One of India’s most prominent journalists and a former Congress supporter is now a Minister of State under the BJP – a dramatic shift, writes his old colleague Ashis Ray
In the 1960s, the Congress party in West Bengal was in decline; Communists were on the ascent.
It was in such an environment that Mobashar Jawad Akbar, known to his friends as simply ‘MJ’, now India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, spent his formative years in Kolkata, the state’s capital. He hailed from the town of Telinipara, about 40 kilometres north of the city, but studied at Calcutta Boys’ School, followed by English honours at the premier Presidency College. Like most educated young men of his generation in Kolkata, he was naturally secular, but not a political activist.
In 1971, he departed for Mumbai – first to become an apprentice at The Times of India and then a reporter at its sister publication The Illustrated Weekly of India – before returning to Kolkata as editor of a newly-launched weekly, Sunday, at the unusually young age of 26.
The magazine rapidly gained popularity and gave even the redoubtable India Today a run for its money. It adopted a bold stance against the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. MJ drew inspiration from, and editorially supported, opposition socialists and Chandra Shekhar Singh, who broke away from the Congress to become president of the Janata Party, which formed a government after Indira lost the 1977 elections.
In 1982, the owners of Sunday, the Ananda Bazar Group, ventured into an English language daily – The Telegraph – with MJ as editor. Steadily it became Kolkata and eastern India’s largest circulated paper, and remains so to date.
Its impact, and MJ’s liberalism, in contrast to growing conservatism among Indian Muslims caused by the orthodoxy duel between Shias and Sunnis in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution in Iran, caught the attention of diplomats Gopalaswami Parthasarathy and Mani Shankar Aiyar, then press secretaries to Congress Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Indeed, they successfully persuaded MJ and the Telegraph to back Rajiv. His reward was a ticket, which made him an MP in the directly-elected Lok Sabha by 1989.
The tenure, though, was cut short by mid-term elections and MJ failed to retain his seat. After the assassination of Rajiv, not much encouragement was forthcoming from his successor, Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao. Indeed, in 1994, MJ returned to full-time journalism to launch The Asian Age, owned and franchised out by him. Rajiv’s widow, Sonia Gandhi, who has for the past 18 years been the party’s president, did not recall him, either.
In due course, his criticism of her and the heir-apparent, her son Rahul, mounted, much to the delight of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Among many a jab, MJ accused Sonia of being ‘a mother who has ruined the party [Congress] and ruined the nation by her utter devotion to her completely inept son’.
MJ’s entry into the BJP had been doing the rounds for some time. Despite its previous leader, Lal Krishna Advani, wanting to accommodate him, there was resistance from sections of the party because of his background with Congress. The impasse ended with him joining as a media spokesman in 2014.
MJ is a prolific writer, with a fluidity of style. He is the author of several books, including an admiring biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress stalwart and father of Indian secularism. He is also undoubtedly one of the most successful print editors in India in the past 40 years. His strategy was to devote space to the big story, instead of throwing bits and pieces at everything. His promotion of women has been a hallmark of his imprint on Indian journalism.
In June 2016, he returned to the indirectly-elected Rajya Sabha. Within a month, he has been catapulted into the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). With the department’s cabinet minister Sushma Swaraj apparently unable to travel too extensively due to a recent illness, MJ is likely to be a prominent substitute.
He is not the first Muslim to shoulder a responsibility in India’s foreign office. Mohammedali Currim Chagla, Sikander Bakht and Salman Khurshid have, in fact, been cabinet ministers. However, a journalist as a minister in the MEA is, perhaps, unprecedented.
MJ has followed numerous foreign tours by heads of government, including Indira and Rajiv’s prime ministerial visits in the 1980s. He has also covered Organisation of Islamic Co-operation conferences. In 2004, he was a member of a forum entrusted to draft a charter for Muslim nations, and as a visiting fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution, he contributed to a project on US policy towards the Islamic world.
Nonetheless, despite MJ’s disillusionment with the Congress, his ideological switch to the BJP is clearly quite radical. His appointment, though, may enhance the party’s prestige and image.
As a correspondent of Sunday and The Telegraph, and head of the London bureau of the Ananda Bazar Group, Ashis Ray was for many years a colleague of MJ Akbar