistic credentials.” Seema Mustafa was as blunt. “This was the biggest let-down,” she said. “Many of the other compromises could have been born out of the need for self-preservation, or to keep a newspaper going, but this was an intellectual betrayal. His joining the BJP confirmed all that had ever been said about his opportunism. He could have been an editor the likes of which we have never seen in the country. Instead, he is now part of a party which will never trust him.”
Akbar now has plenty of detractors, both among his old political associates and his new. Digvijaya Singh, a Congress general secretary who has known Akbar since his days with Rajiv, told me, “He has been a good friend, writes very well, is knowledgeable, but his personal ambition overtakes his ideology.” The shift towards Modi, he said, “did not surprise me. Knowing Akbar, it was the most logical thing for him to do.” Speaking soon after the party’s startling loss in the legislative election in Bihar last month, a senior member of the BJP’s communication wing, who has roots in the RSS, told me the Muslims in the party, including Akbar, “are people who can’t even get their family to vote for us, how will they get others to vote for us? But by being in the party, they ensure we lose our traditional votes.” He questioned the value of having symbolic Muslim faces in the party. Lalu Prasad Yadav, the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader who was instrumental in the BJP’s Bihar loss, does not campaign “with a bearded Muslim by his side,” he said, but “is a self-made leader of the Muslims, who realises that such overt symbolism distances his Hindu voters.” By taking in people such as Akbar, the BJP man said, “we are following the same policy of appeasement that lost the Congress Hindu votes.” And, he asked, “how do I motivate my workers if Rajya Sabha seats go to people who have just recently joined the party?”
Akbar’s position as a spokesperson has given him little opportunity to prove his worth. When I asked Nalapat about his old boss’s performance in the role, he was circumspect. “He has to obey the party line,” he said. “The current party line is not the most effective communication strategy. Akbar has communicated an ineffective party line in the most effective way.”
It is perhaps as a result of all this that the BJP has hedged its commitment. For now, Akbar is being closely watched. Whether he is given an extended Rajya Sabha post after his current term expires in July will be an indicator of the party leadership’s confidence in him. So far, Akbar has not moved into the government bungalow in central Delhi he is entitled to as a parliamentarian. I contacted him last month for an interview, and he agreed to meet, but insisted that anything that was said remain off the record.
Over recent months, the BJP has had to deal with the fallout from numerous incidents of communal strife, including the murder of a Muslim man by a mob in Dadri, in Uttar Pradesh, over an unfounded suspicion that his family had eaten beef. As much as the incidents themselves, it is the responses of members of the Modi cabinet—including the defence of the mob by the culture minister, Mahesh Sharma—that have fuelled national and international outcry over the rising threat to minorities under the current regime. Now, the party must also confront the fact of its election debacle in Bihar. None of these things have been handled with any degree of comfort by the party’s spokespersons, Akbar included. They have responded dismissively to fears over intolerance, and aggressively to suggestions of mismanagement over the Bihar defeat.
Akbar alone among them, though, can lay public claim to having seen it all coming. His writing from over the years features numerous feats of political prophecy—his 2002 predictions on Modi’s bid for national power and the sidelining of the BJP’s old leadership all came to pass—and in a column last year, he pulled one off again. Writing in the Sunday Guardian in July, in the early days of Modi’s rule, and shortly after a Shiv Sena MP from Maharashtra tried to force-feed a fasting Muslim during the month of Ramzan, Akbar said,
The election results were an earthquake, and the after-shock tremors will trouble the earth for a while. There will be a fringe which claims justification for its views in the results. A few carpetbaggers will imagine that they can improve their chances of preferential treatment during the distribution of rewards by pandering to the fringe.
He went further, cutting through the BJP’s post-election euphoria to warn,
Politicians might be surprised to discover that voters have may have become volatile as well. Voters want delivery on what they were promised at campaign time; they are not interested in the sudden spout of new rhetoric. … They enjoy the luxury of electoral opinions, and have the ability to recognize a leader who they believe will deliver better than the competition. In state elections, candidates for Chief Minister will influence the outcome significantly.
To read these lines in light of recent events in Dadri and Bihar is to be reminded of the intellect that first brought Akbar to journalistic prominence. But it is also to be reminded that the skills of prescience he has displayed in his writing have not so far shone through in his political career. No one, yet, can tell if this time things will be any different.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.